March 8, 2010

From Gerald R. Lucas

One of the things I like about the Web in the age of social networking is that it provides easy ways to expand my brain’s storage capacity. This idea was first suggested by Marshall McLuhan when he defined media as “an extension of ourselves.” McLuhan theorized this idea years before the personal computer hit the streets, and decades before Web 2.0 – or Web 1.0, for that matter. Yet, his definition is strikingly prescient.

As I get older, I find my brain doesn’t work the way it used to. I forget names as quickly as I hear them; I can’t remember the names of restaurants I enjoyed, or what I ate that was so fraking good; I often grasp at words while teaching. I attribute this to aging, but it could also have something to do with disinterest or solipsism. Goodness knows, I am the center of the universe. But, it could also have something to do with my changing relationship with technology.

Years ago, say twenty, I used to carry in my wallet a laminated card that had my frequently used phone numbers printed on it. Not only was said card a testament to my utter nerdliness, it was also a pretty good memory helper. However, I probably used the card a total of two times, since my youthful brain seemed to recall most of the numbers on it anyway. Also, changing the card proved difficult. Not only did I have to go into the MacWrite Pro document to modify the names and numbers, but I had to print it on card stock (both sides), cut the card so it looked neat, then buy one of those self-laminating packs from the dispenser at Eckerd Drugs. Often, my cut would be lopsided or imprecise, or I would accidentally stick the card to the laminate too early and have to start all over again. When the planets finally aligned, I’d have a tribute to my nerdly OCD: a perfect little card I could put in my wallet that would probably be obsolete within a day or two.

Fast forward twenty years: my laminated card has been replaced by my iPhone. Not only is updating a breeze, my iPhone could actually carry around details about every person I have ever met, including a vague little photograph that might be them. Seriously, because of its tether to Facebook, my iPhone now has details about people I haven’t seen in twenty years, including “friends” I’ve likely never met – or at least don’t recall meeting. Photos don’t really help here. Not only does my brain not have to remember any phone numbers – well, I do know my wife’s cell number – I might have your number in my brain extension without even knowing it.

Another way I extend my brain is with other Web 2.0 sites, like Delicious. This link accrual and sharing site lets me store the links on their server rather than my local web browser. The beauty here lies in the fact that a new web browser or a new machine does not destroy my memory of favorite, interesting, or amusing sites. Delicious extends my Internet memory. I just wish I remembered how I tag stuff, but that’s another issue.

Enter Tumblr, my latest extension (permanently linked above under Portfolio). Think of Tumblr as a microblog – not quite like the full-fledged blog you’re currently reading, nor as limited as a tweet. It occupies a realm somewhere between. Twitter is for the apathetic blogger; Tumblr is for the lazy blogger. Blogging is for the wannabe writer, for that matter. Yes, I still live in another paradigm, but I am crossing over.

Tumblr is like sitting behind the wheel of a car you’ve had for years: comfortable, easy, and neat. It allows me to post snippets of text, links, photos, video clips, chats – just about any Web media you can think of. It’s a log of stuff I find interesting enough to want to remember. Sure, the only real organization is chronology, but Tumblr does provide tags now, an attempt at folksonomy, much like Delicious, grown-up blogs, and Technorati. I like tags; I just wish my brain could use them in a consistent way.

I use Twitter primarily for professional purposes, like communicating with my students. There’s something elegant and germane about the 140 characters here. My tweets run across LitMUSE with important tidbits of information. I just wish students would look before shooting me a frantic email.

I use the blog for writing practice (here, here, and here) and for my photography side-business.

I use Tumblr as a brain dump. It’s a place to remember what I thought about something and when I thought about it. While I have it linked to Facebook and Twitter, it’s really just for me, an extension of myself.