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'Brain Bugs': Cognitive Flaws That 'Shape Our Lives'
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross, who has the
Our guest, neuroscientist Dean Buonomano, says the human brain is a pretty
amazing piece of technology: 90 billion neurons connected by 100 trillion
synapses. But he says while it's capable of extraordinary things, like
analyzing the features of a human face for instant recognition or doing the
calculations necessary to catch a fly ball on the run, it can be pretty dumb in
We're not naturally good at quantitative thinking, for example, Buonomano says
many of these weaknesses are a product of our evolution. Our ancestors needed
to recognize a dangerous animal quickly but didn't need to know whether there
were 12 or 13 of them.
Buonomano's new book looks at some of the ways our brains' peculiar adaptations
affect our behavior in a world very different from that of our prehistoric
ancestors. He thinks they help explain why we invent false memories, fall prey
to advertising tricks and make irrational financial decisions. His book is
called "Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives."
Well, Dean Buonomano, welcome to FRESH AIR. You make the point in this book
that our brains evolved to adapt to a time that's very, very different from the
days that we live in, and therefore in some respects our brains don't function
as well as we'd like for modern times. Just give us a simple example.
Mr. DEAN BUONOMANO (Author, "Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our
Lives"): Well, the basic point here is precisely as you said, that we evolved
for a different place, one in which we no longer live in. Perhaps I could give
an example from another animal, and that would be a skunk, for example.
Skunks have a very powerful defense mechanism, in which when they're attacked,
they turn around, lift their tails and spray, and this has suited them well
Today, however, that's not that good of an idea if they're facing an oncoming
car because they didn't evolve to deal with that circumstance. And humans
suffered some of the same consequences of living in a time and place we didn't
evolve to live in.
One example is in relationship to numerical calculations, numbers.
Evolutionarily speaking, of course there wasn't much pressure to manipulate
numbers, to calculate logarithms.
DAVIES: Now, you say that our brains evolved in an era when there wasn't much
need for, you know, mathematical computation, for a sharp sense of quantitative
thinking. Why? Give us an example.
Mr. BUONOMANO: The brain is very good at pattern recognition. And the fact that
we currently use numbers in order to quantify anything from baseball scores or
our salaries, there wasn't many situations in which that was required in the
past. People weren't negotiating. They weren't making transactions.
They were judging whether something was dangerous or not. There wasn't a need
or the ability to manipulate symbols. So I think in the case of numerical
calculations, there wasn't that many circumstances in which animals will
benefit from manipulating numbers, from doing long division and so forth.
But even if there had been pressure, the building blocks of the brain probably
weren't very well-suited for that function.
DAVIES: You note that we don't have a sense of what numbers really mean
intuitively. We don't have a sense of fourness or fiveness in the same way that
we can look at a friend and gather a lot of information about, you know, the
shape of their eyes and nose and smile and immediately kind of integrate this
and recognize a face.
And you say this is related to the associative architecture of the brain.
Explain what that means.
Mr. BUONOMANO: When we recognize a pattern, and I look at your face, part of
the task is to grasp the whole from the sum of the parts. And because neurons
are very social, and they're communicating with our neurons near and far, that
allows them to communicate with each other and provide a picture of the whole
and provide a context.
So perhaps it's a bit easier to understand in distinguishing the brain's
ability to pick up context and the computer's ability to pick up context.
If you hear somebody say Johnny fell off the wagon, if you hear that sentence
in a playground or in the bar, it means very, very different things, yet your
ability to pick out those different meanings is totally automatic because your
visual system is communicating with your language centers. Your visual system
is providing the context precisely because neurons are well-suited to share
that information, unlike the transistors on the computer.
DAVIES: And I was fascinated in the explanation that you give of how this
association of information works in the brain. There are billions of neurons,
Mr. BUONOMANO: Absolutely.
DAVIES: And neurons connect to other neurons through these connections called
synapses and that when we have a concept, this is a node which consists of
connections among many, many neurons.
And like for example, my son told me about a terrific new ice cream when we
went on vacation recently, I'd never known it, chocolate pretzel ice cream. And
so probably now in my brain - stop me if I'm making an idiot of myself or
getting this wrong - but there's this node now for chocolate pretzel ice cream
in which it connects a lot of neurons which already exist.
I already knew about chocolate. I already knew about pretzel, but now this is
associated with chocolate with pretzel with terrific memories and tastes in my
mind and chocolate fudge and vanilla. And when I think about this, these
neurons, the connections between these neurons fire, and the connections is
thereby strengthened, and just by talking to you now about it, these
connections among these neurons that amount to chocolate pretzel ice cream are
DAVIES: So we have these associations all over the brain, right?
Mr. BUONOMANO: Correct, and so this is a good example. So you previously had
some group of neurons in your brain representing chocolate and others
representing pretzel. And perhaps you had no reason to link those in the past.
And now that your son has pointed out this delicious new delicacy, maybe you
So the brain somehow manages to connect concepts that occur together, and
typically this is referred to in the little axiom: Neurons that fire together
So if you hear that chocolate and pretzels make a good ice cream, and you now
discuss that, you share that with your friends, those neurons are being
activated at more or less the same time, and somehow the notion is, is that the
neurons representing each one of those concepts comes to be connected to each
And that's how the brain stores information. So in the same way that websites
that share similar topics are linked to each other, concepts within our memory
that are somehow related to each other have links. The synapses between them
DAVIES: So let's talk a little bit about how that pattern of association and
connection affects our behavior. I mean, you have some interesting experiments
in the book that demonstrate this.
Mr. BUONOMANO: So can I give an example first in memory? So can I ask three
Mr. BUONOMANO: So the three questions are - they're not trick questions. I'm
just going to ask two of the questions, and just go ahead and answer, and the
third one is a free association. You're just going to answer the first thing
that pops into your head.
And the first question is: In what continent is Kenya?
Mr. BUONOMANO: What are the two opposing colors in the game of chess?
DAVIES: Black and white - I almost said red and white. That was - I'm a
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BUONOMANO: Fair enough. Think of any animal.
DAVIES: A zebra.
Mr. BUONOMANO: So here, many people will think of zebra. Of course not
everybody will think of zebra, but by priming your memory towards Africa and
black and white, I increased the likelihood people will think of zebra. So
that's because nodes, these groups of neurons representing Africa and black and
white, talk to each other. They contaminate each other's activity.
And as you said, this goes beyond what we're thinking. And it turns out that
this can also affect our behavior. And because there's always cross-talk going
on in the brain. And one of the examples from some investigators who were at
NYU at the time, they performed a study in which they asked the subjects to do
word puzzles, to make sentences with a lot of words that were biased towards
being very polite or nice or kind and another group that used words that were
biased towards being rude or impolite, impatient and so forth.
And the subjects in the study thought that that was the point of the study.
After they finished this task, they were told to go over and talk to one of the
assistants who was pretending to be on the phone. And the real measure was how
long they waited before they interrupted the ongoing phone conversation.
And it turns out that the people who did word puzzles that were more heavily
populated with rude words actually waited less to interrupt the ongoing
conversation than those who were doing word puzzles with polite words. So this
is sort of an example of behavioral priming in which the words have the ability
sometimes to influence our thoughts.
Many other studies shared the similar findings in that if I asked people - if
people are asked to think about the future, it turns out they lean
imperceptibly forward a bit. If they're asked to think about the past, they
lean imperceptibly backwards a bit because of the crosstalk that neurons
And even our memories are somehow linked to our emotions and to our actions and
our behaviors. The brain, unlike a computer, is not compartmentalized.
Everything is talking to everything else.
DAVIES: Just by thinking about the words, say, courtesy and patience might make
me a little more inclined to be courteous and patient in my conduct because
these nodes are firing, and the words are connected with behavior.
Mr. BUONOMANO: When you think of the future, we normally think about that as
forward, and forward is also associated with movement forward. So when you
think about the future, maybe some of the neurons involved with motor control,
because they've been linked in the past with movement forwards, are slightly
tickled and drive people's movement a bit forward.
Now, I want to make it clear that these are subtle effects.
DAVIES: Right, but it is fascinating, though. One of the other examples I loved
was that in some experiments, people were more inclined to describe someone's
personality as warm if they had been holding a warm cup of coffee as opposed to
a cold drink. Again, the association with warmth, it had connections.
I mean, a computer might think of warm as one discrete thing, but in our
brains, it can mean a lot of things. It can mean a pleasing personality, as
well as something which is hot to touch.
Mr. BUONOMANO: Absolutely.
DAVIES: We're speaking with neuroscientist Dean Buonomano. His new book is
called "Brain Bugs." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with neuroscientist Dean
Buonomano. He has a new book called "Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape
You have a fascinating discussion of memory and how it works or doesn't work so
well. A lot of us struggle with inadequate memory at times. First of all, give
us some examples of corrupted memory. And there were some cases here with, you
know, quite serious consequences.
Mr. BUONOMANO: One type of memory error that we make, a memory bug, is really a
product of the fact that in human memory, there's no distinct process or
distinction between storage and retrieval.
So when a computer or a DVD writes something down, it has one laser that's used
to store the memory, and it has another laser to retrieve the memory, and those
are very distinct processes.
Now, in human memory, the distinction between storage and retrieval is not very
clear, and this can have very dramatic consequences. So one of the cases I
discuss in the book was in the situation of eyewitness testimony, and here
there was a woman, her name is Jennifer Thompson(ph), who has actually written
a book about her experience.
And she had been raped, and during her ordeal, she had made a conscious effort
to try to memorize the face of her assailant. Later on that day, she identified
a person as her assailant in the police station's photo lineup, and eventually
that person was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison, and he ended
up spending 11 years in prison.
It later became clear that she did not identify the correct person. She
identified somebody who looked like him. And the reason this happened was
probably because she had a partial image, a partial memory, of her true
assailant. In looking at a series of pictures in which her true assailant was
not present, she merged, she overwrote part of the original memory.
Because the operation of storage and retrieval are not totally independent, the
act of retrieving a memory can also affect the storage.
DAVIES: So how is that related to the associative architecture of the brain the
way that a subsequent encounter or experience can actually edit a memory that
Mr. BUONOMANO: So this is - probably shouldn't be seen as directly related to
the associative architecture of the brain. This should be seen as a consequence
of the fact that memory is written down as we experience it. It's being
continuously updated. And the synapses that undergo changes in strength - so as
you alluded to earlier, one of the ways the brain writes does information is by
making new synapses, making new connections or strengthening new ones or
weakening old ones.
And that process uses these synapses that get strengthened, but the retrieval
also uses those same synapses. So that can strengthen that pathway.
And this can be very useful, for example, if every time you see your cousin,
and from - in six months intervals, he will look a bit different. You don't
have a perfect memory of him five years and then four years ago and then three
years ago. Your memory of him is always being updated every time you see him.
It's being adjusted. It's being fine-tuned. So that's a very valuable
characteristic of human memory because we update the dynamic images that we see
in the world.
But this was very bad in Jennifer Thompson's case in that she didn't have a
well-formed memory, and during the updating process, she apparently updated it
to a different individual altogether.
DAVIES: Let's talk about time. How are our perceptions of time shaped by our
Mr. BUONOMANO: When we're talking about time, it's very important to stress
that time is absolutely critical for everything we do and over many scales. And
it's well-illustrated by the conversation we're having right now in that we're
using each other's pauses to - in order to tell when you've finished your
question or when I can interrupt.
And a good example is for example if I say the sentence: He gave her cat food.
That will be interpreted differently if I say if I gave her cat food because
that difference in meaning there was primarily transmitted in the pause. So
your brain is implicitly paying - and automatically paying attention to this
and has some sort of timer that allows it to figure this out.
But when we think of the perception of time, most people think of the
subjective sense of time: How long have they been listening to this program,
how long are they stuck in traffic? And the brain seems to have multiple
different mechanisms, and that's one thing that we've learned about how the
brain tells time is that unlike the clocks on our wrist that can be used to
tell a few milliseconds or months and years, the brain has very fundamentally
different mechanisms for telling very short periods of time and very long
periods of time.
And that's a consequence of the evolutionary process, that it came up with
redundant solutions and different solutions depending upon the adaptive needs
of different animals.
And it turns out that we don't seem to have a very precise clock. Time is very
much distorted when we are anticipating what's about to happen, when we're
nervous, when we're stressed and when we have high-adrenaline moments. Our
internal clock is not that accurate.
DAVIES: Our ancestors grew up in a world in which they didn't think about the
future in the way that we do, right. I mean, nobody was preparing for their
SATs or college when they were living in caves. Did that affect our sense of
time in that are we more likely to focus on the immediate, the present, than to
Mr. BUONOMANO: Yes, the issue of long-term planning is a fascinating one, and
we do have a very strong immediate bias or immediate gratification bias. As you
said, primitive man probably wasn't planning for their SATs or their retirement
This makes sense of the context of other animals, that we inherited much of our
neural ware from. So this is typically exemplified if I give you a choice. You
have one option, which is to receive $100 now, or in a month from now, you'll
Here, most people choose the $100 now because that provides an immediate
reward, of sorts, although economists would argue that the rational choice
there is to wait the extra month for the $20.
Now this bias makes a lot of sense, of course, evolutionarily speaking. If I
offer you an apple now and two apples in a month from now, and you're hungry
now, it does not make any sense to wait the extra month because immediate
survival is always the priority, and we see this in both ourselves and our
DAVIES: Dean Buonomano is a professor in the Departments of Neurobiology and
Psychology and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. His new book is called
"Brain Bugs." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies,
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're speaking
with UCLA neuroscientist Dean Buonomano. He says our brains are adapted to a
prehistoric world very different from our own, for generating blind spots and
weaknesses that affect the way we think and behave. His book is called "Brain
Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives."
You have a chapter called "The Fear Factor." Has evolution conditioned us to
fear some threats more than others?
Dr. BUONOMANO: Yes. Our neuro-operating system, if you will, the set of rules
were endowed in our genes that provide instructions on how to build the brain,
what it should come preloaded with, the innate biases we should have, and most
animals have innate biases to fear predator with big sharp teeth and to fear
poisonous spiders and poisonous snakes. Because those innate fears increase
survival. And you don't want to have to learn to fear snakes because you might
not have a second chance. So we still carry that genetic baggage within our
It's safe to say that it's outdated. We currently live in a world in which in
the United States, probably few people a year die or suffer severe consequences
due to snake bites. But every year 44,000 people die of car accidents. So in
the same way that evolution did not prepare say skunks to cope with the dangers
of automobiles, evolution did not prepare humans to face the dangers of many of
the things that surround us in our modern life, including automobiles, or an
excess fluid for example of that we deal with problems due to obesity and too
much cholesterol are all things that now have very dramatic effects on our
lives, and we weren't prepared for those things by the evolutionary process.
DAVIES: Our ancestors would eat as much as they could as often as they could,
because they didn't know when the next meal would be there.
Dr. BUONOMANO: It's very important to get as much fat as you could.
DAVIES: Your book cites a lot of cases where we're pretty bad at decision-
making, and particularly in cases that involves relatively simple calculations
of what the most favorable options would be. Give us an example of one of those
and tell us what's going on.
Dr. BUONOMANO: A lots of our decisions are the product of two different systems
interacting within the brain. And very loosely speaking, you can think of one
of these as the automatic system, which is very unconscious and associative and
emotional; and people can think of this as intuition. And then we have the
reflective system, which is effortful, requires knowledge and careful
deliberation. And people can get a quick feel for these two systems in
operation with the following examples. The old trick question: what do cows
drink? The part of your brain that just thought of milk was the automatic
system. And then the reflective system comes in and says wait a minute. That's
wrong. The answer is water.
Similarly, if I asked: I'm going to throw four coins up in the air what's the
probability that two of them will be heads and two of them will be tail? Now,
part of the brain that's just thinking of well, it sounds like it should be 50
percent, because I said half the coins tails, half the coins heads. That's
again basically the automatic system. It would take the reflective system, some
serious reflection, to work out the math and come up with an answer of six-
Now, in most cases we reach happy balances between both of these systems. And
clearly, when we are understanding each other's speech and making rapid
decisions, the automatic system provides great balance as to what the proper
answer is. But when we need to engage our reflective system and ask questions,
such as the probability question that I just asked, sometimes we are misled
because we trust the automatic system too much and the reflective system
doesn't really get through in some situations. And this can lead us, in the
case for example, of the temporal discounting situation where I asked if you
want $100 today or $120 in the future. So the automatic system, which is biased
by immediate gratification, might get the edge in that situation.
DAVIES: Since you spent so much time studying and thinking about how the brain
works and how it's, our intuitive or automatic responses might not be the best
and we need to be more reflexive and rational, do you go around analyzing the
way you react to things?
Dr. BUONOMANO: Probably a bit too much. Yes. I do and I certainly have been
known to annoy the people around me, perhaps because I do that a bit too much.
But as far as our own brain bugs go, there's an abundance of them and I
certainly think that that is just one of the many that I tried to take into
account when I'm making decisions, particularly important decisions, of course.
DAVIES: Do you have a good retirement account?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Dr. BUONOMANO: I hope so.
DAVIES: Well, Dean Buonomano, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Dr. BUONOMANO: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
DAVIES: Dean Buonomano is a professor in the departments of neurobiology and
psychology and the Brain Research Institute at UCLA. His new book is called
"Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives."
Coming up, Brian Chen talks about living in a world of smartphones. His book is
called "Always On."
This is FRESH AIR.
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What It Means To Be 'Always On' A Smartphone
(Soundbite of music)
DAVE DAVIES, host:
iPhone sales in the United States are now over 100 million and counting. If
you're a shopaholic with an iPhone, you can scan barcodes of items in stores
and look for cheaper deals online. You can point the iPhone's camera at a
restaurant and get user reviews, and the gadget's uses are expanding
exponentially as programmers develop software for the App Store where there are
now over 400,000 programs available.
Our guest Brian Chen has written a book about what it means to have such a
versatile tool that instantly connects us to a world of data. He explores the
uses of the iPhone in education, medicine and law enforcement, and writes about
the power that ubiquitous iPhone use confers on its maker, Apple. And he
considers its impact on our thinking and social relations - relating the story
of a romance that dissolved, part, because woman he cared for didn't care to be
Brian Chen works for Wired.com, where he has a regular column on Apple. His
book is called "Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-
Brian Chen, welcome to FRESH AIR. You want to give us a couple of your favorite
examples of interesting or exotic applications?
Mr. BRIAN CHEN (Author, "Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-
Anytime-Anywhere Future - and Locked Us In"): Yeah, one of my personal favorite
applications is DropBox. And DropBox works as this Web connected folder. So you
can hop on any computer and you can put some files in this folder, like you
could put your music, your photos, your movies. And I could hop on my iPhone
and open the DropBox application there, and all my files are right there. So
it's sort of having a magic pocket that you carry with you everywhere you go.
Another cool example is something called Uber. Uber is pretty significant
because it hails black limos that are just driving around the city and they
know where people are likely to hail in Uber, because they've used a lot of
statistical math, crazy algorithms to predict where they're likely going to be
hailed. This is basically a piece of computer science that is solving this
decades-old problem of the lack of cab supply in every city.
DAVIES: All right. Now apart from the fun stuff like games or being able to
scan a barcode in a grocery store with your iPhone, you talk about some
applications which might fundamentally alter some of the important occupations,
some of the ways we relate to each other. And you write about what Abilene
Christian University in Texas has done with iPhones. Tell us about that.
Mr. CHEN: Right. So, Abilene Christian University has a really interesting
iPhone program where for about two years, I think, they've been handing out
free iPhones to every incoming freshman. And what they do is they integrate the
iPhone into the classroom curriculum. And they have teachers get in front of
the classroom, and instead of lecturing students and saying, hey, open your
textbook and go to page 96, the teacher is acting as a guide and saying, OK, so
here's the topic we're going to discuss today. Take out your iPhones and go
ahead and search on the Web or search Wikipedia and let's have a conversation
about where we want to take this discussion and look for good information on
how you can contribute to this.
And I think that's interesting, because students aren't going home anymore and
just flipping open textbooks. They're Googling everything. They're talking to
each other online about their assignments. And I think the challenge going
forward is not just being able to read information, because everybody already
has access to information. The challenge, more, is being able to distinguish
bad data from good data. And Abilene Christian is thinking forward and teaching
people how to do that, which is a very important skill because there's so much
bad information out there on the Web.
DAVIES: Right. I'm just going to read this little passage from your book.
Mr. CHEN: Sure.
DAVIES: Anything, anytime, anywhere transformed Abilene Christian University
into a massive data network that is swirling with information from both old and
young and old minds, connecting students and teachers in a more profound way
than ever before, because they're all using the same technology and software,
the digital extensions of their minds are completely linked together. To call
this a think tank would be imprecise. It's essentially an enormous think
engine, robustly engineered with quality data.
Boy, that's an inspiring vision.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DAVIES: But, you know, I'm a generation older and I remember the excitement of
being in a classroom where people were having a conversation and ideas are
arcing across the room. That seemed to me like learning, and I always did feel
like when a professor had taken a lot of material from a wide variety of
sources and organized it in a coherent way, I was getting something special. I
don't know, something - this to me sounds like a little gimmicky.
Mr. CHEN: I completely understand. I mean most people are still teaching
classes the way that you just described. I think, you know, at Abilene this is
just one program and it's just something they're still experimenting with.
DAVIES: OK. Let's talk about some other areas where you see iPhone and iPhone
applications as potentially transformative. Medicine, what are we seeing there?
Mr. CHEN: Personal health monitoring I think is going to be a pretty big thing
in the next few years. And something I mentioned in the book is a group of
researchers who are working on a digital contact lens that communicates with a
smartphone, potentially. So the contact lens takes information and transfers
it, wirelessly, to the smartphone. And what the contact lens is doing is it's
collecting information from the surface of your eye.
What's interesting about the eye is that the eye is like the little door into
the body. And you can collect information about, say, cholesterol or glucose
levels, blood pressure and transfer this information to the smartphone.
You have basically real-time health monitoring. And what they're thinking, what
scientists are thinking going forward, is that once you start getting sick
you're going to know that you're getting sick and you don't have to make funds
necessary trips to the doctor.
DAVIES: You're talking about a contact lens that you - that has electronics in
it that you insert in your eyes?
Mr. CHEN: Right. A digital contact lens with wireless transmitters that
transmits information to the smartphone application. This is still in
development and it's a little bit far away, I think. And they're currently
testing it on rabbits.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEN: But this gives a glimpse into what people are working on right now.
They're working on solutions to get this data more interwoven into our actual
bodies so that we could monitor our health.
DAVIES: How might law enforcement be changed by this technology?
Mr. CHEN: What some police officers are doing is they're testing this
application called Morris. Morris is an application that enables police
officers to scan fingerprints of suspects and also scan their eyeballs and
cross-reference that information with the database that they have back at the
And this is pretty remarkable when you consider that this entire process
usually takes a police officer about, you know, like maybe seven hours just to
book a suspect and run all the tests, you know, drive them to the station. But
now that they can do this on their smartphones, it could help them make a lot
more, I think, arrests that are accurate in the future. And there's only a few
stations testing this application right now and it costs $30,000. So it's
unlikely we're going to see it anytime soon like in every single police
officer's hands, but it's something that we're working on to reduce costs and
potentially streamline law enforcement a lot.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Brian Chen. He is a columnist for Wired.com and the
author of the new book "Always On."
Now a lot of the book talks about some of the amazing possibilities that this
technologies represent. But you also note that we're talking about technology,
hardware and software that are run by huge corporations - you know, Apple,
Google, you know, Verizon, AT&T. What concerns do you have that these
corporations will exercise that power in a way that presents challenges or
should concern us?
Mr. CHEN: The current concerns that I have is that there's so much going on
under the hood of these smartphones. These smartphones are made to run so
automatically so we don't need to take care of anything. We don't need to
customize applications, they kind of just go.
And while that's a very good benefit for us, we also have this lack of control
or this lack of knowledge or this lack of assurance that these people are using
our data in a responsible way. And by people I mean third-party companies that
make a lot of money off information. So besides companies like Google and AT&T
and Apple, I look at companies that are third-party software companies.
Like one example I use in the book is a company called EchoMetrix. EchoMetrix
is a company that sold some parental control software, so software for parents
to monitor what their children were doing with their computers. And it turned
out what was interesting was that not only was this parental control software,
this software was basically a data mining software utility for the company to
be able to spy on the children's chat conversations and instant messages to be
able to determine marketing trends. They were selling this information, this
children's information to marketing companies about say, you know, iPods are
more trendy than BlackBerrys. Or they were also able to predict the winner of
"American Idol," which is kind of challenging because the "American Idol"
voting system is so crazy.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEN: You can vote as many times as you want in that. And they actually
predicted that the underdog would win one year, it was a man named Chris Allen
DAVIES: And they did this because in effect embedded software was collecting
information from kids that nobody knew about and then they were using this
Mr. CHEN: And they were selling this information.
Mr. CHEN: So, of course, it's a - these are my concerns that a company is
saying they're doing something for you but they're also they're doing something
that they're not telling you about. And this is definitely a concern going
forward with the smartphones now that they have more powerful sensors that can
detect where you are but they're constantly transmitting and collecting
information. For example, the application Pandora is a music streaming
application and they were collecting information about where we were and
broadcasting it to a marketing company too. And they have no business doing
that. They're providing me a music streaming service.
So I think going forward, you know, privacy is something that we've thrown out
the window already. We've already given up on the modern textbook definition or
the dictionary definition of privacy, which is an area of seclusion, and the
new form of privacy is - I want to be able to know what these companies are
doing with my information. I want to be able to know that they're using my data
in a right way because, of course, we had to give them some information for
them to give us some personalized services. I mean is the exchange a fair
trade? Are they giving us the right services? Are they using the right
information to give us the right services?
And what was difficult about writing a book about technology is that you got a
moving target here. And a lot of predictions I made about privacy came true
after I turned in the manuscript actually, like say, you know, the iPhone
location tracking bug that caused a media furor just maybe two months ago. It
was basically a glitch inside the iPhone. It was collecting information about
where we've been for the past for the past year. It wasn't precisely where we
were but information about nearby cell phone towers and Wi-Fi access points
that enabled somebody, just anybody to triangulate where you've been for the
past year or so.
DAVIES: Right. And this information was stored essentially indefinitely in the
iPhone and didn't need to be, right?
Mr. CHEN: Yeah. Right.
MCCARTHY: Exactly. So that was an example of Apple. And I'm more concerned
about third-party companies living on the smartphone platforms. Like say, you
know, software maker is selling applications through the App Store. There are
400,000 apps right now and Apple is trying to enforce privacy rules and say,
you know, you can't share a person's information if you're not providing a
location service. But how can one company, a single point of control really
regulate 400,000 different applications out there? They've already missed a
few. And I think we need some new laws. We need some new privacy policies and
just some way to regulate what's happening right now because the laws are
completely out of date. We may need tracking computers that aren't geo-aware
and so forth.
DAVIES: Do you ever unplug completely? I mean for an evening, for a weekend,
for a week?
Mr. CHEN: Definitely. You know, the title of the book is "Always On" and I
think some people took it a little literally. And I didn't mean that people are
constantly on the Internet, because when we're asleep were obviously, you know,
we're not on the Internet. But we're just plugged into a global community and
we're just always going to be part of it once we plug in.
But I unplug all the time. I, you know, when I go to exercise that night I
don't bring my smartphone with me to the gym even though a lot of people do,
you know, they listen to music. But I try to get away from a screen. And the
weekends I'll say, you know, I'll go hiking and, of course, I have no cellular
access on the mountain to go to check my email, so I'm a pretty active person
still even though I spend the majority of my time plugged in. So definitely
it's a good idea that I get unplugged every now and then.
DAVIES: Well, Brian Chen, thanks so much.
Mr. CHEN: Hey, thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Brian Chen writes for Wired.com. His new book is called "Always On."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on a new literary thriller from a first-time
novelist, Alice LaPlante.
This is FRESH AIR.
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
'Turn Of Mind': The Haunted House Is In Your Head
DAVE DAVIES, host:
A new literary thriller by a first-time novelist has book critic Maureen
Corrigan happily thinking about the seemingly infinite variations on a tried
and true formula. The novel is called "Turn of Mind" and the writer is Alice
LaPlante. Here's Maureen's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Paranoia is the oxygen of a suspense story. Think of all
those great films - most of them made by Hitchcock - built around the premise
of a main character questioning his or her own gut instincts: "Suspicion,"
"Gaslight," "Shadow of a Doubt," "Rebecca." While it's always satisfying to see
that basic premise of self-doubt in suspense endlessly resurrected, it's
downright spine-tingling to encounter the work of a new writer who's managed to
ring brilliant changes on that classic formula.
"Turn of Mind" is a debut novel by Alice LaPlante billed as a literary
thriller. That it sure is. The main character here is Dr. Jennifer White. She's
64 years old and retired from her practice as an orthopedic surgeon in Chicago.
Her old friend down the block, a woman named Amanda with whom she's shared good
times as well as a lot of emotional friction, has just been found dead in her
house, murdered. What's especially gruesome about Amanda's murder is the fact
that four of her fingers were surgically removed after she was killed. Did I
mention that Dr. Jennifer White's specialty as a surgeon was hands? And that
the two women were heard arguing the night of the murder? The solution to this
crime should be simple to grasp, so to speak, except for one problem. Dr. White
has been diagnosed with dementia. She simply can't remember whether or not she
murdered her friend. Most days she doesn't even remember that her friend is
This is a can't fail premise that any moderately competent suspense writer
could spin an entertaining novel out of. But what bumps "Turn of Mind" up into
the exalted Daphne du Maurier/Ruth Rendell category of literary thriller is
LaPlante's fearless and compassionate investigation into the erosion of her
main character's mind. Here's how Dr. White herself, in one of her more lucid
moments, describes her own deterioration...
This half state. Life in the shadows. As the neurofibrillary tangles
proliferate, as the neuritic plaques harden, as synapses cease to fire and my
mind rots out, I remain aware. An unanesthetized patient.
"Turn of Mind" reads as a series of fragmentary but illuminating first-person
conversations between Dr. White and various other characters - some of them
living, like Dr. White's caregiver, her concerned adult daughter and her
shiftless son; some of them dead like the murder victim herself. In the short
space of these dialogues, Dr. White's grip on reality fades in and out like an
iffy radio frequency, and time frames collapse into each other with fluid ease.
We readers become so nervously at home in the haunted house of Dr. White's head
that when she describes her disorientation one night in trying to find her way
out of what we think is her locked bedroom and her subsequent decision to just
squat down on the rug and pee, well, it makes perfect off-kilter sense. Black
humor even wafts into this nightmare every so often. Early on, Dr. White
attends an Alzheimer's support group. The leader, a young social worker, refers
to the group as being guided by two circular steps. Step one, he tells the
attendees, is admitting you have a problem. Step two is forgetting you have the
problem. But, all jokes stop when Dr. White, in conversation with a police
detective, obligingly opens a piano bench stuffed with junk and shows the
detective where she's buried her surgical scalpel - the one that's most
suitable for amputating fingers.
LaPlante's turn on the suspense formula is especially ingenious because, as
anxious but enthralled readers, we have to agree to be entrapped inside Dr.
White's crumbling mind for the duration. We're, thus, dependent on this most
undependable of characters to perhaps exonerate herself as an ultimate deadline
of complete mental oblivion looms.
If this were a straight work of literary fiction, that grim storyline might be
too hard to stick with, but that's where the suspense formula rescues this tale
from despair. Just as we're losing Dr. White, we readers are rewarded with the
cold comfort of the truth about the murder. Forgetfulness, it turns out, may be
something of a mercy after all.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Turn of Mind" by Alice LaPlante.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.