Filtering by Category: Book

Pop Culture and Cognitive Improvements

During the week-end I read Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. Some thoughts below:

The author's take is that pop culture (mostly: video games/tv/movies) is not so dumb but foster interesting situations in which viewers/users can improve their cognitive processes through different ways: pattern recognition, social network mapping, problem solving and so forth. Johnson's first point is to convince the reader that pop culture could be as relevant as books or theater (accepted and 'noble' forms of culture) for people's education. Let's summarize the points he raised:

  • video games: "the thing you almost never hear in the mainstream coverage is that games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly HARD": he describes how video games rely on the "reward/challenge" cycle and the "desire tosee the next things" to engage users into complex activities. As he explains, "It's not what you're thinking about when you're playing a game, it's the way you're thinking that matters". Games force to make decisions and especially to figure ou what you have to do. He describes the cognitive benefits of video games like the abilities to probe, "telescope" or get a continuous partial attention. I was abit surprised by the lack of mention to the theory of "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row, New York): Csikszentmihalyi describes the "flow" as a psychological state that occurs when people are totally involvemed with ahigh degree of focus in an activity; which is the case with video-games.
  • television: tv also increased the degree of cognitive work needed to understand what's happening through 3 processes: multiple threading, flashing arrows and complex social networks. I really appreciate this part, with figures explaining how threads are more and more complex as well as the comparison of Dallas' simple social network compared to 24's terrible one!
  • the Internet
  • films

I am a bit more skeptical about the part which describes the cognitive benefits of pop culture (even though I accept the premise [the cognitive benefits of pop culture], the demonstration is a bit weak from a cognitive science point of view and rethoric. It would need more work on it).

Overall, the book is easy to read, clear and has a relevant point: don't treat pop culture as crap because it has virtues, not based on the content but on the cognitive processes people need to make use of when interacting with it: problem solving, pattern matching, social network mapping, continous partial attention, probing... However when the discussion enters too much into cognitive things, it stays at a too broad levels and I was disappointed by this part. What I miss there is maybe an analysis of specific cognitive processes improved by video game; this could have been better connected to cognitive psychology theories: problem solving, differences between novices and experts, memory, spatial skills, attention, perceptual skills... It's really a pity the author did not address this because there is plenty of connection to be derived from the tremendous bunch of studies about this. Of course, they are not all dealing with how people use video-games but they may use specific or simple video-games to study peculiar processes. Connected pasta: I already blogged about why and how psychologists are interested in video game here. Also there was this post about cognitive in MMORPG. In addition, adressing the socio-cognitive impacts of games is part of my research work for my PhD...

Pro/am relationships in technical research

Agir dans un monde incertain: essai sur la démocratie technique by Michel Callon, Pierre Lascoumes and Yannick Barthe. Ed. Seuil (2001) (in french). This book addresses the relationship between experts and amateurs in today's current science debate exemplifying various topics (gmo, nuclear wastes) in France. Based on strong sociological bases it shows how science and society more and more diverged over time. There is now a big gap between the society and the scientists. Non-experts no longer trust science and fear news technical advances desrcibed as "progress" by engineers and scientists.

Now science is organized into three different moments the authors called 'translations':

  • translation 1: in which the research problem is transferred from the real world to the laboratory
  • translation 2: in which the research problem is explored by a research team through what Bruno Latour calls 'inscription' (i.e. written notes, drawings, napkin notes, printed measures...) and 'distributed skills'.
  • translation 3: in which the results are transformed into propositions brought back in the "real world".

The authors then claim that the 'civil society' might participate in each of those moments:

  • to help research problem formulation
  • to enlarge the research team and organize it
  • to help bringing back the results into the "real world"

Numerous examples are provided like how AIDS patient participated to AIDS research or french farmers helped the debate on nuclear wastes, raising new and unexpected questions. They emphasize the notion of "hybrid forums" where scientists and different 'amateurs' debated on the three research moments.

I think it's an interesting book to take into account in the pro/am debate. The book, through various examples, is a very interesting testimony about how researchers might be more connected with the other part of society.

Dispersion: A Study of Global Mobility and the Dynamics of a Fictional Urbanism

Afternoon reading: Diego Barajas Dispersion: A Study of Global Mobility and the Dynamics of a Fictional Urbanism, Episode Publishers, Rotterdam, 2003.

This publication is based on a thesis that studies global mobility and territories in dispersion. Based in Rotterdam, Diego Barajas concentrates his research on the urban dispersals shaped by migration, looking first at the Cape Verdean Diaspora and its territorial structure, and then focused on the case of the 'belhuis' - 'call-house'.

By 'territories in dispersion', Barajas refers to social habitats that are no longer physically contained in geographically continuous areas, but have been spread out and re-articulated by artificial means. The de-territorialized condition created by increased mobility - particularly by migration - had led to an urbanism of artificial re-territorializaton. This is a functional urbanism - as based on mental constructions but tangible - that is manifested in the city as fragments, micro environments of global circuits, each of which establishes its own identity, time, rules and aesthetics - its own atmospheres.

The book is great, full of nice visualization, pictures and good insights about migrants behavior towards communication. A really pertinent study about how mobility and tech are intricately connected. Besides, it's from a different point of view than the reccurent geek/business guy travelling with a laptop; here it's about a mobile diaspora that tries to keep in touch with their roots.

Marketing of High Tech Brands

Last week, I read La grande mutation des marques high-tech (The great mutation of high tech brands) by Francois Laurent (marketing manager at Thomson. This book is not about ergonomy and interaction-design, it's mostly about marketing. The premise of the book (in french) is that traditional marketing methods are no longer efficient with high tech brands. The reason why they are inoperant is because technology innovation have to face 2 problems:

  • people do not buy so much technology because of the fast obsolescence.
  • the systems are too difficult to use (example: VCR)

After developing on various socio-cultural/economic changes (like the effect of p2p on culture consumption, linux... open source software), the author advocates for a new methology based both on soap companies (focus group and blablabla to better understand the activity/needs/thoughts of end-users which nobody thought about when designing the remote control of a VCR) and on a sociological watch. This is the crux issue: being aware of fast sociological changes in various groups. He concludes with a proposal: doing "Consumer Insight" research (in "Consumer Insights Lab"): to put it shortly it's to understand how people live, their activities... and this should be discussed by engineers, marketing people, interaction designers, ergonomists, sociologists, psychologists. It's also about encouraging people working on developing product to talk to each other (even to people in other compabies and research lab). Well we're in an age of "networked R&D" so the trend seems to propagate even in french books about marketing.

The book is interesting for different reasons. To me, since I don't know that much about marketing, I learnt some relevant stuff (like the differences between high tech brands and soap companies or how a company like thomson does). The description of the sociological changes is nice because it's given from the point of view of a marketing person but it's so classical that I found it a bit redundant with some many other books recently released. Finally the main contribution of the book is great and relevant: high tech products' potential buyers and customers should be taken into account in the developement process so that the failure of WAP or Betamax will not happen again. Of course, from my point of view it's not groundbreaking (because I deal with that issue everyday) but for people who read book of marketing or technology developers, this is crucial. It's clearly a step in this momentum about "end-user" studies. I had pleasure reading it.

Zeitgeist (Bruce Sterling)

Just finished Zeitgeist by Bruce Sterling. As in Distraction I re-read recently and The Zenith Angle, the plot is almost non-existent. But it's not a problem at all; I take those books by Sterling as a portrait - a kind of analysis - of our post-modern society. In this book, the authors deals with pop culture in turkey + former yugoslavia. His character (Leggy Starlitz) is a Oscar Valparaiso look-alike in the sens that he has everything under control, mixing moderne skills (marketing/PR/demographics analysis) with old-school military techniques + social engineering skills. The guy seems pretty cool. I was a bit bored by the father-daughter part of the book till I ran across name of french philosopherts like Derrida; and then it made sense. Overall, it was a pleassant book to read, even though I've never been in any Y2K trip. Sterling is always sharp with expressions like "deader than the minitel" or "Britain was the European Japan"). It also made me think of Sterling's last column in wired: Where a crooked economy beats straight-up capitalism, I think it's another brick inn the field of postmodernism.

People can't afford Western luxuries, so they have a warm, affirmative feeling for smugglers. Global branding makes it easy to create fake prod­ucts with broad appeal on someone else's promotional dime. So stores are filled with upscale-looking, marginally functional fakes in food, clothes, cosmetics, even car parts.

The Chinese-run shops in Serbia and Montenegro, known as kineskae, carry products in every possible variant of honesty and dishonesty. Running shoes most Westerners have never heard of - Die Xian, Gui Ren, Renke - sit alongside knockoffs with Nike-like names such as Wink, not to mention blatant acts of deceit like my bogus shoes. Of course, you can also buy real Nikes for the crippling international price. The shiny, glass-fronted stores that sell them grimly alert shoppers to their anti-shoplifting technology; mom-and-pop kineskae make no such fuss. (...) Serbia and Montenegro isn't a failed state like Iraq or Sudan, but a faked state. This purported country, which has had serious problems settling on an anthem and a flag, is best understood as a giant covert operation, like Iran-Contra or Enron. Nobody is less likely than a Serbian to collaborate with the ever-more-anxious overlords of intellectual property: the World Trade Organization, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the World Customs Organization, and Nike's own clique, the US Council for International Business. For all their treaties and trade agreements, these paper tigers might as well be waving bread sticks as billy clubs.

These organizations are right to worry. Black globalism extends well beyond easy, offhand intellectual property thefts like videotaping first-run films and burning them onto DVD. It commandeers the manufacturing, distribution, and business infrastructure in a parasitic rejection of the global order that is the engine of our collective future. The folks who made my shoes have everything it takes to make excellent footwear. Yet they choose to make counterfeits. It's a brave, new, destructive world of manufacturing and marketing: Just fake it.