A Brave New World: On Google & the Human Brain

The world is a competitive place today, much more so than what the previous generations have faced over the years. While theirs was an age of pioneers, thinkers & awe-inspiring undertakings, ours is the age of the ubiquitous “Google”. While it has made our lives easier & assignments much easier to complete, there’s a part of us that runs the risk of becoming just an appendage,  a la the appendix in the human body. The entity I’m referring to is the Limbic system of the brain, comprising of the hippocampus, amygdala, etc., which is responsible for human memory.

Let’s face it, while a few years ago one might have taken a small amount of satisfaction in knowing something or gaining a bit of knowledge, that feeling has been relegated to the realm of utter & complete oblivion by the advent of the search engine. As the power & reach of the search engine improves, we take less & less effort in the pursuit of knowledge, & divert our efforts to having the best smartphones with the fastest data packs. While from my limited readings, I was quite sure that data retrieval is one of the fastest in the brain neural networks, I now pause and wonder: Is Google doing the job better than the brain?

Looking at the gradual changes in our day-to-day life & interactions, some inferences might be drawn.

  1. While a discussion on any topic was earlier a thoughtful enquiry into the causes, effects & factors of an event or an incident, now it’s just a race to search the most relevant review/opinion/rant/blog/vlog/post/podcast/comment/open-letter which is available on the internet & using it to justify whatever the present stand is.
  2. While any quiz was earlier a battle of wits & awareness of an individual, now its just a battle of the bandwidth of their respective data packs.
  3. While writing an essay or an article was earlier a measure of one’s literary prowess, its a matter of having access to the best spell-check/grammar-check tool now.
  4. While an assignment….oh you get the drift.

There’s no wonder then, that an anachronistic old timer, who shows the stupidity (or audacity?) of relying on the human brain in such a setting, should and does lose to the modern, tech-savvy human being. The thinking man is passé. Its the age of the connected, integrated Ubermensch, who can retrieve information at the touch of a button. Knowledge is secondary now, its the other skills that matter.

There’s just one question really, i.e., Is Google making us stupid?

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Crime in Sweden: Fact vs Fiction

I love reading, not just a particular genre, but all of them. I enjoy devouring everything from ancient Greek mythology to modern high fantasy, from the exploits of Sherlock Holmes to modern high fantasy like Game of Thrones. As a reader, I’ve noticed a trend in the past few years that has caught my fascination.

It is fascinating that there’s a growing number of really great crime novels coming out of the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden. The phenomenon is so pronounced that it has been popularly dubbed as “Scandicrime”. From the late Steig Larsson, Håkan Nesser to Jo Nesbø, the line doesn’t seem to end. But such a localized phenomenon is not altogether rare. Earlier, we have seen anti-war novels coming out of the USA, predominantly at the time of the First World War. French authors have consistently delivered path-breaking pictures of the erstwhile society, Germany has given us Kant, Nietzsche, Hegel, etc., whereas, Russian novels have been a comment peasant life and its stark differences with that of the military & aristocracy. What’s common in all the above is that the writing reflects the prevalent times in the respective regions. However, this is not the case with Sweden. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sweden, with its homogeneous population, is the seventh richest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. It has the highest telephone/internet penetration & the third lowest Gini coefficient in the world. The Nordic countries also consistently rank among the happiest nations in the world. As per a 2014 report by International Centre for Prison Studies, Sweden had an incarceration rate of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 which was significantly lower than other countries. In comparison, the figure in the USA is 707 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants (“USA – World Prison Brief”International Centre for Prison Studies. Retrieved 17 July 2014) & the EU average in 2008-10 was 126 (“Crime trends in detail”Eurostat. Retrieved 17 July 2014). It seems like more people are murdered in Scandinavian crime novels than in the entire Scandinavia itself.

The question then is: How is Sweden, a prosperous country with remarkably low crime rates be the hotbed of such spectacular crime novels in recent times? In the following lines, we’ll explore the manifold reasons for this phenomena.

Firstly, the original writing is mainly in Swedish or the country’s native language. When the same is translated to English (for bulk of the readers across the world), the resulting style is crisp & upfront, with minimal unnecessary words. This makes for an easy read for most of the readers.

Secondly, Scandinavian crime novels are often set in an idyllic, peaceful country, where social structure, overall welfare levels & peaceful surroundings can seem almost utopian to an American or say, Asian reader. In such a setting, any crime seems to be an unthinkable violence & a disturbing occurrence, precisely because it’s not expected. Such a shock value makes for a thrilling read.

Thirdly, the protagonist or the detective in such novels is more often than not, a rustic, careworn & relatable character, which is at odds with say, a suave James Bond or the supremely talented Sherlock Holmes. Such relatability with the protagonist leads to a deeper connect between the readers & the story, leading to better sales.

Fourthly, these novels often incorporate prevalent social themes such as immigration, misogyny, racism, intolerance, social inequality, etc. into the story, imbuing the story with elements of the Scandinavian psyche. Such writing improves the realism in the story, as the setting is not far removed from reality.

Lastly, the bleak Scandinavian landscape aptly mirrors the dark thoughts of the characters. It has an air of mystery & danger only adds to the setting of a crime novel, making the ancient land of the Vikings an apt setting for the stories.

In my opinion, any story worth its salt is greater than the sum total of its parts. As for the definitive reasons for Sweden being the fountainhead of such acclaimed crime novels, the jury is still out. On the basis of the above reason, we can just hope that this tradition continues. Happy reading.