enough to write an ordinary will, deciding how to pass along worldly goods like
your savings, your real estate and that treasured rocking chair from Aunt Martha
in the living room.
But you may want to provide for your virtual goods, too. Who gets the
photographs and the e-mail stored online, the contents of a Facebook account, or
that digital sword won in an online game?
These things can be important to the people you leave behind.
“Digital assets have value, sometimes sentimental, and sometimes commercial,
just like a boxful of jewelry,” said John M. Riccione, a lawyer at Aronberg
Goldgehn Davis & Garmisa in Chicago. “There can be painful legal and emotional
issues for relatives unless you decide how to handle your electronic possessions
in your estate planning.”
Many services and programs have sprung up to help people prepare for what
happens after their last login.
Google has a program called Inactive Account Manager, introduced in April, that
lets those who use Google services decide exactly how they want to deal with the
data they’ve stored online with the company — from Gmail and Picasa photo albums
to publicly shared data like YouTube videos and blogs.
The process is straightforward. First go to google.com/settings/account. Then
look for “account management” and then “control what happens to your account
when you stop using Google.” Click on “Learn more and go to setup.” Then let
Google know the people you want to be notified when the company deactivates the
account; you’re allowed up to 10 names. You choose when you want Google to end
your account — for example, after three, six or nine months of electronic
silence (or even 12 months, if you’ve decided to take a yearlong trip down the
Google has ways to make sure that your electronic pulse has really gone silent;
it checks for traces of your online self, for example, by way of Android
check-ins, Gmail activity and Web history. Then, a month before it pulls the
plug, Google alerts you by text and e-mail, just in case you’re still there. If
silence has indeed fallen, Google notifies your beneficiaries and provides links
they can follow to download the photographs, videos, documents or other data
left to them, said Nadja Blagojevic, a Google manager.
And if you just want to say goodbye to everything, with no bequests, you can
instruct Google to delete all of the information in your account.
Naomi R. Cahn, a professor of law at George Washington University Law School in
Washington, says Google’s new program is a step forward in digital estate
planning. “People should carefully consider the fate of their online presences
once they are no longer able to manage them,” she said.
Other companies may also be of help in planning your digital legacy. Many
services offer online safe deposit boxes, for example, where you can stow away
the passwords to e-mail accounts and other data. Accounts like this at
SecureSafe, are free for up to 50 passwords, 10 megabytes of storage and one
beneficiary, said Andreas Jacob, a co-founder. Accounts can be accessed from a
browser, or from free iPhone, iPad and Android apps. The company also offers
premium services for those who need a larger storage space, more passwords or
There is always your sock drawer or another physical repository to store a list
of your user ID’s, should you be deterred from online lockboxes by fear of
cyberattacks or the risk that computer servers that may not be there in a few
decades, said Alexandra Gerson, a lawyer at Helsell Fetterman in Seattle.
“Make a private list of all your user names and passwords for all the accounts
in which you have a digital presence, and make sure you update the list if you
change login information” Ms. Gerson said. “Don’t put user names and passwords
in your will, though, as it becomes a public record when you die.”
Make sure that your executor or personal representative understands the
importance of preserving these digital assets, and knows how to find them, said
Laura Hoexter, a lawyer at Helsell who also works on inheritance issues.
“Preferably the person should be tech-savvy,” she said, and know about your
online game accounts, your PayPal account, your online presence on photo storage
sites, social media accounts and blogs, and even your online shopping accounts
where your credit card information is stored so that the information can be
AFTER you die, an executor or agent can contact Facebook and other social media
sites, establish his or her authority to administer the estate, and request the
contents of the account.
“Most accounts won’t give you the user name and password, but they will release
the contents of the account such as photographs and posts” to an executor, Ms.
Transfer at death can depend on the company’s terms of service, copyright law
and whether the file is encrypted in ways that limit the ability to freely copy
and transfer it. Rights to digital contents bought on Google Play, for example,
end upon the person’s death. “There is currently no way of assigning them to
others after the user’s death,” Ms. Blagojevic said.
Encryption is a common constraint, but there are exceptions. Apple’s iTunes
store, for example, has long removed its anti-copying restrictions on the songs
sold there, and Ms. Gerson advises people to take advantage of this in their
digital planning. “Get your music backed up on your computer,” she said.
Up to five computers can be authorized to play purchases made with one iTunes
account, and a company support representative advises that users make sure that
their heirs have access. At Kindle, too, family members with user ID information
for the account can access the digital content.
Professor Cahn in Washington says the time to prepare for the digital hereafter
is now, particularly if serious illness is a factor. “If someone is terminally
ill,” she said, “in addition to getting emotional and financial issues in order,
you need to get your Internet house in order.”
Remember when you were willing to wait a few seconds for a computer to respond
to a click on a Web site or a tap on a keyboard? These days, even 400
milliseconds — literally the blink of an eye — is too long, as Google engineers
have discovered. That barely perceptible delay causes people to search less.
“Subconsciously, you don’t like to wait,” said Arvind Jain, a Google engineer
who is the company’s resident speed maestro. “Every millisecond matters.”
Google and other tech companies are on a new quest for speed, challenging the
likes of Mr. Jain to make fast go faster. The reason is that data-hungry
smartphones and tablets are creating frustrating digital traffic jams, as people
download maps, video clips of sports highlights, news updates or recommendations
for nearby restaurants. The competition to be the quickest is fierce.
People will visit a Web site less often if it is slower than a close competitor
by more than 250 milliseconds (a millisecond is a thousandth of a second).
“Two hundred fifty milliseconds, either slower or faster, is close to the magic
number now for competitive advantage on the Web,” said Harry Shum, a computer
scientist and speed specialist at Microsoft.
The performance of Web sites varies, and so do user expectations. A person will
be more patient waiting for a video clip to load than for a search result. And
Web sites constantly face trade-offs between visual richness and snappy response
times. As entertainment and news sites, like The New York Times Web site, offer
more video clips and interactive graphics, that can slow things down.
But speed matters in every context, research shows. Four out of five online
users will click away if a video stalls while loading.
On a mobile phone, a Web page takes a leisurely nine seconds to load, according
to Google, which tracks a huge range of sites from the homes of large companies
to the legions of one-person bloggers. Download times on personal computers
average about six seconds worldwide, and about 3.5 seconds on average in the
United States. The major search engines, Google and Microsoft’s Bing, are the
speed demons of the Web, analysts say, typically delivering results in less than
The hunger for speed on smartphones is a new business opportunity for companies
like Akamai Technologies, which specializes in helping Web sites deliver
services quicker. Later this month, Akamai plans to introduce mobile accelerator
software to help speed up the loading of a Web site or app.
The government too recognizes the importance of speed in mobile computing. In
February, Congress opened the door to an increase in network capacity for mobile
devices, proposing legislation that permits the auction of public airwaves now
used for television broadcasts to wireless Internet suppliers.
Overcoming speed bumps is part of the history of the Internet. In the 1990s, as
the World Wide Web became popular, and crowded, it was called the World Wide
Wait. Invention and investment answered the call.
Laying a lot of fiber optic cable for high-speed transmission was the first
solution. But beyond bandwidth, the Web got faster because of innovations in
software algorithms for routing traffic, and in distributing computer servers
around the world, nearer to users, as a way to increase speed.
Akamai, which grew out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory
for Computer Science, built its sizable business doing just that. Most major Web
sites use Akamai’s technology today.
The company sees the mobile Internet as the next big challenge. “Users’
expectations are getting shorter and shorter, and the mobile infrastructure is
not built for that kind of speed,” said Tom Leighton, co-founder and chief
scientist at Akamai, who is also an M.I.T. professor. “And that’s an opportunity
The need for speed itself seems to be accelerating. In the early 1960s, the two
professors at Dartmouth College who invented the BASIC programming language,
John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz, set up a network in which many students could tap
into a single, large computer from keyboard terminals.
“We found,” they observed, “that any response time that averages more than 10
seconds destroys the illusion of having one’s own computer.”
In 2009, a study by Forrester Research found that online shoppers expected pages
to load in two seconds or fewer — and at three seconds, a large share abandon
the site. Only three years earlier a similar Forrester study found the average
expectations for page load times were four seconds or fewer.
The two-second rule is still often cited as a standard for Web commerce sites.
Yet experts in human-computer interaction say that rule is outdated. “The old
two-second guideline has long been surpassed on the racetrack of Web
expectations,” said Eric Horvitz, a scientist at Microsoft’s research labs.
Google, which harvests more Internet ad revenue than any other company, stands
to benefit more than most if the Internet speeds up. Mr. Jain, who worked at
Microsoft and Akamai before joining Google in 2003, is an evangelist for speed
both inside and outside the company. He leads a “Make the Web Faster” program,
begun in 2009. He also holds senior positions in industry standards groups.
Speed, Mr. Jain said, is a critical element in all of Google’s products. There
is even a companywide speed budget; new offerings and product tweaks must not
slow down Google services. But there have been lapses.
In 2007, for example, after the company added popular new offerings like Gmail,
things slowed down enough that Google’s leaders issued a “Code Yellow” and
handed out plastic stopwatches to its engineers to emphasize that speed matters.
Still, not everyone is in line with today’s race to be faster. Mr. Kurtz, the
Dartmouth computer scientist who is the co-inventor of BASIC, is now 84, and
marvels at how things have changed.
Computers and networks these days, Mr. Kurtz said, “are fast enough for me.”
SAN FRANCISCO — It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40,
juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a
quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition
Just another day at the gym.
As Ms. Bates multitasks, she is also churning her legs in fast loops on an
elliptical machine in a downtown fitness center. She is in good company. In gyms
and elsewhere, people use phones and other electronic devices to get work done —
and as a reliable antidote to boredom.
Cellphones, which in the last few years have become full-fledged computers with
high-speed Internet connections, let people relieve the tedium of exercising,
the grocery store line, stoplights or lulls in the dinner conversation.
The technology makes the tiniest windows of time entertaining, and potentially
productive. But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people
keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that
could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new
Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside,
away from her devices, research suggests.
At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when
rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show
new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their
exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a
persistent memory of the experience.
The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.
“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had,
solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren
Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university,
where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the
brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”
At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly
better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment,
suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.
Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while
exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip,
they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.
“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,”
said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.
Regardless, there is now a whole industry of mobile software developers
competing to help people scratch the entertainment itch. Flurry, a company that
tracks the use of apps, has found that mobile games are typically played for 6.3
minutes, but that many are played for much shorter intervals. One popular game
that involves stacking blocks gets played for 2.2 minutes on average.
Today’s game makers are trying to fill small bits of free time, said Sebastien
de Halleux, a co-founder of PlayFish, a game company owned by the industry giant
“Instead of having long relaxing breaks, like taking two hours for lunch, we
have a lot of these micro-moments,” he said. Game makers like Electronic Arts,
he added, “have reinvented the game experience to fit into micro-moments.”
Many business people, of course, have good reason to be constantly checking
their phones. But this can take a mental toll. Henry Chen, 26, a self-employed
auto mechanic in San Francisco, has mixed feelings about his BlackBerry habits.
“I check it a lot, whenever there is downtime,” Mr. Chen said. Moments earlier,
he was texting with a friend while he stood in line at a bagel shop; he stopped
only when the woman behind the counter interrupted him to ask for his order.
Mr. Chen, who recently started his business, doesn’t want to miss a potential
customer. Yet he says that since he upgraded his phone a year ago to a
feature-rich BlackBerry, he can feel stressed out by what he described as
internal pressure to constantly stay in contact.
“It’s become a demand. Not necessarily a demand of the customer, but a demand of
my head,” he said. “I told my girlfriend that I’m more tired since I got this
In the parking lot outside the bagel shop, others were filling up moments with
their phones. While Eddie Umadhay, 59, a construction inspector, sat in his car
waiting for his wife to grocery shop, he deleted old e-mail while listening to
news on the radio. On a bench outside a coffee house, Ossie Gabriel, 44, a nurse
practitioner, waited for a friend and checked e-mail “to kill time.”
Crossing the street from the grocery store to his car, David Alvarado pushed his
2-year-old daughter in a cart filled with shopping bags, his phone pressed to
He was talking to a colleague about work scheduling, noting that he wanted to
steal a moment to make the call between paying for the groceries and driving.
“I wanted to take advantage of the little gap,” said Mr. Alvarado, 30, a
facilities manager at a community center.
For many such people, the little digital asides come on top of heavy use of
computers during the day. Take Ms. Bates, the exercising multitasker at the
expansive Bakar Fitness and Recreation Center. She wakes up and peeks at her
iPhone before she gets out of bed. At her job in advertising, she spends all day
in front of her laptop.
But, far from wanting a break from screens when she exercises, she says she
couldn’t possibly spend 55 minutes on the elliptical machine without “lots of
things to do.” This includes relentless channel surfing.
“I switch constantly,” she said. “I can’t stand commercials. I have to flip
around unless I’m watching ‘Project Runway’ or something I’m really into.”
Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain,
it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people
“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed
in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate
clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of
“Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do
their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing
it outside, for your mood and working memory.”
Of the 70 cardio machines on the main floor at Bakar Fitness, 67 have
televisions attached. Most of them also have iPod docks and displays showing
workout performance, and a few have games, like a rope-climbing machine that
shows an animated character climbing the rope while the live human does so too.
A few months ago, the cable TV went out and some patrons were apoplectic. “It
was an uproar. People said: ‘That’s what we’re paying for,’ ” said Leeane
Jensen, 28, the fitness manager.
At least one exerciser has a different take. Two stories up from the main floor,
Peter Colley, 23, churns away on one of the several dozen elliptical machines
without a TV. Instead, they are bathed in sunlight, looking out onto the pool
and palm trees.
“I look at the wind on the trees. I watch the swimmers go back and forth,” Mr.
Colley said. “I usually come here to clear my head.”
January 12, 2010
The New York Times
By JOHN TIERNEY
When does the wisdom of crowds give way to the meanness of
In the 1990s, Jaron Lanier was one of the digital pioneers hailing the wonderful
possibilities that would be realized once the Internet allowed musicians,
artists, scientists and engineers around the world to instantly share their
work. Now, like a lot of us, he is having second thoughts.
Mr. Lanier, a musician and avant-garde computer scientist — he popularized the
term “virtual reality” — wonders if the Web’s structure and ideology are
fostering nasty group dynamics and mediocre collaborations. His new book, “You
Are Not a Gadget,” is a manifesto against “hive thinking” and “digital Maoism,”
by which he means the glorification of open-source software, free information
and collective work at the expense of individual creativity.
He blames the Web’s tradition of “drive-by anonymity” for fostering vicious pack
behavior on blogs, forums and social networks. He acknowledges the examples of
generous collaboration, like Wikipedia, but argues that the mantras of “open
culture” and “information wants to be free” have produced a destructive new
“The basic idea of this contract,” he writes, “is that authors, journalists,
musicians and artists are encouraged to treat the fruits of their intellects and
imaginations as fragments to be given without pay to the hive mind. Reciprocity
takes the form of self-promotion. Culture is to become precisely nothing but
I find his critique intriguing, partly because Mr. Lanier isn’t your ordinary
Luddite crank, and partly because I’ve felt the same kind of disappointment with
the Web. In the 1990s, when I was writing paeans to the dawning spirit of
digital collaboration, it didn’t occur to me that the Web’s “gift culture,” as
anthropologists called it, could turn into a mandatory potlatch for so many
professions — including my own.
So I have selfish reasons for appreciating Mr. Lanier’s complaints about masses
of “digital peasants” being forced to provide free material to a few “lords of
the clouds” like Google and YouTube. But I’m not sure Mr. Lanier has correctly
diagnosed the causes of our discontent, particularly when he blames software
design for leading to what he calls exploitative monopolies on the Web like
He argues that old — and bad — digital systems tend to get locked in place
because it’s too difficult and expensive for everyone to switch to a new one.
That basic problem, known to economists as lock-in, has long been blamed for
stifling the rise of superior technologies like the Dvorak typewriter keyboard
and Betamax videotapes, and for perpetuating duds like the Windows operating
It can sound plausible enough in theory — particularly if your Windows computer
has just crashed. In practice, though, better products win out, according to the
economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis. After reviewing battles like
Dvorak-qwerty and Betamax-VHS, they concluded that consumers had good reasons
for preferring qwerty keyboards and VHS tapes, and that sellers of superior
technologies generally don’t get locked out. “Although software is often brought
up as locking in people,” Dr. Liebowitz told me, “we have made a careful
examination of that issue and find that the winning products are almost always
the ones thought to be better by reviewers.” When a better new product appears,
he said, the challenger can take over the software market relatively quickly by
comparison with other industries.
Dr. Liebowitz, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the
problem on the Web today has less to do with monopolies or software design than
with intellectual piracy, which he has also studied extensively. In fact, Dr.
Liebowitz used to be a favorite of the “information-wants-to-be-free” faction.
In the 1980s he asserted that photocopying actually helped copyright owners by
exposing more people to their work, and he later reported that audio and video
taping technologies offered large benefits to consumers without causing much
harm to copyright owners in Hollywood and the music and television industries.
But when Napster and other music-sharing Web sites started becoming popular, Dr.
Liebowitz correctly predicted that the music industry would be seriously hurt
because it was so cheap and easy to make perfect copies and distribute them.
Today he sees similar harm to other industries like publishing and television
(and he is serving as a paid adviser to Viacom in its lawsuit seeking damages
from Google for allowing Viacom’s videos to be posted on YouTube).
Trying to charge for songs and other digital content is sometimes dismissed as a
losing cause because hackers can crack any copy-protection technology. But as
Mr. Lanier notes in his book, any lock on a car or a home can be broken, yet few
people do so — or condone break-ins.
“An intelligent person feels guilty for downloading music without paying the
musician, but they use this free-open-culture ideology to cover it,” Mr. Lanier
told me. In the book he disputes the assertion that there’s no harm in copying a
digital music file because you haven’t damaged the original file.
“The same thing could be said if you hacked into a bank and just added money to
your online account,” he writes. “The problem in each case is not that you stole
from a specific person but that you undermined the artificial scarcities that
allow the economy to function.”
Mr. Lanier was once an advocate himself for piracy, arguing that his fellow
musicians would make up for the lost revenue in other ways. Sure enough, some
musicians have done well selling T-shirts and concert tickets, but it is
striking how many of the top-grossing acts began in the predigital era, and how
much of today’s music is a mash-up of the old.
“It’s as if culture froze just before it became digitally open, and all we can
do now is mine the past like salvagers picking over a garbage dump,” Mr. Lanier
writes. Or, to use another of his grim metaphors: “Creative people — the new
peasants — come to resemble animals converging on shrinking oases of old media
in a depleted desert.”
To save those endangered species, Mr. Lanier proposes rethinking the Web’s
ideology, revising its software structure and introducing innovations like a
universal system of micropayments. (To debate reforms, go to Tierney Lab at
Dr. Liebowitz suggests a more traditional reform for cyberspace: punishing
thieves. The big difference between Web piracy and house burglary, he says, is
that the penalties for piracy are tiny and rarely enforced. He expects people to
keep pilfering (and rationalizing their thefts) as long as the benefits of
piracy greatly exceed the costs.
In theory, public officials could deter piracy by stiffening the penalties, but
they’re aware of another crucial distinction between online piracy and house
burglary: There are a lot more homeowners than burglars, but there are a lot
more consumers of digital content than producers of it.
The result is a problem a bit like trying to stop a mob of looters. When the
majority of people feel entitled to someone’s property, who’s going to stand in
Computers may be good at crunching numbers, but can they crunch feelings?
The rise of blogs and social networks has fueled a bull market in personal
opinion: reviews, ratings, recommendations and other forms of online expression.
For computer scientists, this fast-growing mountain of data is opening a
tantalizing window onto the collective consciousness of Internet users.
An emerging field known as sentiment analysis is taking shape around one of the
computer world’s unexplored frontiers: translating the vagaries of human emotion
into hard data.
This is more than just an interesting programming exercise. For many businesses,
online opinion has turned into a kind of virtual currency that can make or break
a product in the marketplace.
Yet many companies struggle to make sense of the caterwaul of complaints and
compliments that now swirl around their products online. As sentiment analysis
tools begin to take shape, they could not only help businesses improve their
bottom lines, but also eventually transform the experience of searching for
Several new sentiment analysis companies are trying to tap into the growing
business interest in what is being said online.
“Social media used to be this cute project for 25-year-old consultants,” said
Margaret Francis, vice president for product at Scout Labs in San Francisco.
Now, she said, top executives “are recognizing it as an incredibly rich vein of
Scout Labs, which is backed by the venture capital firm started by the CNet
founder Halsey Minor, recently introduced a subscription service that allows
customers to monitor blogs, news articles, online forums and social networking
sites for trends in opinions about products, services or topics in the news.
In early May, the ticket marketplace StubHub used Scout Labs’ monitoring tool to
identify a sudden surge of negative blog sentiment after rain delayed a
Yankees-Red Sox game.
Stadium officials mistakenly told hundreds of fans that the game had been
canceled, and StubHub denied fans’ requests for refunds, on the grounds that the
game had actually been played. But after spotting trouble brewing online, the
company offered discounts and credits to the affected fans. It is now
re-evaluating its bad weather policy.
“This is a canary in a coal mine for us,” said John Whelan, StubHub’s director
of customer service.
Jodange, based in Yonkers, offers a service geared toward online publishers that
lets them incorporate opinion data drawn from over 450,000 sources, including
mainstream news sources, blogs and Twitter.
Based on research by Claire Cardie, a former Cornell computer science professor,
and Jan Wiebe of the University of Pittsburgh, the service uses a sophisticated
algorithm that not only evaluates sentiments about particular topics, but also
identifies the most influential opinion holders.
Jodange, whose early investors include the National Science Foundation, is
currently working on a new algorithm that could use opinion data to predict
future developments, like forecasting the impact of newspaper editorials on a
company’s stock price.
In a similar vein, The Financial Times recently introduced Newssift, an
experimental program that tracks sentiments about business topics in the news,
coupled with a specialized search engine that allows users to organize their
queries by topic, organization, place, person and theme.
Using Newssift, a search for Wal-Mart reveals that recent sentiment about the
company is running positive by a ratio of slightly better than two to one. When
that search is refined with the suggested term “Labor Force and Unions,”
however, the ratio of positive to negative sentiments drops closer to one to
Such tools could help companies pinpoint the effect of specific issues on
customer perceptions, helping them respond with appropriate marketing and public
For casual Web surfers, simpler incarnations of sentiment analysis are sprouting
up in the form of lightweight tools like Tweetfeel, Twendz and Twitrratr. These
sites allow users to take the pulse of Twitter users about particular topics.
A quick search on Tweetfeel, for example, reveals that 77 percent of recent
tweeters liked the movie “Julie & Julia.” But the same search on Twitrratr
reveals a few misfires. The site assigned a negative score to a tweet reading
“julie and julia was truly delightful!!” That same message ended with “we all
felt very hungry afterwards” — and the system took the word “hungry” to indicate
a negative sentiment.
While the more advanced algorithms used by Scout Labs, Jodange and Newssift
employ advanced analytics to avoid such pitfalls, none of these services works
perfectly. “Our algorithm is about 70 to 80 percent accurate,” said Ms. Francis,
who added that its users can reclassify inaccurate results so the system learns
from its mistakes.
Translating the slippery stuff of human language into binary values will always
be an imperfect science, however. “Sentiments are very different from
conventional facts,” said Seth Grimes, the founder of the suburban Maryland
consulting firm Alta Plana, who points to the many cultural factors and
linguistic nuances that make it difficult to turn a string of written text into
a simple pro or con sentiment. “ ‘Sinful’ is a good thing when applied to
chocolate cake,” he said.
The simplest algorithms work by scanning keywords to categorize a statement as
positive or negative, based on a simple binary analysis (“love” is good, “hate”
is bad). But that approach fails to capture the subtleties that bring human
language to life: irony, sarcasm, slang and other idiomatic expressions.
Reliable sentiment analysis requires parsing many linguistic shades of gray.
“We are dealing with sentiment that can be expressed in subtle ways,” said Bo
Pang, a researcher at Yahoo who co-wrote “Opinion Mining and Sentiment
Analysis,” one of the first academic books on sentiment analysis.
To get at the true intent of a statement, Ms. Pang developed software that looks
at several different filters, including polarity (is the statement positive or
negative?), intensity (what is the degree of emotion being expressed?) and
subjectivity (how partial or impartial is the source?).
For example, a preponderance of adjectives often signals a high degree of
subjectivity, while noun- and verb-heavy statements tend toward a more neutral
point of view.
As sentiment analysis algorithms grow more sophisticated, they should begin to
yield more accurate results that may eventually point the way to more
sophisticated filtering mechanisms. They could become a part of everyday Web
“I see sentiment analysis becoming a standard feature of search engines,” said
Mr. Grimes, who suggests that such algorithms could begin to influence both
general-purpose Web searching and more specialized searches in areas like
e-commerce, travel reservations and movie reviews.
Ms. Pang envisions a search engine that fine-tunes results for users based on
sentiment. For example, it might influence the ordering of search results for
certain kinds of queries like “best hotel in San Antonio.”
As search engines begin to incorporate more and more opinion data into their
results, the distinction between fact and opinion may start blurring to the
point where, as David Byrne once put it, “facts all come with points of view.”
March 11, 2009
Filed at 1:16 p.m. ET
The New York Times
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Apple Inc introduced a smaller version of its popular
iPod Shuffle music player on Wednesday with a new feature that tells the user
what song is playing.
The new 4-gigabyte gadget costs $79, is half the size of the previous Shuffle,
and carries up to 1,000 songs -- twice as many as the last generation of the
All of the controls on the new Shuffle have been moved from the device to the
earphone cord. The new VoiceOver feature announces songs and playlists to users
in 14 different languages, according to Apple, whose shares rose 4.5 percent.
The voice function is particularly useful on the Shuffle, which does not have a
display screen like most iPods or other digital music players.
Needham & Co analyst Charles Wolf said the new Shuffle design was appealing and
called the voice function a "nice a little gimmick. It shows that Apple intends
to keep that piece of the portfolio going. They're going to continue to
innovate, upgrade the sub-$100 device."
"It won't necessarily stimulate sales, but it clearly will keep sales of the
Shuffle going forward," he said.
The VoiceOver feature works by synchronizing with iTunes software, which
installs a voice kit on the user's computer. VoiceOver can also tell a user how
much battery life remains.
"You previously couldn't have multiple playlists on the iPod Shuffle because you
couldn't really switch between them as there was no way to know how you would
switch," said Greg Joswiak, Apple vice president of iPod marketing, told
Reuters. "So now instead of seeing, you get to hear."
Although Apple does not break out Shuffle sales, Needham's Wolf estimated some
7.5 million units were sold in the December quarter, it's biggest-selling
quarter. Apple sold 22.7 million iPod units overall in the period.
The third generation of iPod Shuffle will be the world's tiniest music player,
smaller than an AA battery. It comes in two colors, silver and black.
Apple will continue to sell the second-generation version of the 1-gigabyte,
240-song Shuffle for $49. but phase out the 2-gigabyte Shuffle, which sells for
The iPod music player has played an important role in the revival of Apple's
fortunes. The company has sold more than 200 million iPods since they launched
in 2001. It launched the first Shuffle in January 2005.
The refreshed Shuffle comes just a week after the company updated its line of
Mac desktop computers. Apple refreshed it MacBook laptop computers last fall.
Shares of Cupertino, California-based Apple rose $3.97 to $92.59 in early
afternoon trading on Nasdaq.
In the 21st century,
technology is allowing people to express their desires
fulfil their fantasies in ways never before possible
– and all at the touch of a
logs on to the new sexual revolution
Interviews by Esther Walker
Saturday, 6 December 2008
After watching Blade Runner recently on late-night television, I wondered:
whatever happened to all those scientists' predictions that humans would be
having sex with robots by now – or at least in the very near future? After all,
Ridley Scott's film is only set in 2019.
I still can't imagine having a hot replicant boyfriend any time soon – a
battery-operated vibrator is about as high-tech as it gets for me. Others,
however, are fast becoming accustomed to using technology to take things a step
further: men already go online to purchase custom-made "real dolls", which are
like silicon Stepford Wives minus the vocal cords, and cost several thousand
pounds. Fans claim they are a viable alternative for the lonely and socially
awkward. But can it really be healthy to seek out intimacy with an inanimate
At the same time that technology is causing some people to withdraw from the
dating game – preferring online porn and virtual sex to the real thing – the
sheer volume of specialised websites means that huge numbers of people are now
connecting in ways that they never have before. Though most deviant sexual
behaviours have been around for ages (the Romans were having orgies, after all)
the Noughties have ushered in the normalisation of fetishes – and made it vastly
more easy to find others with similar tastes. These days, BDSM (Bondage,
Domination and Sado-Masochism) has gone from underground fringe clubs to
housewives browsing spanking paddles online and in high-street sex shops.
Sex parties, too, have shed their image of dumpy, middle-aged couples circling a
bowl of car keys, and now upmarket swinging events such as Fever and Killing
Kittens cater to young and more conventionally attractive couples by using their
website to vet applicants. These days, more and more single women are taking the
Technology has also made casual hook-ups – and infidelity – simpler than ever: a
well-placed digital photo and a reasonably witty online profile can bring dozens
of responses within a few hours. And there are niche markets for everything
(among the more obscure I've come across: love connections for the freakishly
tall and even for devotees of the American writer Ayn Rand).
But what a friend of mine calls "the crack cocaine of online dating" does have
its risks. Ultimately, it's much easier to hide one's true intentions behind the
anonymity of a keyboard, and to lie. I've met men who happily crop out years of
their life (and children!) as easily as the woman standing next to them in their
Of course, not everyone online is a cheater. Some people are completely open
about their alter egos, and use their "avatars" to have cybersex on sites such
as Second Life. And many see it purely as a form of escapism, and have no
intention of actually meeting in person.
The internet does, of course, provide people with fetishes with an easy way of
finding each other. I personally would not want to change an adult baby's nappy,
but it seems there are people out there who want to breast-feed and role-play a
nanny scenario. And it's much easier to send an e-mail through a website than to
mention the subject casually on a first date.
In a world bombarded by hyper-sexualised images, even those who identify
themselves as asexual or celibate are able to surf over the sea of pornography
and connect with people who understand them.
Modern sex, to me, is about easy connectivity, and open-mindedness – whether
your sexual soulmate wants to be spanked over a desk or likes to dress up as a
giant squirrel. Today, there really is something for everyone.
The doll fetishist
James, 52, civil servant
I suppose you could say that I am a recluse. I've always lived on my own and
find it hard to make friends or have happy relationships – I've got a history of
unsuccessful relationships with women. I did hope that eventually I would find
happiness settling down with a partner and I have tried internet chatrooms and
online dating but nothing worked. A few years ago I watched a TV documentary
about men who live with "real dolls" (see introduction) and thought it might be
the perfect solution as I was extremely lonely at the time. I contacted an
online company that makes dolls to order and although I was very nervous about
the whole thing they put me at my ease and helped me decide what sort of doll I
Alice cost me about £6,000 and via the company's website I was able to customise
every area of her looks and physical attributes – I admit it seems childish but
I got a real kick out of creating my fantasy woman. She's aged about 25 and has
dark hair and the perfect body. I also enjoyed being able to choose all her
clothes at the click of a mouse; perhaps it's the power thing that appeals –
being in control of every aspect of her.
Whe she first arrived, it was a very surreal feeling having this gorgeous and
life-like silicone creature sitting opposite me in the lounge.
Very gradually, however, I have got used to having her around and now I have
grown to love her as I would a real woman. I know it must seem pretty sad, but
for me, she's everything. I think of her primarily as a companion, although
obviously she fulfils my sexual needs too – in my experience it's a lot easier
and more pleasurable than the real thing! I like the fact that she's always
there for me; she eats with me, sits and watches TV with me and sleeps with me.
I haven't told anyone about Alice; my work colleagues would laugh at me and if
my neighbours saw her they would probably freak out too. To me, however, it's
the perfect partnership – and what harm am I doing to anyone else?
The internet sex addict
Simon, 38, regional sales director
I got into internet sex by accident; I wasn't even looking for sex. I was at
work about four years ago and a friend was registered to one of those dating
sites, and he was having a whale of a time.
He was single at the time and went out on lots of dates with different women and
met them once or twice and then slept with them and after that he didn't really
see them again. I joined my first internet website for a laugh when I was bored,
and I couldn't believe how easy it was to meet up with women. I said I was
single on my profile but I was married, of course. I hooked up with one or two
girls in the first couple of months but they were all looking for relationships
and I wasn't. I felt a bit guilty, to be honest. I was already lying to my wife
and I didn't want to have to start lying to another woman as well.
After that I discovered some other specialist websites where married people can
contact each other for a bit of flirting and then hooking up. I usually meet the
women in a bar first and then maybe we'll go to a hotel.
I spend a fair amount of time surfing the sites, maybe an hour or two a day when
I'm at work and then maybe an hour or two at home. I don't think it's excessive,
though – people spend hours and hours on Facebook, don't they?
It's not that I don't love my wife or that we don't have sex – we do! But we've
been married for 12 years now and we've got small kids and it's not really the
same as it used to be. I suppose you might call me highly-sexed. It's just sex,
pure and simple. I don't sneak around with the same woman, and I'm not having a
big romance behind my wife's back. And I never really have to worry about her
finding out because, first, the women I sleep with are married, too – so it's
not in their interests to tell my wife – and second, I'm incredibly careful. My
wife could go through my computer with a toothcomb and she wouldn't find a
What surprised me about it all was how many women there are out there who were
really up for casual sex with someone who's not their husband. I know so many
men who say things like, "Oh my wife wouldn't cheat on me," and I laugh and
think, OK, whatever, mate – she probably already has, with someone just like me.
The modern Mrs Robinson
Marian, 54, interiors consultant
I was with my husband for 25 years and then he ran off with one of our
neighbours and we got divorced. It was quite funny really, looking back on it. I
don't miss him at all; it was the best thing that happened to me. But at the
time I was really angry and sad.
I kept the house after the divorce and my children were grown-up and I had
plenty of money and I sat down one day and thought, "What the hell am I going to
do with the rest of my life?" Eventually I hit on the idea of starting my own
interiors company, and I was contacted by this woman who was having her whole
house re-done after getting a divorce, just like me. We started chatting and she
told me about a website where she met young men online for sex. She said it was
brilliant and I should give it a go.
So I went online, and within a fortnight I was dating this amazing boy. He was
only about 30. He was amazing-looking and wanted to do all the things that men
my age just aren't interested in. We went out to the theatre and to the movies
and out for dinner and he was just so fun and alive. We saw each other for about
three months and then he sort of disappeared, and I didn't mind at all. When I
was younger I would maybe have been a bit upset but I didn't give a damn.
When men get into their forties and fifties they don't want to do anything. They
just talk about their new cars and sit on the sofa flicking through the channels
with the remote. And now I've got so much energy. Ten years ago I felt totally
dead, like a zombie, but now I jump out of bed in the mornings. Life is so
No one believes me when I say it, but going out with much younger men is not
just about the actual sex – even though the sex is great and young men these
days know much more about it than men my age. The fundamental thing for me is
that men in their twenties are a better match for women in their fifties and
sixties than men of the same age are. I went on some dates with men my own age
after Keith left and all they wanted was a replacement wife to wash their pants.
I wasn't having any of that.
I'm seeing a couple of boys at the moment, but nothing serious. And I don't care
really. This time in my life is just for me – for as long as I can remember it's
been about other people, my husband and my children. Now it's just for me and I
The party animal
Gemma, 23, shop assistant
People think that sex parties are really seedy but actually, they're not.
They're much less seedy than most nightclubs, in a way. Firstly, there are so
many sex-party swinging sites on the internet, so you can do lots of research in
the comfort of your own home. Once you decide to actually go to a sex party,
there's no pressure on anyone to do anything; it's usually just a fun atmosphere
with people standing about chatting – quite often just drinking tea or
I got into swinging, at first, with my then boyfriend Tim, when I took him to a
swingers' party in Brighton for his birthday present. He actually didn't enjoy
it that much, but I thought it was really fun. The people were nice and there
was hardly any drinking or taking drugs or anything like that.
There were living-room areas, where you couldn't get up to anything particularly
racy, and then bedrooms upstairs, some with the lights on and some with the
lights off, where you could go for more explicit action.
I broke up with Tim about a year later. We hadn't been back to any swingers'
parties but I had had sex with someone else at that first party with my
boyfriend looking on in the same room and I don't think he enjoyed it; we both
realised that we had such different levels of inhibition. I'm not at all shy!
After I broke up with Tim, I went online and signed up for what I suppose you'd
call an orgy. It's just the same as a swingers' party, really, except that not
everyone is in a couple. It was just really fun. I met so many like-minded
people; it wasn't just about sex, it was about being yourself and letting go a
bit. There's no pussyfooting around – so if you meet someone and think, "I
really like you" and if they like you back, you can just have sex without anyone
judging you or thinking you're weird.
I'd never tell my family or some of my more straight friends about this. I don't
think they'd get it and there's no point in trying to explain to someone who
isn't open-minded what you get out of it. They'd just think I was being a bit of
a slag, and I'm not at all.
I don't feel ready to have a steady relationship now. Even if a prospective
partner was really amazingly cool, I wouldn't introduce him to the idea of a
swinging party because nine times out of 10 he'd be scared off by it.
Mark, 44, scientific glassblower
I've always known that I was different from other people, especially when I hit
puberty and found that I just wasn't interested in sex in the same way that my
friends were. I also found my own gender more interesting and nicer-looking than
the opposite sex, so I thought I might be gay. Back in the Seventies, there was
still a lot of homophobia.
I started hanging out on the gay scene, which led me to being in bed with
people, sometimes men, sometimes women – and I realised that I'm not capable of
sex. I just don't get aroused. I did have relationships, but they tended to be
very short-lived. I greatly enjoy physical contact, such as hugging, as well as
companionship, but unfortunately once people realise that there's not going to
be any sex, the relationship usually comes to an end.
My longest relationship was in 1997 with a man. We were together for 10 months
and it was a sort of mutually beneficial arrangement whereby he tolerated my
affections and I was his ticket to friends and parties. When that ended I
thought: this is a pointless pursuit.
My brother, to whom I'm really close, went through a divorce a couple of years
ago and I was driving in a car with him and talking about relationships. And I
told him. I said, "I'm asexual." And he said, "You lucky bastard!" We laughed so
much! I think some people still assume that I'm gay but if they do then it's not
an issue. My brother later told me that my parents had asked him more than once
if I was gay. I suppose they thought it was strange that I never brought anyone
My life really changed when I saw a piece in the paper in 2004 about the
differences between asexuality and celibacy – in the former there is no sexual
attraction and in the latter a conscious decision is made not to have sex. I saw
it and it was a total epiphany. I was so thrilled to find there were other
people like me. There's a range of different kind of asexuals – some are born
that way (like me) and some become that way over time. At the end of the article
there was a reference to AVEN (asexuality.org), the website for the asexual
community, and I joined up straight away. When I went to the first meet-up it
was a revelation to meet other people who felt the same way as I did. There's
always a lot of stuff going on and I've got a busy social life – although I do
worry a bit about what things will be like when I get older and I'm on my own.
The adult baby
John, 45, computer programmer
My mother walked out on my family when I was four, so I think I always craved
being nurtured by a female figure. My two older sisters and I were looked after
by a very strict nanny at our house in Nottingham, who showed us no affection.
My father would come home late from work and was of the "children should be seen
and not heard" school of thought. My sisters and I spent a lot of time on our
own and would invent games where they would play at being nurses and would give
me baths, get me dressed and so on.
I have always been quite sexually dysfunctional and my sisters haven't managed
to form lasting relationships either. When I was in my early twenties I started
a string of relationships with older women and realised that I was fantasising
about a mother figure. Things started to spiral out of control when I had strong
fantasies about dressing up as a baby – it's called infantilism. At the
beginning, being honest about my desires was very hard. I felt like a pervert
and didn't know who to turn to. Then I confessed to one of my older girlfriends
and she encouraged me to seek professional counselling. My counsellor helped me
to understand the root causes for my predilections – a lack of love in childhood
– but although she encouraged me to stop dressing as a baby I wasn't able to
I then discovered an online adult-babies' club in south-east England where I
found like-minded people who wanted, as I do, to dress up in adult-sized baby
clothes and behave as a baby might do. This might include being bathed by
"nannies", wearing nappies and being "breast-fed". I realise that it sounds
weird, but it gives me some sort of comfort at the same time as addressing my
sexual needs. The fact that it's all done anonymously through the web provides
me with extra privacy, too.
N.Y. — Her grandfather wanted to play tea party, but Alexandra Geosits, 2½,
insisted she had only apple juice. She held out a plastic cup, giggling as she
waited to see if he would accept the substitute.
That they were a thousand miles apart, their weekly visit unfolding over
computer screens in their respective homes, did not faze either one. Like many
other grandchildren and grandparents who live far apart, Alex and Joe Geosits
(pronounced GAY-sits), 69, have become fluent in the ways of the Web cam.
“Delicious,” Mr. Geosits exclaimed from Florida, pretending to take a sip from
the cup, which remained clasped here in Alex’s small hand.
Video calling, long anticipated by science fiction, is filtering into everyday
use. And two demographic groups not particularly known for being high-tech are
among the earliest adopters.
In a way that even e-mailed photos never could, the Web cam promises to
transcend both distance and the inability of toddlers to hold up their end of a
Some grandparent enthusiasts say this latest form of virtual communication makes
the actual separation harder. Others are so sustained by Web cam visits with
services like Skype and iChat that they visit less in person. And no one quite
knows what it means to a generation of 2-year-olds to have slightly pixelated
versions of their grandparents as regular fixtures in their lives.
But at a time when millions of people around the world are beginning to beam
themselves across the ether, the Web cam adventures of the nursery school set
and their grandparents offer a glimpse at what can be gained — and what may be
lost — by almost-being there.
“We would be strangers to them if we didn’t have the Web cam,” said Susan
Pierce, 61, of Shreveport, La., who will be a virtual attendee at Thanksgiving
dinner with her grandchildren in Jersey City this year.
Over the last year, Ms. Pierce and her husband watched Dylan, 17 months, learn
to walk and talk over the Web cam, and witnessed his 4-year-old sister Kelsie’s
drawings of people evolve from indeterminate blobs to figures with arms and
fingers and toes.
But the powerful illusion of physical proximity also sharpens their ache for the
real thing. “You just wish you could reach out and cuddle them,” said Ms.
Pierce, a nursing professor. “Seeing them makes you miss them more.”
Nearly half of American grandparents live more than 200 miles from at least one
of their grandchildren, according to AARP. Prof. Merril Silverstein, a
sociologist at the University of Southern California, has found that about
two-thirds of grandchildren see one set of grandparents only a few times a year,
But many grandparents find that the Web cam eases the transition during
in-person visits, when grandchildren may refuse to sit on their laps or may
reject their hugs because they do not recognize them. As one Web cam evangelist
wrote on her blog, www.nanascorner.com: “You’ll be able to pick up where you
left off without those warming up to you, awkward moments.”
On Ms. Pierce’s most recent visit to New Jersey last month, for instance, Dylan
called out the nickname he uses for her over the Web cam, “Buffy!” and jumped
into her arms. “It melted my heart,” Ms. Pierce said.
Urged on by strong word of mouth from fellow grandparents, they are often the
ones to buy Web cams for their grandchildren (or, technically, their own adult
children, who then have to plug them in). But the youngsters, who spend much of
their time playing games of pretend, may shuttle more easily between the virtual
and the real.
When Gail Hecox of Park City, Utah, shows her 2-year-old granddaughter Lily her
cats over the Web cam, the child often pats the space on the ottoman next to the
laptop and says “meow, meow,” as though “it should be able to walk through the
screen,” Ms. Hecox said.
Many grandchildren play as their grandparents watch from afar, and when Coulter
Medeiros, almost 3, of Cincinnati, wants to summon his grandmother in
Massachusetts, he simply points to his parents’ computer and says, “Nana on
Substitutions of retrograde technology are frowned on. If Nana is at work,
without the Web cam-equipped computer she bought to visit with him, Coulter’s
mother, Elizabeth, sometimes puts her on speakerphone. “No Nana phone,” Coulter
says. “Nana on computer.”
The adult children in a family have their own reasons for encouraging the Web
cam enthusiasm of the younger and older generations. When Martha Rodenborn
discovered that Elena, now 4, would sit happily in front of the computer in
their Upper West Side apartment while her grandmother read her piles of picture
books from Ohio, the Web cam quickly became a vehicle for remote baby-sitting.
“It was a lifesaver,” said Ms. Rodenborn, who graduated from Columbia Law School
Because the Web cam connection is free, parents often keep it on as long as a
grandparent is willing to make funny faces and animal sounds.
But for adult children pressed into service as real-time documentarians, the
experience can also be taxing.
After Alex Geosits’s virtual apple juice party with her grandparents on a recent
Sunday, her father chased her upstairs, laptop in hand, as she went to get a
favorite doll. Then he followed her around the living room as she played
hide-and-seek and showed her bellybutton. Finally, it was her snack time, and he
The recent inclusion of Web cams in most laptops helps account for the 20
percent growth in video calling over the last year, said Rebecca Swensen, an
analyst at the technology research firm IDC.
Internet companies are also promoting “video chat” as an enhancement to standard
instant-messaging and Internet phone services. Google, for instance, which makes
money from the advertisements in its popular Gmail Web-based e-mail software,
introduced video capability for Gmail this month.
About 20 million people around the world have made a video call for personal
communication in the last month, Ms. Swensen said. American soldiers in Iraq
beam themselves home over Web cams; parents on business trips (including
President-elect Barack Obama) bid goodnight to their children,
But grandparents and grandchildren are already working on ways to nudge the
medium a little closer to actual teleportation.
When Deborah Lafferty, 55, and her granddaughter Natalie, 2, want to hug, for
instance, Natalie comes to the screen in Seattle and squeezes her own face, just
as her grandmother does to her when she visits from England. Ms. Lafferty, in
turn, squeezes her face. “Grammy loves you so much,” she says, echoing the
phrase she uses in person.
Grandparents also use their own children as surrogates to close the tactile gap.
Barbara Turner once sang her fussing newborn grandson to sleep from Ottawa,
watching as her son rocked him in Indiana. She said she could almost feel the
baby snuggling against her shoulder.
But last week Ms. Turner and her husband rushed to Indiana to be on hand for the
birth of her second grandchild. “Some things you just can’t do over the Web
cam,” she said. “You make the trip.”
Still, some veterans of the technology fear that the video cam has started to
substitute, rather than supplement, actual time together. Jennifer Ray, 24, of
San Antonio, and her brother persuaded their parents to get a new computer so
they could all video chat with their respective toddlers on split screens from
different states. Now the siblings commiserate about their mother’s
unwillingness to travel.
“She still comes,” said Ms. Ray of her mother, Diane Heyman, who lives in
Arizona. “But not nearly as often.”
Ms. Heyman, 49, admitted: “It’s probably true. You feel like you’re actually
seeing them and interacting with them, so it eases that longing.”
Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
worries that ever-more-real virtual encounters (holograms may be next) could
make us forget what we are missing in the case of a grandchild: the smell of a
grandmother’s cooking, the warmth of an embrace. In interviews, older
grandchildren who video chat with grandparents say they visit them less, feeling
that they have already “seen” them.
“It’s important that we not start to equate what the technology can deliver with
what we can deliver to each other without the technology,” Ms. Turkle said.
But the Web cam generation may already be recalibrating how much value to place
on the sharing of real space with another person. Is it better for a grandchild
to video chat twice a week and visit twice a year, or to visit four times a
year? Perhaps, having built intimate relationships with them early on through
the Web cam, they will choose both.
For now, when Jacob Mosier’s mother, Ginny, of Las Vegas, tells him they are
going to visit Mamaw and Grumpa, in Scottsdale, Ariz., the 2-year-old runs to
the computer and waits happily for it to boot up.
(Reuters) - The Internet is not just changing the way people live but altering
the way our brains work with a neuroscientist arguing this is an evolutionary
change which will put the tech-savvy at the top of the new social order.
Gary Small, a neuroscientist at UCLA in California who specializes in brain
function, has found through studies that Internet searching and text messaging
has made brains more adept at filtering information and making snap decisions.
But while technology can accelerate learning and boost creativity it can have
drawbacks as it can create Internet addicts whose only friends are virtual and
has sparked a dramatic rise in Attention Deficit Disorder diagnoses.
Small, however, argues that the people who will come out on top in the next
generation will be those with a mixture of technological and social skills.
"We're seeing an evolutionary change. The people in the next generation who are
really going to have the edge are the ones who master the technological skills
and also face-to-face skills," Small told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"They will know when the best response to an email or Instant Message is to talk
rather than sit and continue to email."
In his newly released fourth book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological
Alteration of the Modern Mind," Small looks at how technology has altered the
way young minds develop, function and interpret information.
Small, the director of the Memory & Aging Research Center at the Semel Institute
for Neuroscience & Human Behavior and the Center on Aging at UCLA, said the
brain was very sensitive to the changes in the environment such as those brought
He said a study of 24 adults as they used the Web found that experienced
Internet users showed double the activity in areas of the brain that control
decision-making and complex reasoning as Internet beginners.
"The brain is very specialized in its circuitry and if you repeat mental tasks
over and over it will strengthen certain neural circuits and ignore others,"
"We are changing the environment. The average young person now spends nine hours
a day exposing their brain to technology. Evolution is an advancement from
moment to moment and what we are seeing is technology affecting our evolution."
Small said this multi-tasking could cause problems.
He said the tech-savvy generation, whom he calls "digital natives," are always
scanning for the next bit of new information which can create stress and even
damage neural networks.
"There is also the big problem of neglecting human contact skills and losing the
ability to read emotional expressions and body language," he said.
"But you can take steps to address this. It means taking time to cut back on
technology, like having a family dinner, to find a balance. It is important to
understand how technology is affecting our lives and our brains and take control