Matt Brown

Matt Brown (@dinosaurmachine) is musician and culture junkie based out of Chattanooga, TN. He has a B.A. in History from Covenant College where he spent way too much time playing with his band, The New Empires. He did however manage to finish a bachelor's thesis on Zionism in Jewish Palestine 1922-1948, so there's that.

Duolingo & Our New Brains

 

Nicholas Carr’s article in the Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, has been referenced so many times since its publication in 2008 that it’s firmly in cliché territory. He then expanded the topic into a celebrated book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. The philosophical tennis played by the media over whether he was right seems to point to only one consensus: for good or ill, the Internet is changing our brains. That isn’t up for debate. The choice we face now, as individuals and as a society, is what to do with these new brains.

Two in the morning is the guiltiest time of night. 1:00 could still just be a late night, and 3:00 means you’re pulling an all-nighter. But 2:00 AM means that you just had to look at one more funny picture, or complete one more level of Halo 4, or whatever. I found myself once again looking at 2:00 AM on the clock several weeks ago and out of habit started spinning up the shame machine, before I realized I didn’t have to—I had stayed up late because I was learning French. Because I wanted to.

Duolingo, the language learning website, had sucked me in. After spending several hours the day before working on basic conversational French, I began to see that my impulses, normally quasi-destructive, had been converted into positive energy. There are creative people out there who recognize the basic facts that late nights, addiction and multiplayer gaming are among the many new patterns that we are hardwiring into our psyche. It might be hard for you to find a societal positive in that brief list, but these people are asking the questions, “What now?” and “What can we do with this?” Our new brains, just like our old ones, are still capable of lofty heights and murky depths. Duolingo stems the tide of Carr’s “shallows” and games the user back into using her mind to expand her world, instead of shutting it out.

I was turned on to Duolingo by my friend Zay.  It launched in November, 2011, but really began to pick up steam towards the end of 2012, releasing an excellent iPhone app to mark its one year anniversary. Apparently it was like Rosetta Stone, but better, and free; this was enough to hook me. I don’t know whether it’s better, but it is free, and what he didn’t tell me was that it is addictive. It takes language learning and “gamifies” it, letting the user earn points that go towards unlocking more sets of words as well as the user’s total score, which in turn is put up on a leaderboard showing the progress of the user and her friends. For anyone who has ever leveled up a character in a fantasy game or evolved their Pokemon from a Charmander to a Charizard, this is like a crack addict hearing news that they found a way to make cocaine healthy.

But there’s more to Duolingo than turning language education into a dopamine-fueled battle royale. Duolingo was started as a project by Luis Von Ahn, professor of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He is most well known for his projects Captcha and reCaptcha, the latter of which was acquired by Google. Almost everyone has used reCaptcha at some point, since it has become one of the most commonly used security measures by websites that want to make sure you’re a human and not a robot.

What you might not know is that the weird, ribbony text you have to type in the box is actually pulled from books that are being digitized. Sometimes the computer has a hard time with a faded or damaged page, and your human eyes are able to turn that word into digital information when software can’t. I might spend only a few seconds typing a word for a website, but Von Ahn thought about those millions and millions of seconds people spend and realized the that there was an opportunity to get some serious work done. It’s worth taking fifteen minutes to hear his thoughts on “massive scale online collaboration” in his TED talk here.

ReCaptcha was and is a testament to the good made possible through technology like the Internet. Luis Von Ahn saw the potential to take that massive collaboration and use it to translate vast portions of the internet – if you take a look under Duolingo’s hood, you’ll find that every sentence you translate is being pulled from a website in that language. According to their YouTube pitch, “If one million people would use Duolingo to learn, the entirety of English Wikipedia could be translated into Spanish in just eighty hours.”

I recently had a conversation with my new friend David, a columnist for the Times-Free Press here in Chattanooga. We talked about how technology can dehumanize people. Examples that came to mind were pornography, escapism, addiction and the loss of meditation and perspective. But we were also starstruck as we got to see the Company Lab’s 3D printer; the opportunities it opens up are endless. David asked me about my faith (I grew up Presbyterian) and what kind of difficulties I faced as I tried to hold faith in one hand and technology in the other. As I worked out what I was trying to say, I found myself returning to one of the most basic tenets of the Christian faith: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Every religion and culture describes its people as special, standing out against the pagans who surround them by how they think and act. The ancient Greeks invented the word barbarian to refer to the unthinking savages whose language sounded like “barbarbarbar” to the sophisticated Greek ear. Paul wrote to early Christians that they were to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds.” From their beginnings as a people, the Jews have always been a people “set apart,” priding themselves in ancient Israel on a law code that took care of the poor and the alien. Even the religion of our age, Apple, encourages its followers to “think different.” This is perfect for us as heirs of the Enlightenment, we receive this command from our forbears: think things through; be critical and don’t simply take in every cultural offering just because it’s there.

There is wisdom there. It is too easy to play doomsday prophet and long for a day of Luddite purity. Von Ahn and people like him hope to use the advance of technology as a kind of corrective force for itself and the destructive parts of human nature. Gamification has been adopted by many in the education world; using those the task-reward system has already helped younger students take their famous boundless energy and focus it. Wikipedia, reCaptcha, Duolingo and other opportunities for massive collaboration continue to expand our horizons. If we can continue to think of ways for technology to humanize, instead of dehumanize, then maybe we won’t end up locked away from each other and our world.

Out of the Arcade

It’s been almost twenty years since Toy Story was released. Since then, Pixar has brought the hidden world of toys, cars, fish, rats that cook, superheroes and monsters to the big screen. It has taken almost as long for Disney, Dreamworks and other studios to learn the lessons of Pixar storytelling. In 2010 DreamWorks gave us How to Train Your Dragon and Disney returned to form with Tangled. Both were computer-animated, but the medium was no longer seen as merely a gimmick to stay relevant. There was real art to be made.

Last year Disney’s in-house animation studio picked up the slack from Pixar’s solid but relatively regular Brave and invited us to the world of videogames in Wreck-It Ralph. In Ralph, we get to meet the heroes and villains of the games we grew up playing. The appropriately retro setting is an arcade, filled with the classics from past decades. The fictional game at the center of the movie is “Fix-It Felix, Jr.”, essentially a Donkey Kong clone.

The game’s namesake and hero is voiced with lisping optimism by 30 Rock’s Jack McBrayer. John C. Reilly lends sincerity and lightness to Ralph, the game’s antagonist. Ralph’s an everyman who just wants to be respected and appreciated by the people he sees each day. His desire is complicated by the fact that his “job” is to be the “bad guy”, and he struggles to find his place in a world where he’s been written as an outcast. Hundreds of times a day, every day, he watches handyman hero Fix-It Felix save the inhabitants of the apartment complex he is supposed to “wreck,” receive a medal, and enjoy the accolades of his friends.

But once the last kid leaves the arcade, we get to see a different side of the virtual world. Each game’s characters head home, to the bar, or, in Ralph’s case, to a support group for game villains. “I am bad, and that’s good,” they tell each other, “I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There is no one I’d rather be than me.” Faced with either resignation or breaking the rules, Ralph does what he does best: he wrecks everything when he decides to “game-jump,” impersonating a soldier in the Starship Trooper-esque “Hero’s Duty” in an effort to get a medal of his own. His escape from the game’s sci-fi insect swarm leads him to the racing game “Sugar Rush,” where he meets the wonderfully named misfit Vanellope von Schweetz (voiced by comedienne Sarah Silverman). Forming an unlikely alliance, the two lost souls help each other find a place in their games and their world.

That world is a seamless mixture of original ideas like “Fix-It Felix” and “Hero’s Duty” with the classic videogames we know and love. The viewer is treated to appearances from Zangief, Pac-Man, Sonic and many more, but they function as much more than pop culture gags; these are the inhabitants that would populate any arcade. The attention to detail and visuals help present the virtual world on a whole new level. DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon utilized computer animation to bring to the screen skyscapes and sea cliffs that could actually take your breath away, and in “Wreck-It Ralph” the colors pop and the scope is every bit as epic as the games it emulates. One highlight has the highly adaptable alien swarm of “Hero’s Duty” taking on new forms in the “Sugar Rush” world, resulting in a terrifying combination between candy and killer cockroaches.

Wreck-It Ralph is a movie that could only succeed now that geek culture has exploded into the mainstream. In a decade in which there are televised StarCraft matches, and Halo 4 makes more money than Harry Potter or “Marvel’s Avengers” (also major geek properties), it is anything but farfetched that characters from a game world would be as well-drawn as those on the big screen. The movie’s titular hero isn’t off to save the world or fight some menacing foe. Ralph is torn between a desire for change in himself and the foreboding sense that he is doomed to play out the same defeats day in and day out. It’s a tension everyone feels, and while we love watching Joss Whedon’s übermenschen, there is little in Captain America, Iron Man or Thor to which the viewer can relate. Ralph mixes story and spectacle, but there is no fantasy to Ralph’s hopes and fears.

Ralph isn’t the only one. He is one character in a massive world, filled with other people coming to grips with their own identities, emotions, and “backstories.” Early on, we meet Sergeant Calhoun, a hardened officer from “Hero’s Duty,” voiced with all of the grit you’d expect from Jane Lynch. A character explains Calhoun’s icy demeanor, telling Ralph that “she was programmed with the most tragic backstory ever written.” No spoilers here, but it ended up being a hilarious nod to all of the genre-savvy viewers out there…which today, means basically everyone.

We’re finally recovering from the disillusionment of the nineties and the hyperaware ironic detachment of the aughties (think Shrek); yes, we know it’s not the first time around, and we know it’s not always going to be a shiny happy fairy tale, but we press forward anyway because people and stories still have meaning. This insistence that there is in fact real meaning to be found flies in the face of everything that Ralph and Vanellope are told—Ralph’s hyper-aware support group reminds him that he “will never be good, and that’s not bad”, and Vanellope’s fellow racers tell her that she is just a glitch who will never be part of the game.

But Ralph wants to be a hero, and Vanellope tells him that she knows she’s a racer, “deep down in her code”. They know that they’re messed up. And they don’t stop. Their striving brings to mind Hugo’s tearful pleading in Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece: “Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need… I couldn’t be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.”

2010’s film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World served as a kind of pop culture thermometer: we thought we were running out of stories, and the only thing left was to tell stories about telling stories. Wreck-It Ralph is a fresh metaphor for rising out of cultural ennui, affirming earnestness in the face of cynicism and purpose above resignation. Awards season is upon us, and Ralph outdoes the rest of the animation slate, reminding us of Theodore Roosevelt’s words, written on the inside of so many inspirational graduation gift books, but still weighty:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly…who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions…and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”