French electricity pylons. Photo: Getty
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Shock horror: people will take serious pain over phoneless boredom

Left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one, boredom made the electric-shock machine irresistible.

It is perhaps the most terrifying discovery of the year so far: people would rather give themselves unpleasant electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts. Roughly 400 undergraduate students at the University of Virginia were first given a shock so powerful that three-quarters of them said they would pay not to experience it a second time. Then they were left alone in a sparsely furnished room for 15 minutes, stripped of all electronic distractions but one. The boredom made the electric shock machine irresistible.

It’s tempting to use this finding to support suspicions that digital technologies are creating a generation of idiots but we don’t have to. We know, for instance, that the experience of pain releases a surge of feel-good, pain-relieving chemicals into our bloodstream. This endorphin rush is one of the reasons that eating a painfully hot curry can be pleasurable.

We also know that our body’s relationship with electricity is more than skin-deep. Every biological cell is a tiny battery, with charges flowing in and out. Map your whole body and you’ll find an intricate web of electrical fields that are vital to maintaining your health. That is why we can accelerate or halt the process of wound-healing by applying voltages across breaks in the skin. Get the voltage and the orientation of the electric field right and the cells that carry out repairs are guided to the affected area more efficiently.

Looking deeper in the body, we are finding that electric currents could offer a path to curing some diseases. A number of conditions, including cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, are associated with the disrupted flow of electricity across cell walls. Researchers are working on microelectronic devices that will address these disruptions by pushing just a few charges into or out of cells. No one believes that it will be easy to develop such innovations but there are strong incentives in place for those who want to try.

Last year, the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline announced a $1m reward for the first researchers to create a truly useful implantable “electroceutical” device, which can exchange electrical signals with the body. This month, the US National Institutes of Health announced $248m of new funding for research into mapping the body’s electrical fields and finding ways to tap into their health-care potential.

Perhaps the most advanced programmes are studies of how electricity can affect the brain’s performance. Tests carried out by US military researchers have shown that feeding a small current through the skull can provoke enormous gains in focus. Transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) has applications in improving snipers’ performance – it doubles the speed with which they spot a threat – but could be applied much more widely if proved to be safe and effective. Research has shown that it could accelerate learning and even improve the efficiency with which people walk.

No one is yet quite sure how TDCS works but the tiny current seems to excite neurons, preparing them to fire more quickly and in a more co-ordinated fashion. So let’s assume, for the sake of maintaining our species’ dignity, that the University of Virginia students were exploring hidden paths to self-improvement. That will make us feel better than facing up to the attention-deficit disaster.

Michael Brooks’s “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” is published by Profile (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.