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The Analog Urge

By Annalee Newitz

I AM increasingly of the opinion that certain things should not fall under the purview of digital devices. For the new year, I have decided to go back to using a very analog appointment book--one with a nice binding and paper inside--instead of constantly worrying that my stupid PDA will run out of battery power or crash or get stolen by some idiot who thinks it has resale value on the black market.

I started loathing my PDA right around the same time I realized that I had begun to use Post-it notes to keep track of my appointments. At least Post-its don't disappear if you forget to recharge them.

But I've realized now that the great innovation is not digital Post-its but, instead, the technology that's required to bind Post-its together into a convenient organizer. We can stop right there, buddy. Appointment-keeping should not be high-tech.

While I am deeply fond of the idea that someday I'll get neural implants that will allow me to port Google to my brain, I also think that high-tech approaches to studying the brain quite simply suck. For the past couple of weeks, newspapers have been buzzing about a study out of Dartmouth that demonstrated a connection between racial awareness and turmoil in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with attention.

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to look at electrical activity in the brains of white people shown images of black people's faces. Tiny electrical storms resulted when the subjects stared into black faces but not when they looked at those of white people. Possibly as a result of all this taxing neurological activity, whites who looked at black faces in the study subsequently performed poorly on cognitive tests. So far, no black people have been tested, nor have other racial groups.

Gareth Cook from the Boston Globe reported that researchers believed the spike in electrical activity could mean that subjects are racists. Or conversely, it might mean that they are incredibly politically correct and are struggling to figure out the appropriate way to respond to a black person while under observation in a university lab.

Why did we need to use high-tech, computerized brain-imaging machines to discover that race makes people in the United States freak out? Did we really need to use fMRI to find out that, as one of the researchers put it, "Somehow, we have to get past this awkward phase" in race relations? Nope, we could have used pen and paper to do this experiment. We don't need technology to tell us that racial issues create psychological discomfort and are distracting.

Why didn't the researchers at Dartmouth just invest in a really nice set of notebooks or word processing programs and do some good, old-fashioned investigative sociology? How far do you think they would have had to walk into the New Hampshire countryside before encountering racism and white guilt in the wild? Ever heard of fricking fieldwork, you doorknobs? Maybe we should analyze social phenomena like racism using social analysis. Just a thought.

There are, however, some things whose analog variants should be trashed right now in favor of their digital ones. I can think of no better example than the postal system. Now that email is available to everyone (even people without computers can use free or low-cost ones at the library, at school or in cafes), why do we still need the post office?

As I discovered after a particularly horrifying encounter with the bulk mail bureaucracy, the post office is possibly the last bastion of feudalism in the developed world. Middle mangers rule their realms with tyrannical inefficiency, and woe betide the supplicant who dares question the many intricate forms of obeisance necessary to get physical objects sent from one geographical location to another.

Email requires no face-to-face encounters with scary people wielding box cutters. It is sent as instantaneously as possible, and it doesn't require you to sift through those increasingly anachronistic piles of foldy paper.

Plus, one of the greatest benefits of email--and a purely psychological one that will probably at some point be the focus of a stupid fMRI study--is that you are almost always sure where you stand with people you've emailed. Theoretically, the object of your correspondence can reply to you within a fairly limited period. Waiting two or three days or even a week to reply to an email sends an additional message on top of the text itself. It says, "I spent a week agonizing over this reply," or "You weren't worth responding to right away, so I shoved this aside for six days while I did more important things like wax the roof and cut my toenails."

Shit, maybe we should use a fMRI to figure out what email is doing to our brains. OK, I take it all back. Except the parts about Post-it notes and racism.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) probably needs therapy to work through her obsessions with how long it takes for people to respond to email.

Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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From the December 4-10, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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