Where science and tech meet creativity.

The past 48 hours or so have been a mad adventure across the UK. From meeting with Astronomy Cast and Galaxy Zoo folks in London to recording Astronomy Cast and attending a dinner seminar in Oxford yesterday with Chris Lintott, everything I’ve done has been facilitated through the Internet. It seems that sometimes real life social interactions are just a click or a forum post away.

My life, put simply, is lived as much through digital communications as it is through face to face interactions. Some days the virtual interactions are even the more important ones.

This simple truth is something that one of last night’s speakers made me think very hard about.

Thanks to a few emails from Chris, I was able to attend the Monday evening keynote for the Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford conference. This session included talks by Philip Rosedale (Linden Labs), Baroness Susan Greenfield (Neuroscientist and Fullerian Professor of Physiology), and Elon Musk (Space X). All three addresses were wonderful, hitting different emotional cords as they plucked at the strings of potential virtual futures; of walking on Mars, and of how we think and how we learn. I have to admit (although you likely already know this), I have already drank the kool-aide of Second Life and I am strongly in favor of commercial manned space flight. The talk that offered me the most new content and new ideas was Baroness Greenfield’s talk on neuroscience.

She started by asking the question: What is it that makes human consciousness separate from machine thought, and she postulated that as we evolve into the future, man and machine may merge. She asked, “But what would we do with super human vision and enhanced strength?” Taking on aspects other then our own may not be good. That, however, is a question we don’t need to answer today. What is more presently relevant is the question of what is human interaction via the web – an enhancement we experience through new media – doing to the human mind and how we build relationships.

Consider Facebook. At the time of this writing I have 680 friends. The vast majority are other astronomers and astronomy enthusiasts who I’ve met professionally and through Astronomy Cast. There is also a largish chunk of people who I knew in high school or who I was friends with in college. Mixed in are a small handful of people who I am close friends with in “real life” (this group includes a few folks I see maybe once a year. All these people, within the construct of Facebook, are my friends. All of them can socially share ideas, invitations, photos, and comments back and forth. All these people have the potential to touch my life daily in the way an acquaintance I run into in line at the coffee shop can touch my life, but this isn’t to say they are all my dear friends.

And, due to the ease with which social networks grow, one has to wonder if our social network interactions are changing the nature of our more traditional interactions.

Looking at my own laptop, I know that my inboxes of emails from my work, blog, and Facebook accounts all have the ability to take over every waking moment of my life. I honestly am interested in knowing what happened to some of my old friends refound through Facebook. I honestly want to help the amateurs who contact me find new ways to get involved in astronomy. All these interactions with all these acquaintances, all of which are facilitated by the internet, are changing how I interact. Sometimes a letter gets replaced with links and “Let me know if these help you?” rather then my own thoughtful reactions. I find myself more willing to flash off small thoughts, random “Let me share” sound bites of my life to friends rather then to sit and have rich written correspondence like I used to have a few years ago with distant friends. Somehow I’ve learned to comfortably fit my life into 140 characters or less.

The human mind is a plastic thing, flexible, trainable, malleable. We each adapt in different ways to outside stimuli and the communications styles we use (as input and output) the most often.

For me, I like to hope that should I find someone interested in taking up long distance letter writing in this world of SMS and Skype, I will still have the skills needed to converse in that fondly remembered form of communications. In someways, I guess, the community dialogue of blogging has for me filled that communications niche.  We each can react and interact in long drawn out dialogues of interconnecting links. It is an open letter we write when we blog.

But perhaps through our openness we are also isolating ourselves. There are things I would once have shared in letters to friends that I would never dare blog. Look at Phil and the pseudonyms he uses for even his dog.

Beyond just letter writing, though, how are we being changed?

Baroness Greensfield, in her talk, asked us to consider the rapid fire world of today’s youth and the way in which human interactions are getting distilled in some cases to a punch and a quest after death. Here is where I admit I’m not an online (or even not online) computer gamer. I used to do D&D back in the day, but that was a detailed face to face interactions. Looking at my friends who play World of Warcraft, I see a certain mix of people transforming their spare time into nothing more then a quest for more more more status/gold/weapons/magic. At the same time I also see people who build close relationships with their gaming partners, getting to know them and trust them as work out puzzles, go into battle, and sometimes just stand and share and gossip. I’m not sure how this is different from life and the shallow pursuit of wealth waged side by side with the earnest pursuit of a life well lived.

In presenting a montage of rapid fire clips from online games, Baroness Greenfield asked us to consider what is happening to attention spans. She showed us an increase in the rate at which prescriptions for attention deficit drugs are being given out. She asked us to go with her and draw the conclusion that our rapid fire world of instant communications is leading us to become an attention deficit society hedonistically seeking instant gratification, as we live in the now with over indulgence of food, internet, and other things not safe for this blog. I’m not sure what to believe – I want to see statistics and cause and effect sociology research. Sadly, they only gave her 20 minutes.

She left us with the question, is the internet making us less empathetic as we confine our interactions to what she claims are less rich forms of content input. She argued that in moving away from reading books and to instead becoming a people of the “Screen” (where screen is a computer or television screen) we are losing our empathy and attention span.

I hate to disagree with a Baroness on a subject I can claim no professional training in, but I have to say that I’m going to agree with Linden Lab’s Philip Rosedale: as much as the internet has changed how (and with how many people) I communicate, it has in many cases caused me to lose myself into complicated tasks – designing interfaces, finding things in Second Life, writing blog posts, reading and commenting on (but not often enough) others’ blog posts, tweeting, skyping, and so much more. My attention span sometimes seems longer then the number hours I should be awake, and I find myself often captivated by the new puzzles of new technologies.

And my heart strings – my ability to feel empathy for others – my emotions are triggered through the rich writings that I can find on any of probably a million different places. Baroness Greensfield kept invoking the name of Jane Austin. Sometimes though, isn’t a random person writing on something they are personally passionate about just as powerful in their capacity to evoke emotions as Austin was in her novels?

And sometimes, as we skype across the miles, as my voice is carried from my computer to the computer of any one of several people who are dear to me, aren’t I able to share the emotionally meaningful moments that are necessary to build and maintain real friendships? I can look around the globe and map the people who matter, many of whom I see but rarely, but skype lets our friendships – our emotional connections – stay solid across the miles.

The human mind is a plastic thing. We do need to be careful of how we use the internet to replace our real world interactions. Somethings can’t be replaced – we all need that occasional 4am face-to-face conversation. But… But the internet is allowing us to live richer lives where our ability to find and interact with others is enhanced in ways that (once we learn to deal with the thru put of too many emails) really will be for the best.

That said, I want to end this on a cautionary note. Baroness Greenfield’s concern that we are learning to seek instant gratification I think is a real one. We are becoming too accustomed to instant gratification. Communications is instant. Food is instant. Purchases are overnight delivered, and relationships (according the the “wisdom” of Friends and Sex in the City) are founded on the three date rule. We are rushing through life without ever getting lost on the journey and enjoying the side paths. Sometimes the most interesting parts come during the breaks and intermissions.

In the musical Into the Woods, there is a line we all need to remember (sung by Little Red Riding Hood): “The prettier the flower, the farther from the path…” Sometimes we need to remember the fastest journey isn’t always the best. Sometimes we benefit from deviations down side roads and from getting our feet wet walking through the grass.

Use the internet to enrich, but remember to sometimes take the road less clicked.