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The Internet Isn't Rotting Your Brain — It's the Fullest Expression of Humanity

Go fearlessly into the Internet, but not blindly, says Virginia Heffernan – each corner of digital culture has its best practices. Not learning them is a disrespect.

Virginia Heffernan: The book does have some pragmatic and concrete suggestions. The first is stop hating ourselves for participating in digital culture. It's a real drag on our health and our immune system to spend our time on our phones or on our laptops or in other kinds of digital space using GPS technology thinking that there's something wrong with us for doing it. So that's the first thing that the book really asks people to do it just for an hour or two imagine the Internet is not a neurotoxin, it's not causing brain damage. It's an opportunity and an opportunity to use wholeheartedly, to use with confidence, to use with dignity, to use with all of your humanity. Now each of the forms has its own constraints. So if you're using text online to show up to consumers or to meet your friends then there are certain considerations and they're the considerations that poets have made sense of.

One of the most beautiful things I've ever heard said about how poets construct their sentences, their phrases, their lines is that - this is Helen Vendler the great critic of poetry. She says that every moment after every word any word can follow it next. So in the gap between two words you give the impression or the illusion that any word is possible. And the reader should feel just a slight, slight micron intake of breath like what could come next. So for companies showing up online, surprise, delight. How do you use that little space between words so that you don't – say you are leveraging a cliché like at the end of the day, maybe it's at the end of the millennium, maybe it's a different word there other than day.

When you think of beautiful slogans that capture something in our minds, they're surprising; they're delightful. They're I didn't expect it to go in that direction. And the same is true for Twitter. When you look at political candidates that have used Twitter well, like I must say Donald Trump, you don't know what he's going to say next. He has us in suspense all the time and that suspense is very important. I think brands have had a hard time building suspense because it's nerve-racking a little bit to take those kinds of risks, but it's necessary. As for images, learn the vernacular of a place like Instagram. It's not easy. I just tried the other night to learn the idiom of Twitch, to learn to read a thread as they say on Twitch and most of the vocabulary was entirely new to me. I didn't realize that grill [ph] is a girl, that when Melania Trump was described as salt that that was an illusion to an Angelina Jolie movie from 2010. That this kind of shorthand you don't look at that kind of shorthanded say on Instagram, the grammar of Instagram whether you use filters or not, the move to no filter away from the very highly aestheticized use of the latter filters. That's something that brands should know and are required to know. The third form I talk about is design. So one of the interesting hallmarks of design online is that the expedient design on the World Wide Web, that junkie non-design that you see on some of the early services like Yahoo and AOL that is really determined to read the reader, so while you're involved in it it's collecting data from you and it's trying like a souk, like an open market to kind of pick your pocket at every turn and you have to be on guard against it. That's an experience that's some Internet users like or at least tolerate in order to try to get the resources at those sites.

Then you look at the use of apps that have resurrected Japanese design, Italian design, Scandinavian design and some of the troupes of the 20th century that were associated with higher art. So recognizing that split is very, very important and recognizing also that there's an elitist and a populist split. You spend all your time on apps then you have no exposure to the vocabulary that generated the campaign of Donald Trump or that makes Red Bull such a compelling brand. You don't touch the id of people; you live entirely on these beautiful removed apps and you're missing something from the human experience. So figuring out a way with designed to show up online and maybe show up on mobile is a challenge for brands and for new businesses.

The other parts of the book treat music, treat video, which is obviously an extremely compelling part of the Internet partly because video dis graphed so well onto ads, but YouTube has a grammar almost like nothing else. It can be very opaque. It needs to be studied. You need digital natives or at least people who are like really emotionally drawn to YouTube and Snapchat in order to use it properly and with proper respect for how it works. It's extraordinary to me that a campaign will drop into a form out of nowhere, or you see brands doing this on Twitter all the time, without any understanding of how hash tags work or tagging works. And then at last music. Music is a world of its own and it's probably worth taking a look at the chapter on music at least to understand all the ups and downs of it, but typically digital visual culture and text culture is silent. We don't like unwanted sound on the Internet. We don't like unwanted sound from our phones. We're always being asked to silence them and so music has to be a powerful experience and also a live experience.

Companies that have embraced the return of live culture in the form of conferences, concerts, are doing well; they're embracing the future, that maker culture, foodism, all those things that can't be digitized that like a live concert are the future. The pushback on the Internet is the future.

Virginia Heffernan has been hooked on the Internet since she first heard the sour-lemon screechy tones of dial-up back in 1979, and believes it to be among mankind’s great masterpieces. The journalist and author has watched digital culture evolve into a fully-fledged civilization that is richly detailed, with corners and compartments that are as different as all the world’s tribes. Heffernan doesn’t see the Internet as a "neurotoxin" and she urges people to stop feeling guilty about using apps and websites, as if they’re a cheat from real-world living; a way to waste time but not to spend it. She cares not whether people go online for business or leisure, only that they dive in wholeheartedly, use it with confidence and learn the lingo, style, and constraints of whatever platform they choose to be a part of. Business must be brave; individuals even braver. Don’t just mill around the sanitized designs of apps like Instagram and e-commerce sites, she says, wade in further to websites and platforms that feel foreign to experience the full humanity of a community that is different from you – but will adopt you if you drop the right syntax. Don’t half-ass it; become a digital native. Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.


Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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