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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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The internet makes writing as innovative as speech

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms.

Many articles on how the internet has changed language are like linguistic versions of the old Innovations catalogue, showcasing the latest strange and exciting products of our brave new digital culture: new words (“rickroll”); new uses of existing words (“trend” as a verb); abbreviations (smh, or “shaking my head”); and graphic devices (such as the much-hyped “new language” of emojis). Yet these formal innovations are merely surface (and in most cases ephemeral) manifestations of a deeper change a change in our relationship with the written word.

I first started to think about this at some point during the Noughties, after I noticed the odd behaviour of a friend’s teenage daughter. She was watching TV, alone and in silence, while her thumbs moved rapidly over the keys of her mobile phone. My friend explained that she was chatting with a classmate: they weren’t in the same physical space, but they were watching the same programme, and discussing it in a continuous exchange of text messages. What I found strange wasn’t the activity itself. As a teenage girl in the 1970s, I, too, was capable of chatting on the phone for hours to someone I’d spent all day with at school. The strange part was the medium: not spoken language, but written text.

In 1997, research conducted for British Telecom found that face-to-face speech accounted for 86 per cent of the average Briton’s communications, and telephone speech for 12 per cent. Outside education and the (white-collar or professional) workplace, most adults did little writing. Two decades later, it’s probably still true that most of us talk more than we write. But there’s no doubt we are making more use of writing, because so many of us now use it in our social interactions. We text, we tweet, we message, we Facebook; we have intense conversations and meaningful relationships with people we’ve never spoken to.

Writing was not designed to serve this purpose. Its original function was to store information in a form that did not depend on memory for its transmission and preservation. It acquired other functions, of the social kind, among others; but even in the days when “snail mail” was less snail-like (in large cities in the early 1900s there were five postal deliveries a day), “conversations” conducted by letter or postcard fell far short of the rapid back-and-forth that ­today’s technology makes possible.

When a medium acquires new functions, it will need to be adapted by means of creating new forms. Many online innovations are motivated by the need to make written language do a better job of two things in particular: communicating tone, and expressing individual or group identity. The rich resources speech offers for these purposes (such as accent, intonation, voice quality and, in face-to-face contexts, body language) are not reproducible in text-based communication. But users of digital media have found ways to exploit the resources that are specific to text, such as spelling, punctuation, font and spacing.

The creative use of textual resources started early on, with conventions such as capital letters to indicate shouting and the addition of smiley-face emoticons (the ancestors of emojis) to signal humorous or sarcastic intent, but over time it has become more nuanced and differentiated. To those in the know, a certain respelling (as in “smol” for “small”) or the omission of standard punctuation (such as the full stop at the end of a message) can say as much about the writer’s place in the virtual world as her accent would say about her location in the real one.

These newer conventions have gained traction in part because of the way the internet has developed. As older readers may recall, the internet was once conceptualised as an “information superhighway”, a vast and instantly accessible repository of useful stuff. But the highway was a one-way street: its users were imagined as consumers rather than producers. Web 2.0 changed that. Writers no longer needed permission to publish: they could start a blog, or write fan fiction, without having to get past the established gatekeepers, editors and publishers. And this also freed them to deviate from the linguistic norms that were strictly enforced in print – to experiment or play with grammar, spelling and punctuation.

Inevitably, this has prompted complaints that new digital media have caused literacy standards to plummet. That is wide of the mark: it’s not that standards have fallen, it’s more that in the past we rarely saw writing in the public domain that hadn’t been edited to meet certain standards. In the past, almost all linguistic innovation (the main exception being formal or technical vocabulary) originated in speech and appeared in print much later. But now we are seeing traffic in the opposite direction.

Might all this be a passing phase? It has been suggested that as the technology improves, many text-based forms of online communication will revert to their more “natural” medium: speech. In some cases this seems plausible (in a few it’s already happening). But there are reasons to think that speech will not supplant text in all the new domains that writing has conquered.

Consider my friend’s daughter and her classmate, who chose to text when they could have used their phones to talk. This choice reflected their desire for privacy: your mother can’t listen to a text-based conversation. Or consider the use of texting to perform what politeness theorists call “face-threatening acts”, such as sacking an employee or ending an intimate relationship. This used to be seen as insensitive, but my university students now tell me they prefer it – again, because a text is read in private. Your reaction to being dumped will not be witnessed by the dumper: it allows you to retain your dignity, and gives you time to craft your reply.

Students also tell me that they rarely speak on the phone to anyone other than their parents without prearranging it. They see unsolicited voice calls as an imposition; text-based communication is preferable (even if it’s less efficient) because it doesn’t demand the recipient’s immediate and undivided attention. Their guiding principle seems to be: “I communicate with whom I want, when I want, and I respect others’ right to do the same.”

I’ll confess to finding this new etiquette off-putting: it seems ungenerous, unspontaneous and self-centred. But I can also see how it might help people cope with the overwhelming and intrusive demands of a world where you’re “always on”. (In her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, Naomi Baron calls it “volume control”, a way of turning down the incessant noise.) As with the other new practices I’ve mentioned, it’s a strategic adaptation, exploiting the inbuilt capabilities of technology, but in ways that owe more to our own desires and needs than to the conscious intentions of its designers. Or, to put it another way (and forgive me if I adapt a National Rifle Association slogan): technologies don’t change language, people do.

Deborah Cameron is Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Worcester College

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times