Photo by Sarah G
Article by Jennifer Niester-Mika

While beginning my own intellectual journey at Michigan State University, I became enthralled with the coming-of-age story/introduction to philosophy Sophie's World. Jostein Gaarder's novel begins with a fourteen-year-old Sophie receiving two questions in her mailbox, "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" Her journey takes her through the theories of Socrates, Descartes, Hume, Freud, and Darwin, among others. Each theorist raised new questions, both for Sophie and me. And while Sophie's journey may have ended, mine continues.

I thought of Sophie when I was introduced to a new Sophie, also coming of age, at the New Media Consortium Summer Conference in Anaheim, California. This Sophie, found at, hopes to revolutionize our conception of what a book can be. Sophie, a free program, gives users the ability to create multimedia, interactive texts. Instead of typing onto a page, you drag and drop elements (audio and video clips, photographs, text files, etc.) onto a "canvas." There are still separate, sequential pages; however, you can also run the book like a video, using a timeline to make the various elements run and appear at different moments. Not only does Sophie change our conception of a book, it changes the way we think about reading.

Like great philosophers, these new tools raise the questions, "Who are you?" and "Where does the world come from?" Whether you are a gamer, a hacker, or a blogger, you look to form an identity by what you can do. What level have you achieved in World of Warcraft? What software have you cracked? And how many people follow your blog? These platforms, networks, and virtual spaces are a world we create by our actions. That is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Internet—this world comes from us and is (on the whole) made better by us.

These questions of our relationship with the Internet are important, as they tie to a great public debate—does the Internet make us smarter? According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the Internet has hurt our ability to concentrate and driven us to constant distraction. He cites hard scientific evidence about the neurological effects of long-term Internet use, which causes our brains to constantly scan for new information—even when we are away from the keyboard. His argument directly contrasts with Steven Johnson's hypothesis in Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Johnson argues that popular culture is becoming more complex and that viewers/users/players are required to focus on multiple narrative threads and pieces of data and connect them in meaningful ways.

One of the keynote speakers at the New Media Consortium, John Seely Brown, took up this question of fast analytical processing versus focused deep thought, using the example of Speed Chess Players. Speed chess is where players are required to make their move in under thirty seconds. What he discovered is that those who engaged in the exercise of speed chess were more likely to win in traditional chess tournaments. Speed chess helps the players identify patterns and rapidly identify the tactics of their opponents.

Speed chess is a good metaphor for the way we process data online. We are constantly pulling new bits of information and updates up on our screens (both mobile and static). Based on these constant streams and the patterns we find, we form our relationships and ideas. Learning is tied to interaction, collaboration, and constant seeking. It's networked, not unilaterally delivered from a professor or textbook. To go back to Jostein Gaarder's Sophie, she didn't learn philosophy by sitting and reading a stack of textbooks. She explored and collaborated with Alberto Knox. Together they solved riddles, both theoretical and personal. At the end, she understood not only philosophy, but how to apply it in her own life.

Lifelong student and full-time English Instructor, Jennifer Niester-Mika is inspired by unusual connections, many which arise from her own internal contrasts—agrarian/techno-enthusiast, mother/scholar, teacher/student. She enjoys teaching a broad spectrum of classes at Delta College and exploring new avenues of expression and social activism through her dissertation studies at Wayne State University.

© Jennifer Niester, 2010