Sunday, November 11, 2012

Brain Power: From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Tiffany Shlain

Tiffany Shlain has done it again.  The director of the acclaimed Connected and The Tribe movies has given us another slice of her vision that probes and provokes our understanding as it delights our senses and coaxes our smiles.  As is the case with all of Shlain's movies, you feel after seeing it that you saw something you already once knew, but needed to be reminded about, and now that you've seen it again the ideas and the rhythm are even more important than you realized.

The idea of Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks is the chestnut that the Internet is like our brain.  The metaphor actually goes at least as far back as Nathaniel Hawthorne and his character Clifford in The House of the Seven Gables (1851), who muses, "Is it a fact - or have I dreamed it - that, by means of electricity, the world has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time"?

It was short arc from the telegraph in Hawthorne's time to the web in ours - with McLuhan's global village in 1962 along the way - and, come to think of it, Shlain's Brain Power does have the memorable quality of a dream.  But it also has the focus of an important scholarly pursuit, and Shlain's thesis is that the Internet is not just like a human brain, but the brain of a human child.  This is because the human brain for the first years of its existence is hard-wired to learn - or, in neuronal terms, make connections.   Like links online, connections in the brain literally build, enrich, and expand it, with an initial strategy of the more links the better.

Part of growing up - for the web as a whole and the brain of every person - is pruning the links and connections that don't work, or don't work out well.  Shlain also raises concern about stress and overload suppressing the growth of good connections.   I've always thought that what we suffer from is not overload but underload, or not enough good connections and apps to make sense of what the world has for us.   That's why, when we walk into a library or bookstore, we may feel a fleeting tinge of overload with all the books before us, but it quickly passes because we have the navigational app to make sense of what we see, to know where to find the biographies, the fiction, and so forth.   Human beings, as William James, another Victorian, noted, are in the business of multi-tasking, or wringing order from the confusion of the world.   Overload can be exhilarating.

One thing's sure.   There's no overload or confusion in Shlain's marvelous 10-minute movie.   You'll feel exhilarated and pleased after you see the children and parents on the screen, the cool animation (a Shlain trademark) and world-class art (including quick takes of what famous illustrators such as Joel Iskowitz think the brain is),  the ideas that flow like a sparkling fountain on a summer day.   Take a sip - it will expand some of your good connections.





You can see Brain Power, for free, right here.
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