Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for April 2009

Scientists: Information overload may be damaging our ability to feel

Everyone knows information overload can hurt your quality of life, but now a group of scientists claims that an endless stream of news and information can cause emotional damage and reduce our ability to feel.

The study used brain scans to measure the level of empathy produced when people were exposed to real-life stories of pain or triumph. CNN’s DigitalBiz gave a preview of the study in an April 14 article at CNN.com. The report is set to be published next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.

Scans showed that while human beings are quick to respond to signs of physical pain in others, feeling admiration or compassion takes longer.

Human beings need time to feel empathy and judge the morality of things they read about, but the frantic pace of modern life is interrupting that process, moving our attention on to the next news alert or Twitter update before we’ve had time to judge the worth of what we’ve seen.

We may read about the kindness of a volunteer or the plight of a disaster victim, but the details of these events come and go so fast, we don’t have time to feel admiration or empathy anymore.

This leads to a kind of “empathy fatigue.” We see so much violence and suffering we become indifferent to it. I think this criticism applies more to television than it does to the Internet, but the fundamental problem is the same.

And it’s not just a problem with technology. One of my favorite essays is Bertrand Russell’s “In Praise of Idleness.” What Russell said in 1932 is even more true to today.

Russell said, “I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.”

He relates the story of a traveler in Naples who saw 12 beggars lying in the sun and offered them a lira. Eleven of them jumped up to claim it and he gave it to the 12th.

The point is not to pat ourselves on the back for how productive we are, but to consider how even our recreation time has been turned into a kind of work.

I remember my own love/hate relationship with World of Warcraft, when logging onto the game started to feel like clocking in for my second job.

A lot of people surf the Internet in their spare time, but can you really call that relaxing? Taken all together, my time spent on the Internet has done more to disturb me and rile me up than it has helped to calm me down.

When Russell praises idleness, he’s not praising time spent surfing the Web or watching television. He’s praising a very old kind of idleness, a kind we don’t really have anymore – a state of mind associated with lemonade, porch swings and the composition of poetry.

Americans may have more time “off” in the modern world, but we don’t really have time to think.

It’s the thinking that matters – the lost art of contemplation, when we take time to process all these competing inputs and figure out what they mean. We experience more news than ever, but we seem to be feeling it less.

We’re bombarded with alerts, blogs, instant messages, ringing phones and the incessant demands of social networks, all clamoring for our attention. But when everything is important, nothing is.

Up until now, the great challenge of the Internet was to bring us information, to small groups and the larger world in new and exciting ways.

Now that we’re connected, the next challenge will be a challenge of editing and filtering – a challenge of scheduling, organizing and managing the flow. I think the next great technology breakthrough will be a tool for managing these inputs and presenting them to us at a pace we can keep up with.

Let’s say you just want to follow the activities of one person. The average Internet “citizen” has a blog, a Facebook, a Myspace, an email and a Twitter account.

All of these services allow people to post updates about their lives. But how do we know which one will be used for what purpose? With 20 different options to choose from, where should I share this cool weather photo I just took?

Even if we find the perfect tool, we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. Social networks have introduced the concept of “ranking” friends. I may have a hundred friends on Facebook, but I can’t keep up with a hundred status updates each day. And what about the Twitterholics who send a message every 30 minutes?

How do I separate the idle chatter from the sources I need for work?

Ultimately, we have to remember that technology is here to serve us. The most important decision to make about television, cell phones and web services may be when to turn them off.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 17, 2009 at 18:22

Posted in Columns

Worried about Internet piracy? Make it easy for consumers to do the right thing

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about online piracy in this space, reminding people about legal alternatives that are easy to find, easy to use and in many cases, free.

Half a dozen people posted pro-piracy comments on my article assuring me that piracy is not only easy and fun, it can whiten your teeth and freshen your breath while you download.

The value of pirated media varies according to your level of technical skill and your tolerance for risk, but I stand by my contention that for the average person, pirated media is more “expensive” than legal media, if you consider the cost of convenience and time.

The cost of piracy weighed heavily on my mind last week, when News Corp announced the termination of entertainment blogger Roger Friedman. Friedman reviewed a pirated pre-release copy of “Wolverine.”

Studio execs said, “This behavior is reprehensible and we condemn this act categorically — whether the review is good or bad.”

I can’t imagine why anyone would want to watch a print of “Wolverine” with no special effects. Sounds like trying to eat a Chee-To before they put the cheese on it.

But the April 5 report from Variety says Fox stands to lose millions from the premature release as X-Men fans scratch their “Wolverine” itch and decide that the film isn’t worth $12 bucks in a theater.

Legal consequences aside, piracy is a moral issue and a growing number of Internet libertarians argue that there’s nothing wrong with it. The Net is full of complex philosophical debates about the nature of theft and the limits of intellectual property.

Some folks argue that digital piracy does not count as theft because nothing is physically stolen. If I copy a movie that you bought, you still have the movie. I didn’t deprive you of your DVD when I made a copy so who is the true victim here?

It’s hard to summon sympathy for movie studios and organizations like the RIAA, but no matter how clever these arguments are, I can’t get past the notion that artists deserve to be paid for their work.

I’d like to see a world with fewer middlemen, where artists are paid directly by the people who consume their work, but you can’t get around the fact that distribution is a valuable service. Physical media costs money, trucks and fuel cost money, store displays and marketing efforts cost money and the Internet can’t replace it all.

Even Internet bandwidth costs money. Digital distribution may be many times cheaper than physical delivery, but it’s not free. A lot of people would agree that artists deserve to be compensated, but all these people in the middle deserve to be compensated, too.

The best thing about piracy is that it’s forced companies to provide legal download options that give customers what they want at a price they’re willing to pay.

Hulu is my favorite example. The networks may be 10 years late to the party, but they finally got it right. In fact, with my budget and my schedule, Hulu has become my primary platform for consuming television.

Current television programs made available on demand with limited advertising – it’s a winning formula, if the networks are smart enough to keep it. I find that Hulu advertising is more valuable and less intrusive than standard television commercials. The combination of short video spots and persistent banner ads keep the brand on your mind without overwhelming you.

And the archive of old shows lets networks monetize properties long after they’re taken off the air.

iTunes is another example. At the price point of .99 cents, Apple has made legal digital music better, faster and infinitely more convenient than the illegal alternatives.

So when my libertarian friends lecture me about the evils of copyright law, I find myself drifting back to this middle ground. Keep digital media simple, cheap and legal and the customers will come.

Leverage the power of the Internet to cut your distribution costs, pay for bandwidth with smart, useful advertising and make it easy for consumers to do the right thing.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 10, 2009 at 18:24

Posted in Columns

Carebear confessions: Thrills, heartache await online tournament players

Think of a world before the Internet; when you had to leave the house or make a phone call to put someone in a state of incoherent rage.

In the old days you had to cause an accident, steal a parking space or cut somebody off on the freeway to make them want to kill you. These days, you can inspire outrage and thoughts of murder without even leaving your chair.

The Internet is a nested collection of new frontiers, and each new activity offers a new way to ruin someone’s day.

It’s easy to find a dance partner if you’re willing to fight about politics or religion. Just find an online forum and let your inner child loose.

Forums are enough for most of us, but if you really want to provoke people you can go for extra credit in the world of online games. There’s nothing quite like the thrill, or the level of anger that can be achieved, in player vs. player combat.

In the old days, arcade games pitted you against the machine. But even the best computer opponent can eventually be conquered by a human player.

Human opponents are much harder to deal with, and now that we have the Internet, they are much easier to find. The purest form of player vs. player combat can be found in games like “Doom,” “Quake,” “Counter-Strike” and “Half Life.”

You can customize your avatar and select equipment to match your style, but each player starts with the same basic chance of success. Games like this are a true test of skill. You might get frustrated when opponents gang up on you or use cheap tactics to win, but those losses don’t really cost you anything.

Just hit the reset button and start again.

But what if you couldn’t? What if your equipment didn’t respawn out of thin air every time you got killed? What if every simulated “death” cost you hours of tedious work?

That was the world of online role playing in 1997. The first graphical MMO (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) was “Ultima Online,” created by Origin.

I bought “Ultima Online” immediately after launch and experienced all the early bugs. But the worst aspects of the game weren’t bugs. They were put there on purpose by a team of programmers who (I can only assume) enjoyed beating up geeks in high school and fed like vampires off the power of human suffering.

“Ultima Online” was a uniquely “realistic” simulation of a fantasy world. The early game allowed you to take up hunting, farming, tailoring, cooking, leatherworking and a host of other professions using objects that looked like real world tools.

Here’s how most characters started life in “Ultima Online.” First, you pick a template based on characters from high fantasy. You could be a warrior, a wizard, a thief or pick from a dozen other fantasy stereotypes.

You’d pick your starting skills, get familiar with your newbie equipment and hit the road, ready to tame the wilderness with steel and magic. You’d emerge from the safety of a major city …

… and immediately get jumped by a pack of bandits controlled by other players. The bandits would hit you with four or five precisely timed spells, drain your life to zero and stand over your cartoon corpse. Then they would laugh at you and take your stuff, leaving you naked, cold and dead.

You’d run back to town for a free resurrection and realize you had no money, no equipment and no way to earn anything.

So you delete that character and start again. But this time you decide to play it smart. You start with a crafting profession and earn some money before venturing into the big bad world.

You start a brand new tailor/swordsman, buy a bolt of cloth with your newbie gold and spend the next four hours making cartoon hats. You make 20 hats, sell them to the vendor and earn enough to make 20 more. The cycle continues, your skill increases and after four or five hours of tedious clicking, you finally have enough to buy a suit of armor.

You buy the best equipment you can and head for the wilderness … where you are jumped by the same five bandits who killed you the first time. They hit you with five simultaneous spells and you’re dead again. If you’re playing on dialup, you were probably dead before you had time to react.

The bandits say, “Hey, this guy actually had stuff!” and you get to watch while they strip your corpse and distribute your armor between them.

In 1997 this was called “entertainment” and companies could actually make money doing it to people.

Origin ended up fixing most of these problems by 2000, but in the early days, “Ultima Online” was like an interactive “Lord of the Flies.” These days, player vs. player combat is planned and consensual and losing doesn’t really cost you anything.

Players who lose a fight in “World of Warcraft” don’t lose money or equipment and it’s relatively hard to die by accident. PvP combat is restricted to special servers and to people who deliberately make themselves eligible for it.

But there’s one popular game that still does things the old-fashioned way. It’s called “Eve Online,” a sprawling space simulation that allows players to buy spaceships and forge realistic careers as miners, warriors and captains of industry.

“Eve Online” lets you start your career in protected zones, but the real money (and the real fun) are waiting in no man’s land – waiting in areas controlled by pirates and mercenary corporations.

“Eve Online” believes in real challenge, real combat and real loss. Just like in the early days of “Ultima Online” you build up your starting money in the safe zones and take your chances in the shark tank.

Successful “Eve” players have to band together to achieve any kind of success, selling their souls (or at least their play time) to player controlled corporations that provide starting money and rudimentary protection for new players.

This element of real world cooperation makes “Eve” more challenging, and more rewarding, than other games of this kind. Once a year these player organizations meet on the field of battle to compete in a grand tournament, and unlike most video game events, the losses suffered in this tournament represent real investments of time and energy.

It costs a tremendous amount of in-game money to finance participation in these tournaments and if your fleet is destroyed, there’s no friendly Game Master waiting to give it back.

That means a tournament victory is as much a testament to financial management and organizational skill as it is a measure of real combat prowess.

This element of real world risk adds a level of drama to “Eve” that no mere dungeon raid can match. The monetary units may be fictional, but the time invested is very real. The ships lost in tournaments can represent hundreds of hours of collective play time.

So remember “Eve” and “Ultima” next time somebody ganks you in “World of Warcraft” or gets the drop on you in “Call of Duty.” This play style is not for everybody, but I’ve seen enough PvP to respect it. I may be a “carebear” who spends his time running missions in safe zones but the latest round of tournament videos were so cool, I’m considering a walk on the wild side.

Written by Michael B. Duff

April 3, 2009 at 18:27

Posted in Columns, Games