How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?
Publisher & Editor, Edge; Author, By The Late John Brockman, The Third Culture
THE COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUS
"Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." John Brockman speaking — partly kidding, but conveying the notion that Intermedia Kinetic Environments are In in the places where the action is — an Experience, an Event, an Environment, a humming electric world.
— The New York Times
On a Sunday in September 1966, I was sitting on a park bench reading about myself on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section. I was wondering whether the article would get me fired from my job at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where I was producing "expanded cinema" and "intermedia" events. I was twenty-five years old.
New and exciting ideas and forms of expression were in the air. They came out of happenings, the dance world, underground movies, avant-garde theater. They came from artists engaged in experiment. Intermedia consisted more often than not of unscripted, sometimes spontaneous theatrical events in which the audience was also a participant. I was lucky enough to have some small part in this upheaval, having been hired a year earlier by the underground filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas to manage the Filmmakers' Cinémathèque and organize and run the Expanded Cinema Festival.
During that wildly interesting period, many of the leading artists were reading science and bringing scientific ideas to their work. John Cage gave me a copy of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics; Bob Rauschenberg turned me on to James Jeans' The Mysterious Universe. Claes Oldenburg suggested I read George Gamow's 1,2,3...Infinity. USCO, a group of artists, engineers, and poets who created intermedia environments; La Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music; Andy Warhol's Factory; Nam June Paik's video performances; Terry Riley's minimalist music — these were master classes in the radical epistemology of a set of ideas involving feedback and information.
Another stroke of good luck was my inclusion in a small group of young artists invited by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to attend a series of dinners with John Cage — an ongoing seminar about media, communications, art, music, and philosophy that focused on the ideas of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan. Cage was aware of research conducted in the late 1930s and 1940s by Wiener, Shannon, Vannevar Bush, Warren McCulloch, and John von Neumann, who were all present at the creation of cybernetic theory. And he had picked up on McLuhan's idea that by inventing electric technology we had externalized our central nervous systems — that is, our minds — and that we now had to presume that "There's only one mind, the one we all share." We had to go beyond personal mind-sets: "Mind" had become socialized. "We can't change our minds without changing the world," Cage said. Mind as a man-made extension had become our environment, which he characterized as a "collective consciousness" that we could tap into by creating "a global utilities network."
Back then, of course, the Internet didn't exist, but the idea was alive. In 1962, J.C.R Licklider, who had published "Man-Computer Symbiosis" in 1960 and described the idea of an "Intergalactic Computer Network" in 1961, was hired as the first director of the new Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency created as a response to Sputnik. Licklider designed the foundation for a global computer network. He and his successors at IPTO, including Robert Taylor and Larry Roberts, provided the ideas that led to the development of the ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet, which itself emerged as an ARPA-funded research project in the mid-1980s.
Inspired also by architect-designer Buckminster Fuller, futurist John McHale, and cultural anthropologists Edward T. ("Ned") Hall and Edmund Carpenter, I began to read avidly in the field of information theory, cybernetics, and systems theory. McLuhan himself introduced me to The Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver, which began: "The word communication will be used here in a very broad sense to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another. This, of course, involves not only written and oral speech, but also music, the pictorial arts, the theater, the ballet, and in fact all human behavior."
Inherent in these ideas is a radical new epistemology. It tears apart the fabric of our habitual thinking. Subject and object fuse. The individual self decreates. I wrote a synthesis of these ideas in my first book, By the Late John Brockman (1969), taking information theory — the mathematical theory of communications — as a model for regarding all human experience. I began to develop a theme that has informed my endeavors ever since: New technologies beget new perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of our world and of ourselves are, in part, models resulting from our perceptions of the technologies we generate.
We create tools and then we mold ourselves in their image. Seventeenth-century clockworks inspired mechanistic metaphors ("The heart is a pump"), just as the self-regulating engineering devices of the mid-twentieth century inspired the cybernetic image ("The brain is a computer"). The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has characterized the post-Newtonian worldview as one of pattern, of order, of resonances in which the individual mind is a subsystem of a larger order. Mind is intrinsic to the messages carried by the pathways within the larger system and intrinsic also in the pathways themselves.
Ned Hall once pointed out to me that the most critical inventions are not those that resemble inventions but those that appear innate and natural. Once you become aware of this kind of invention, it is as though you had always known about it. ("The medium is the message." Of course, I always knew that).
Hall's candidate for the most important invention was not the capture of fire, the printing press, the discovery of electricity, or the discovery of the structure of DNA. The most important invention was ... talking. To illustrate the point, he told a story about a group of prehistoric cavemen having a conversation.
"Guess what?" the first man said. "We're talking." Silence. The others looked at him with suspicion.
"What's 'talking'?" a second man asked.
"It's what we're all doing, right now. We're talking!"
"You're crazy," the third man said. "I never heard of such a thing!"
"I'm not crazy," the first man said. "You're crazy. We're talking."
Talking, undoubtedly, was considered innate and natural until the first man rendered it visible by exclaiming, "We're talking."
A new invention has emerged, a code for the collective conscious, which requires a new way of thinking. The collective externalized mind is the mind we all share. The Internet is the infinite oscillation of our collective conscious interacting with itself. It's not about computers. It's not about what it means to be human — in fact it challenges, renders trite, our cherished assumptions on that score. It's about thinking. "We're talking."
W. DANIEL HILLIS
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied Minds, Inc.; Author, The Pattern on the Stone
THE DAWN OF THE ENTANGLEMENT
It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people, are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. No one has expressed this misunderstanding more clearly than Tom Wolfe in Hooking Up:
I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to get hold of your stock broker or some buddies to shoot the breeze with. That one thing the Internet does and only that. The rest is Digibabble.
This confusion between the network and the services that it first enabled is a natural mistake. Most early customers of electricity believed that they were buying electric lighting. That first application was so compelling that it blinded them to the bigger picture of what was possible. A few dreamers speculated that electricity would change the world, but one can imagine a nineteenth-century curmudgeon attempting to dampen their enthusiasm: "Electricity is a convenient means to light a room. That one thing the electricity does and only that. The rest is Electrobabble."
The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe's trivialization, is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web. I would like to discuss some of the less apparent ways that it will change us. By the Internet, I mean the global network of interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.
Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how the Internet is changing the way we think.
I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.
Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.
To understand how the Internet encourages this interweaving of complex systems, you need to appreciate how it has changed the nature of computer programming. Back in the twentieth century, a programmer had the opportunity to exercise absolute control within a bounded world with precisely defined rules. They were able to tell their computers exactly what to do. Today, programming usually involves linking together complex systems developed by others, without understanding exactly how they work. In fact, depending upon the methods of other systems is considered poor programming practice, because it is expected that they will change.
Consider as a simple example, a program that needs to know the time of day. In the unconnected world, computers often asked the operator to type in the time when they were powered on. They then kept track of passing time by counting ticks of an internal clock. Programmers often had to write their own program to do this, but in any case, they understood exactly how it worked. Once computers became connected through the Internet, it made more sense for computers to find out the time by asking one another, so something called Network Time Protocol was invented. Most programmers are aware that it exists but few understand it in detail. Instead, they call a library routine, which asks the operating system, which automatically invokes the Network Time Protocol when it is required.
It would take a long time to explain Network Time Protocol, how it corrects for variable network delays and how it takes advantage of a partially-layered hierarchy of network-connected clocks to find the time. Suffice it to say that it is complicated. Besides, I would be describing version 3 of the protocol, and your operating system is probably already using version 4. It really does not make sense for you, even if you are a programmer, to bother to understand how it works.
Now consider a program that is directing delivery trucks to restock stores. It needs to know not just the time of day, but also the locations of the trucks in the fleet, the maps of the streets, the coordinates of its warehouses, the current traffic patterns, and the inventories of its stores. Fortunately it can keep track of all of this changing information by connecting to other computers through the Internet. It can also offer services to other systems that need to track the location of packages, pay drivers, and schedule maintenance of the trucks. All of these systems will depend upon one another to provide information, without depending on exactly how the information is computed. All of these communicating systems are being constantly improved and extended, evolving in time.
Now multiply this picture by a million fold, to include not just the one fleet of trucks, but all the airplanes, gas pipelines, hospitals, factories, oil refineries, mines and power plants not to mention the salesmen, advertisers, media distributors, insurance companies, regulators, financiers and stock traders. You will begin to perceive the entangled system that makes so many of our day-to-day decisions. Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. Our relationship to it is similar to our relationship to our biological ecosystem. We are co-dependent, and not entirely in control.
We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world that is beyond our own understanding. Our century began on a note of uncertainty, as we worried how our machines would handle the transition to the new millennium. Now we are attending to a financial crisis caused by the banking system miscomputing risks, and a debate on global warming in which experts argue not so much about the data, but about what the computers predict from the data. We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author, Whole Earth Discipline
I couldn't function without them, and I suspect the same is true for nearly all effective people. By "them" I mean my closest intellectual collaborators. They are the major players in my social extended mind. How I think is shaped to a large degree by how they think.
Our association is looser than a team but closer than a cohort, and it's not a club or a workgroup or an elite. I'll call it a guild. Everyone in my guild runs their own operation, and none of us report to each other. All we do is keep close track of what each other is thinking and doing. Often we collaborate directly, but most of the time we don't. Everyone in my guild has their own guild---each of theirs largely different from mine. I'm probably not considered a member of some of them.
(My guild these years consists of Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, Peter Schwartz, Kevin Kelly, John Brockman, Alexander Rose, and Ryan Phelan. Occasionally we intersect institutionally via The Long Now Foundation, Global Business Network, or Edge.org.)
One's guild is a conversation extending over years and decades. I hearken to my gang because we have overlapping interests, and they keep surprising me. Familiar as I am with them, I can't finish their sentences. Their constant creativity feeds my creativity, and I try to do the same for them. Often the way I ponder something is to channel my guild members: "Would Danny consider this a waste of time?" "How would Brian find something exciting here?" "Is this idea something Kevin or Brockman might run with, and where would they run with it?"
I seldom see my guild members in person (except the one I'm married to). We seldom talk on the phone. Yet we interact weekly through the crude old Internet tools of email and links. (That no doubt reflects our age---younger guilds presumably use Facebook or Twitter or whatever's next in that lineage.)
Thanks to my guild's Internet-mediated conversation, my neuronal thinking is enhanced immeasurably by our digital thinking.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of Curating; Formulas for Now
EDGE A TO Z (PARS PRO TOTO)
A is for And And
The Internet made me think more BOTH AND instead of EITHER OR instead of NOR NOR.
B is for Beginnings
In terms of my curatorial thinking, my 'Eureka moments' occurred pre-Internet, when I met visionary Swiss artists Fischli/Weiss in 1985. These conversations freed me up — freed my thoughts as to what curating could be and how curating can produce reality. The arrival of the Internet was a trigger for me to think more in the form of Oulipian lists — practical-poetical, evolutive and often nonlinear, lists. This A to Z is an incomplete list ….Umberto Eco calls the World Wide Web the 'mother of all lists': infinite by definition and in constant evolution.
C is for Curating the World
The Internet made me think towards a more expanded notion of curating. Stemming from the Latin word 'curare', the word 'curating' originally meant 'to take care of objects in museums'. Curation has long since evolved. Just as art is no longer limited to traditional genres, curating is no longer confined to the gallery or museum but has expanded across all boundaries. The rather obscure and very specialized notion of curating has become much more publicly used since one talks about curating of Websites and and this marks a very good moment to rediscover the pioneering history of art curating as a toolbox for 21st century society at large.
D is for Delinking
In the years before being online, I remember that there were many interruptions by phone and fax day and night. The reality of being permanently linked to the triggered my increasing awareness of the importance of moments of concentration — moments without interruption that require me to be completely unreachable. I no longer answer the phone at home and I only answer my mobile phone in the case of fixed telephone appointments. To link is beautiful. To delink is sublime. (Paul Chan)
D is for Disrupted narrative continuity
Forms of film montage , as the disruption of narrative and the disruption of spatial and temporal continuity, have been a staple tactic of the avant-garde from Cubism and Eisenstein, through Brecht to Kluge or Godard. For avant-gardism as a whole, it was essential that these tactics were recognized (experienced) as a disruption. The Internet has made disruption and montage the operative bases of everyday experience. Today, these forms of disruption can be harnessed and poeticized. They can foster new connections, new relationships, new productions of reality: reality as life-montage / life as reality-disruption? Not one story but many stories………
D is for Doubt
A certain unreliability of technical and material information on the Internet brings us to the notion of doubt. I feel that doubt has become more pervasive. The artist Carsten Höller has invented the Laboratory of Doubt, which is opposed to mere representation. As he has told me, 'Doubt and perplexity ... are unsightly states of mind we'd rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with uneasiness, with a failure of values'. Höller's credo is not to do; not to intervene. To exist is to do and not to do is a way of doing. 'Doubt is alive; it paralyzes certainty.' (Carsten Höller)
E is for Evolutive exhibitions
The Internet makes me think more about non-final exhibitions and exhibitions in a state of becoming. When conceiving exhibitions, I sometimes like to think of randomized algorithms, access, transmission, mutation, infiltration and circulation (the list goes on). The Internet makes me think less of exhibitions as top down masterplans but bottom up processes of self organisation like do it or Cities on the Move
F is for Forgetting
The ever growing ever pervasive records that the Internet produces make me think sometimes about the virtues of forgetting. Is a limited life space of certain information and data becoming more urgent?
H is for Handwriting (and Drawing ever Drawing)
The Internet has made me aware of the importance of handwriting and drawing. Personally, I typed all my early texts, but the more the Internet has become all-encompassing , the more I have felt that something went missing. Hence the idea to reintroduce handwriting.I do more and more of my correspondence as handwritten letters scanned and sent by email. On a professional note, I observe, as a curator, the importance of drawing in current art production. One can also see it in art schools: a moment when drawing is an incredibly fertile zone.
I is for Identity
"Identity is shifty, identity is a choice". (Etel Adnan)
I is for Inactual considerations
The future is always built out of fragments of the past. The Internet has brought thinking more into the present tense, raising questions of what it means to be contemporary.
Recently, Giorgio Agamben revisited Nietzsche's 'Inactual Considerations', arguing that the one who belongs to his or her own time is the one who does not coincide perfectly with it. It is because of this shift, this anachronism, that he or she is more apt than others to perceive and to catch his or her time. Agamben follows this observation with his second definition of contemporaneity: the contemporary is the one who is able to perceive obscurity, who is not blinded by the lights of his or her time or century.
This leads us, interestingly enough, to the importance of astrophysics in explaining the relevance of obscurity for contemporaneity. The seeming obscurity in the sky is the light that travels to us at full speed but which can't reach us because the galaxies from which it originates are ceaselessly moving away from us at a speed superior to that of light. The Internet and a certain resistance to its present tense have made me increasingly aware that there is an urgent call to be contemporary. To be contemporary means to perpetually come back to a present where we have never yet been. To be contemporary means to resist the homogenization of time, through ruptures and discontinuities.
M is for Maps
The Internet increased the presence of maps in my thinking. It's become easier to make maps, to change them, and also to work on them collaboratively and collectively and share them (e.g. Google Maps and Google Earth). After the focus on social networks of the last couple of years, I have come to see the focus on location as a key dimension.
N is for New geographies
The Internet has fuelled (and been fuelled by) a relentless economic and cultural globalization, with all its positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, there is the danger of homogenizing forces, which is also at stake in the world of the arts. On the other hand, there are unprecedented possibilities for difference enhancing global dialogues. In the long duration there have been seismic shifts, like that in the 16th century when the paradigm shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. We are living through a period in which the center of gravity is transferring to new centres. . The early 21st century is seeing the growth of a polyphony of art centers in the East and West in the North and South.
N is for Non-mediated experiences N is for the New Live
I feel an increased desire for non-mediated experiences Depending on one's point of view, the virtual may be a new and liberating prosthesis of the body or it may threaten the body. Many visual artists today negotiate and mediate between these two staging encounters of non mediated intersubjectivity. In the music fields the crisis of the record industry goes hand in hand with an increased importance of live concerts.
P is for Parallel realities
The Internet creates and fosters new constituencies; new micro-communities. As a system that infinitely breeds new realities, it is predisposed to reproduce itself in a proliferating series of ever more functionally differentiated subsystems. As such, it makes my thinking go towards the production of parallel realities, bearing witness to the multiverse, as the physicist David Deutsch might say and for better or worse, the Internet allows that which is already latent in the fabric of reality to unravel itself and expand in all directions.
P is for Protest against forgetting
Over the last years I feel an increasing urgency to more and more interviews, to make an effort to preserve traces of intelligence from the last decades. One particularly urgent part of this are the testimonies of the 20th century pioneers who are in their 80s or 90s or older and whom I regularly interview, testimonies of a century from those who are not online and who very often fall into oblivion. This protest might, as Rem Koolhaas has told me, act as 'a hedge against the systematic forgetting that hides at the core of the information age and which may in fact be its secret agenda'?
S is for Salon of the 21st century
The Internet has made me think more about whom I would like to introduce to whom; to cyberintroduce people as a daily practice or to introduce people in person through actual salons for the 21st century (see the Brutally Early Club).
Last but not least a the response of David Weiss who answers this years Edge question with a new question asking if our thinking can influence the Internet.
THE SHOCK OF INCLUSION
The Internet has been in majority use in the developed world for less than a decade, but we can already see some characteristic advantages (dramatically improved access to information, very large scale collaborations) and disadvantages (interrupt-driven thought, endless distractions.) It's tempting to try to adjudicate the relative value of the network on the way we think by deciding whether access to Wikipedia outweighs access to tentacle porn or the other way around.
Unfortunately for us, though, the intellectual fate of our historical generation is unlikely to matter much in the long haul. It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.
The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video. The mere fact of being able to publish to a global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely available that you can't make any money with the basic capability any more.
This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages.
So it falls to us to make sure that isn't all that happens.
To the question "How is Internet is changing the way we think?", the right answer is "Too soon to tell." This isn't because we can't see some of the obvious effects already, but because the deep changes will be manifested only when new cultural norms shape what the technology makes possible.
To return to the press analogy, printing was a necessary but not sufficient input to the scientific revolution. The Invisible College, the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists, their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the 1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have that the alchemists didn't?
They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had wasn't that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work, describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each other's work.
The chemists were, to use Richard Foreman's phrase, "pancake people". They abandoned the spiritual depths of alchemy for a continual and continually incomplete grappling with what was real, a task so daunting that no one person could take it on alone. Though as schoolchildren, the history of science we learn is often marked by the trope of the lone genius, science has always been a networked operation.
In this we can see a precursor to what's possible for us today. Just as the Invisible College didn't just use the printing press as raw capability, but created a culture that used the press to support the transparency and argumentation science relies on, we have the same opportunity.
As we know from arXiv.org, the 20th century model of publishing is inadequate to the kind of sharing possible today. As we know from Wikipedia, post-hoc peer review can support astonishing creations of shared value. As we know from the search for Mersenne Primes, whole branches of mathematical exploration are now best taken on by groups. As we know from Open Source efforts like Linux, collaboration between loosely joined parties can work at scales and over timeframes previously unimagined. As we know from NASA clickworkers, groups of amateurs can sometimes replace single experts. As we know from Patients Like Me, patient involvement accelerates medical research. And so on.
The beneficiaries of the system where making things public was a privileged activity, whether academics or politicians, reporters or doctors, will complain about the way the new abundance of public thought upends the old order, but those complaints are like keening at a wake; the change they fear is already in the past. The real action is elsewhere.
The Internet's primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of 'comes from everyone' and 'goes everywhere.') We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won't matter much, but the norms we set will.
Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.
ERIC FISCHL & APRIL GORNIK
REPLACING EXPERIENCE WITH FACSIMILE
As visual artists, we might rephrase the question as something like: How has the Internet changed the way we see?
For the visual artist, seeing is essential to thought. It organizes information and how we develop thoughts and feelings. It's how we connect.
So how has the Internet changed us visually? The changes are subtle yet profound. They did not start with the computer. The changes began with the camera and other film-based media, and the Internet has had an exponential effect on that change.
The result is a leveling of visual information, whereby it all assumes the same characteristics. One loss is a sense of scale. Another is a loss of differentiation between materials, and the process of making. All visual information "looks" the same, with film/photography being the common denominator.
Art objects contain a dynamism based on scale and physicality that produces a somatic response in the viewer. The powerful visual experience of art locates the viewer very precisely as an integrated self within the artist's vision. With the flattening of visual information and the randomness of size inherent in reproduction, the significance of scale is eroded. Visual information becomes based on image alone. Experience is replaced with facsimile.
As admittedly useful as the Internet is, easy access to images of everything and anything creates a false illusion of knowledge and experience. The world pictured as pictures does not deliver the experience of art seen and experienced physically. It is possible for an art-experienced person to "translate" what is seen online, but the experience is necessarily remote.
As John Berger pointed out, the nature of photography is a memory device that allows us to forget. Perhaps something similar can be said about the Internet. In terms of art, the Internet expands the network of reproduction that replaces the way we "know" something. It replaces experience with facsimile.
Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth
If, forty years ago, the Edge Question had been "What do you anticipate will most radically change the way you think during the next forty years?" my mind would have flown instantly to a then recent article in Scientific American (September 1966) about 'Project MAC'. Nothing to do with the Apple Mac, which it long pre-dated, Project MAC was an MIT-based cooperative enterprise in pioneering computer science. It included the circle of AI innovators surrounding Marvin Minsky but, oddly, that was not the part that captured my imagination. What really excited me, as a user of the large mainframe computers that were all you could get in those days, was something that nowadays would seem utterly commonplace: the then astonishing fact that up to 30 people simultaneously, from all around the MIT campus and even from their homes, could simultaneously log in to the same computer: simultaneously communicate with it and with each other. mirabile dictum, the co-authors of a paper could work on it simultaneously, drawing upon a shared database in the computer, even though they might be miles apart. In principle, they could be on opposite sides of the globe.
Today that sounds absurdly modest. It's hard to recapture how futuristic it was at the time. The post-Berners-Lee world of 2009, if we could have imagined it forty years ago, would have seemed shattering. Anybody with a cheap laptop computer, and an averagely fast WiFi connection, can enjoy the illusion of bouncing dizzily around the world in full colour, from a beach Webcam in Portugal to a chess match in Vladivostok, and Google Earth actually lets you fly the full length of the intervening landscape as if on a magic carpet. You can drop in for a chat at a virtual pub, in a virtual town whose geographical location is so irrelevant as to be literally non-existent (and the content of whose LOL-punctuated conversation, alas, is likely to be of a drivelling fatuity that insults the technology that mediates it).
'Pearls before swine' over-estimates the average chat-room conversation, but it is the pearls of hardware and software that inspire me: the Internet itself and the World Wide Web, succinctly defined by Wikipedia as "a system of interlinked hypertext documents contained on the Internet." The Web is a work of genius, one of the highest achievements of the human species, whose most remarkable quality is that it was not constructed by one individual genius like Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Wozniak or Alan Kay, nor by a top-down company like Sony or IBM, but by an anarchistic confederation of largely anonymous units located (irrelevantly) all over the world. It is Project MAC writ large. Suprahumanly large. Moreover, there is not one massive central computer with lots of satellites, as in Project MAC, but a distributed network of computers of different sizes, speeds and manufacturers, a network that nobody, literally nobody, ever designed or put together, but which grew, haphazardly, organically, in a way that is not just biological but specifically ecological.
Of course there are negative aspects, but they are easily forgiven. I've already referred to the lamentable content of many chat room conversations without editorial control. The tendency to flaming rudeness is fostered by the convention — whose sociological provenance we might discuss one day — of anonymity. Insults and obscenities, to which you would not dream of signing your real name, flow gleefully from the keyboard when you are masquerading online as 'TinkyWinky' or 'FlubPoodle' or 'ArchWeasel'.
And then there is the perennial problem of sorting out true information from false. Fast search engines tempt us to see the entire Web as a gigantic encyclopaedia, while forgetting that traditional encyclopaedias were rigorously edited and their entries authored by chosen experts. Having said that, I am repeatedly astounded by how good Wikipedia can be. I calibrate Wikipedia by looking up the few things I really do know about (and may indeed have written the entry for in traditional encyclopaedias) say 'Evolution' or 'Natural Selection'. I am so impressed by these calibratory forays that I go, with some confidence, to other entries where I lack first-hand knowledge (which was why I felt able to quote Wikipedia's definition of the Web, above). No doubt mistakes creep in, or are even maliciously inserted, but the half-life of a mistake, before the natural correction mechanism kills it, is encouragingly short. Nevertheless, the fact that the Wiki concept works, even if only in some areas such as science, flies so flagrantly in the face of all my prior pessimism, that I am tempted to see it as a metaphor for all that deserves optimism about the World Wide Web.
Optimistic we may be, but there is a lot of rubbish on the Web, more than in printed books, perhaps because they cost more to produce (and, alas, there's plenty of rubbish there too). But the speed and ubiquity of the Internet actually helps us to be on our critical guard. If a report on one site sounds implausible (or too plausible to be true) you can quickly check it on several more. Urban legends and other viral memes are helpfully catalogued on various sites. When we receive one of those panicky warnings (often attributed to Microsoft or Symantec) about a dangerous computer virus, we do not spam it to our entire address book but instead Google a key phrase from the warning itself. It usually turns out to be, say, "Hoax Number 76", its history and geography meticulously tracked.
Perhaps the main downside of the Internet is that surfing can be addictive and a prodigious timewaster, encouraging a habit of butterflying from topic to topic, rather than attending to one thing at a time. But I want to leave negativity and nay saying and end with some speculative — perhaps more positive — observations. The unplanned worldwide unification that the Web is achieving (a science-fiction enthusiast might discern the embryonic stirrings of a new life form) mirrors the evolution of the nervous system in multicellular animals. A certain school of psychologists might see it as mirroring the development of each individual's personality, as a fusion among split and distributed beginnings in infancy.
I am reminded of an insight that comes from Fred Hoyle's science fiction novel, The Black Cloud. The cloud is a superhuman interstellar traveller, whose 'nervous system' consists of units that communicate with each other by radio — orders of magnitude faster than our puttering nerve impulses. But in what sense is the cloud to be seen as a single individual rather than a society? The answer is that interconnectedness that is sufficiently fast blurs the distinction. A human society would effectively become one individual if we could read each other's thoughts through direct, high speed, brain-to-brain radio transmission. Something like that may eventually meld the various units that constitute the Internet.
This futuristic speculation recalls the beginning of my essay. What if we look forty years into the future? Moore's Law will probably continue for at least part of that time, enough to wreak some astonishing magic (as it would seem to our puny imaginations if we could be granted a sneak preview today). Retrieval from the communal exosomatic memory will become dramatically faster, and we shall rely less on the memory in our skulls. At present we still need biological brains to provide the cross-referencing and association, but more sophisticated software and faster hardware will increasingly usurp even that function.
The high-resolution colour rendering of virtual reality will improve to the point where the distinction from the real world becomes unnervingly hard to notice. Large-scale communal games such as Second Life will become disconcertingly addictive to many ordinary people who understand little of what goes on in the engine room. And let's not be snobbish about that. For many people around the world, 'first life' reality has few charms and, even for those more fortunate, active participation in a virtual world is more intellectually stimulating than the life of a couch potato slumped in idle thrall to 'Big Brother'. To intellectuals, Second Life and its souped-up successors will become laboratories of sociology, experimental psychology and their successor disciplines, yet to be invented and named. Whole economies, ecologies, and perhaps personalities will exist nowhere other than in virtual space.
Finally, there may be political implications. Apartheid South Africa tried to suppress opposition by banning television, and eventually had to give up. It will be more difficult to ban the Internet. Theocratic or otherwise malign regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia today, may find it increasingly hard to bamboozle their citizens with their evil nonsense. Whether, on balance, the Internet benefits the oppressed more than the oppressor is controversial, and at present may vary from region to region (see, for example, the exchange between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky in Prospect, Nov-Dec 2009).
It is said that Twitter is playing an important part in the current unrest in Iran, and latest news from that faith-pit encourages the view that the trend will be towards a net positive effect of the Internet on political liberty. We can at least hope that the faster, more ubiquitous and above all cheaper Internet of the future may hasten the long-awaited downfall of Ayatollahs, Mullahs, Popes, Televangelists, and all who wield power through the control (whether cynical or sincere) of gullible minds. Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee will one day earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.
CONTEXT IS KING
My generation is the first generation that has lived their entire lives with the Internet. The Internet is how we think. We have developed a way of thinking that depends on being connected to an ever changing graph of all the world’s people and ideas. The Internet helps to define, evolve, and grow us. The Internet is social. The Internet is a way of life. The Internet provides context.
Because I have lived most of my life with the Internet, it has been the increasing the addition of new contexts which has been the thing which has most changed the way I think. In the beginning, the Internet was a giant mess of unstructured, unorganized, identity-free data spread across un-connected computers all over the world.
Then things started to change. Organizations and companies began to structure and provide context to the documents and data housed in this expanding network of the world’s computers.
Opening, connecting, and organizing the information on the world’s computers has enabled us to search for the answers to our most important questions and to provide more context to the information in our lives.
Once the world’s information was put into context, we looked beyond the keyboard, and collectively shifted to people. We focused on social context by asking questions like: Who are you? How are we connected? What is on your mind? What matters to you?
Making the Internet more social enabled people to share their real name, likeness, voice, and the things that they are connected to. Now we always have an understanding of who is talking, who and what they are connected to, what they are saying, and to whom; through understanding identity and social context we have achieved greater openness as a society.
In the future, the challenge will be continuing to add new contexts and improve existing ones in order to help people live better, happier, lives. So that no matter where you are, what you are doing, who you are with, or what you are thinking, it is always in context.
NASSIM N. TALEB
Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, NYU-Poly; Principal, Universa Investments; Author, The Black Swan
THE DEGRADATION OF PREDICTABILITY — AND KNOWLEDGE
I used to think that the problem of information is that it turns homo sapiens into fools — we gain disproportionately in confidence, particularly in domains where information is wrapped in a high degree of noise (say, epidemiology, genetics, economics, etc.). So we end up thinking that we know more than we do, which, in economic life, causes foolish risk taking. When I started trading, I went on a news diet and I saw things with more clarity. I also saw how people built too many theories based on sterile news, the fooled by randomness effect. But things are a lot worse. Now I think that, in addition, the supply and spread of information turns the world into Extremistan (a world I describe as one in which random variables are dominated by extremes, with Black Swans playing a large role in them). The Internet, by spreading information, causes an increase in interdependence, the exacerbation of fads (bestsellers like Harry Potter and runs on the banks become planetary). Such world is more "complex", more moody, much less predictable.
So consider the explosive situation: more information (particularly thanks to the Internet) causes more confidence and illusions of knowledge while degrading predictability.
Look at this current economic crisis that started in 2008: there are about a million persons on the planet who identify themselves in the field of economics. Yet just a handful realized the possibility and depth of what could have taken place and protected themselves from the consequences. At no time in the history of mankind have we lived under so much ignorance (easily measured in terms of forecast errors) coupled with so much intellectual hubris. At no point have we had central bankers missing elementary risk metrics, like debt levels, that even the Babylonians understood well.
I recently talked to a scholar of rare wisdom and erudition, Jon Elster, who upon exploring themes from social science, integrates insights from all authors in the corpus of the past 2500 years, from Cicero and Seneca, to Montaigne and Proust. He showed me how Seneca had a very sophisticated understanding of loss aversion. I felt guilty for the time I spent on the Internet. Upon getting home I found in my mail a volume of posthumous essays by bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet called Huetiana, put together by his admirers c. 1722. It is so saddening to realize that, being born close to four centuries after Huet, and having done most of my reading with material written after his death, I am not much more advanced in wisdom than he was — moderns at the upper end are no wiser than their equivalent among the ancients; if anything, much less refined.
So I am now on an Internet diet, in order to understand the world a bit better — and make another bet on horrendous mistakes by economic policy makers. I am not entirely deprived of the Internet; this is just a severe diet, with strict rationing. True, technologies are the greatest things in the world, but they have way too monstrous side effects — and ones rarely seen ahead of time. And since spending time in the silence of my library, with little informational pollution, I can feel harmony with my genes; I feel I am growing again.
Film-Maker, Critic; Co-founder, Film-Makers' Cooperative, Filmmaker’s Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives
I AM NOT EXACTLY A THINKING PERSON — I AM A POET
I am a farmer boy. When I grew up, there was only one radio in our entire village of twenty families. And, of course, no TV, no telephone and no electricity. I saw my first movie when I was fourteen.
In New York, in 1949, I fell in love with cinema. In 1989 I switched to video. In 2003 I embraced computer/Internet technologies.
I am telling you this to indicate that my thinking is now only entering the Internet Nation. It's still in its infancy, I am not really thinking yet Internet way — I am only babbling.
But I can tell you that it has already affected the content, form and the working procedures of everything that I do. It's entering my mind secretly, indirectly.
In 2007 I did a project, 365 Day Project. I put on Internet one short film every day. In cinema, when I was making my films, it was very abstract. I could not think about the audience. I knew the film will be placed in a film distribution center and eventually someone will look at it. Now, in my 365 Day Project I knew that later, same day, I will put it on Internet and within minutes it will be seen by all my friends, and strangers too, all over the world. So that I felt like I was conversing with them. It's intimate. It's poetic. I am not thinking anymore about problems of distribution. I am just exchanging my work with some friends. Like being part of a family. I like that. It makes for a different state of mind. If a state of mind has anything or nothing to do with thinking, that's unimportant to me. I am not exactly a thinking person. I am a poet.
I would like to add one more note to what the Internet has done to me. And that is, I began paying more attention to everything that the Internet seems to be eliminating.Books especially. But also nature. In short: the more it all expands into the virtual reality the more I feel a need to love and protect the actual reality. Not because of sentimental reasons, no. I do that from a very real, practical , almost a survival need: from my knowledge that I would lose a very essential part of myself by losing the actual reality, both cultural and physical.
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New Rules for the New Economy
AN INTERMEDIA WITH 2 BILLION SCREENS PEERING INTO IT
We already know that our use of technology changes how our brains work. Reading and writing are cognitive tools that, once acquired, change the way in which the brain processes information. When psychologists use neuroimaging technology, like MRI, to compare the brains of literates and illiterates working on a task, they find many differences, and not just when the subjects are reading.
Researcher Alexandre Castro-Caldas discovered that processing between the hemispheres of the brain was different between those who could read and those who could not. A key part of the corpus callosum was thicker in literates, and "the occipital lobe processed information more slowly in individuals who learned to read as adults compared to those who learned at the usual age." Psychologists Ostrosky-Solis, Garcia and Perez tested literates and illiterates with a battery of cognitive tests while measuring their brain waves and concluded that "the acquisition of reading and writing skills has changed the brain organization of cognitive activity in general is not only in language but also in visual perception, logical reasoning, remembering strategies, and formal operational thinking."
If alphabetic literacy can change how we think, imagine how Internet literacy and 10 hours per day in front of one kind of screen or another is changing our brains. The first generation to grow up screen literate is just reaching adulthood so we don't have any scientific studies of the full consequence of ubiquitous connectivity, but I have a few hunches based on my own behavior.
When I do long division or even multiplication I don't try to remember the intermediate numbers. Long ago I learned to write them down. Because of paper and pencil I am "smarter" in arithmetic. In a similar manner I now no longer to try remember facts, or even where I found the facts. I have learned to summon them on the Internet. Because the Internet is my new pencil and paper, I am "smarter" in factuality.
But my knowledge is now more fragile. For every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is within easy reach someone who challenges the fact. Every fact has its anti-fact. The Internet's extreme hyperlinking highlights those anti-facts as brightly as the facts. Some anti-facts are silly, some borderline, and some valid. You can't rely on experts to sort them out because for every expert there is an equal and countervailing anti-expert. Thus anything I learn is subject to erosion by these ubiquitous anti-factors.
My certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than importing authority, I am reduced to creating my own certainty — not just about things I care about — but about anything I touch, including areas about which I can't possibly have any direct knowledge . That means that in general I assume more and more that what I know is wrong. We might consider this state perfect for science but it also means that I am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons. Nonetheless, the embrace of uncertainty is one way my thinking has changed.
Uncertainty is a kind of liquidity. I think my thinking has become more liquid. It is less fixed, as text in a book might be, and more fluid, as say text in Wikipedia might be. My opinions shift more. My interests rise and fall more quickly. I am less interested in Truth, with a capital T, and more interested in truths, plural. I feel the subjective has an important role in assembling the objective from many data points. The incremental plodding progress of imperfect science seems the only way to know anything.
While hooked into the network of networks I feel like I am a network myself, trying to achieve reliability from unreliable parts. And in my quest to assemble truths from half-truths, non-truths, and some other truths scattered in the flux (this creation of the known is now our job and not the job of authorities), I find my mind attracted to fluid ways of thinking (scenarios, provisional belief) and fluid media like mashups, twitter, and search. But as I flow through this slippery Web of ideas, it often feels like a waking dream.
We don't really know what dreams are for, only that they satisfy some fundamental need. Someone watching me surf the Web, as I jump from one suggested link to another, would see a day-dream. Today, I was in a crowd of people who watched a barefoot man eat dirt, then the face of a boy who was singing began to melt, then Santa burned a Christmas tree, then I was floating inside mud house on the very tippy top of the world, then Celtic knots untied themselves, then a guy told me the formula for making clear glass, then I was watching myself, back in high school, riding a bicycle. And that was just the first few minutes of my day on the Web this morning. The trance-like state we fall into while following the undirected path of links may be a terrible waste of time, or like dreams, it might be a productive waste of time. Perhaps we are tapping into our collective unconscious in a way watching the directed stream of TV, radio and newspapers could not. Maybe click-dreaming is a way for all of us to have the same dream, independent of what we click on.
This waking dream we call the Internet also blurs the difference between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts, or to put it more simply: I no longer can tell when I am working and when I am playing online. For some people the disintegration between these two realms marks all that is wrong with the Internet: It is the high-priced waster of time. It breeds trifles. On the contrary, I cherish a good wasting of time as a necessary precondition for creativity, but more importantly I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking hard and thinking playfully, is one the greatest things the Internet has done.
In fact the propensity of the Internet to diminish our attention is overrated. I do find that smaller and smaller bits of information can command the full attention of my over-educated mind. And not just me; everyone reports succumbing to the lure of fast, tiny, interruptions of information. In response to this incessant barrage of bits, the culture of the Internet has been busy unbundling larger works into minor snippets for sale. Music albums are chopped up and sold as songs; movies become trailers, or even smaller video snips. (I find that many trailers really are better than their movie.) Newspapers become twitter posts. Scientific papers are served up in snippets on Google. I happily swim in this rising ocean of fragments.
While I rush into the Net to hunt for these tidbits, or to surf on its lucid dream, I've noticed a different approach to my thinking. My thinking is more active, less contemplative. Rather than begin a question or hunch by ruminating aimlessly in my mind, nourished only by my ignorance, I start doing things. I immediately, instantly go.
I go looking, searching, asking, questioning, reacting to data, leaping in, constructing notes, bookmarks, a trail, a start of making something mine. I don't wait. Don't have to wait. I act on ideas first now instead of thinking on them. For some folks, this is the worst of the Net — the loss of contemplation. Others feel that all this frothy activity is simply stupid busy work, or spinning of wheels, or illusionary action. I think to myself, compared to what?
Compared to the passive consumption of TV or sucking up bully newspapers, or of merely sitting at home going in circles musing about stuff in my head without any new inputs, I find myself much more productive by acting first. The emergence of blogs and Wikipedia are expressions of this same impulse, to act (write) first and think (filter) later. I have a picture of the hundreds of millions people online at this very minute. To my eye they are not wasting time with silly associative links, but are engaged in a more productive way of thinking then the equivalent hundred of millions people were 50 years ago.
This approach does encourage tiny bits, but surprisingly at the very same time, it also allows us to give more attention to works that are far more complex, bigger, and more complicated than ever before. These new creations contain more data, require more attention over longer periods; and these works are more successful as the Internet expands. This parallel trend is less visible at first because of a common short sightedness that equates the Internet with text.
To a first approximation the Internet is words on a screen — Google, papers, blogs. But this first glance ignores the vastly larger underbelly of the Internet — moving images on a screen. People (and not just young kids) no longer go to books and text first. If people have a question they (myself included) head first for YouTube. For fun we go to online massive games, or catch streaming movies, including factual videos (documentaries are in a renaissance). New visual media are stampeding onto the Nets. This is where the Internet's center of attention lies, not in text alone. Because of online fans, and streaming on demand, and rewinding at will, and all the other liquid abilities of the Internet, directors started creating movies that were more than 100 hours long.
These vast epics like Lost and The Wire had multiple interweaving plot lines, multiple protagonists, an incredible depth of characters and demanded sustained attention that was not only beyond previous TV and 90-minute movies, but would have shocked Dickens and other novelists of yore. They would marvel: "You mean they could follow all that, and then want more? Over how many years?" I would never have believed myself capable of enjoying such complicated stories, or caring about them to put in the time. My attention has grown. In a similar way the depth, complexity and demands of games can equal these marathon movies, or any great book.
But the most important way the Internet has changed the direction of my attention, and thus my thinking, is that it has become one thing. It may look like I am spending endless nano-seconds on a series of tweets, and endless microseconds surfing between Web pages, or wandering between channels, and hovering only mere minutes on one book snippet after another; but in reality I am spending 10 hours a day paying attention to the Internet. I return to it after a few minutes, day after day, with essentially my full-time attention. As do you.
We are developing an intense, sustained conversation with this large thing. The fact that it is made up of a million loosely connected pieces is distracting us. The producers of Websites, and the hordes of commenters online, and the movie moguls reluctantly letting us stream their movies, don't believe they are mere pixels in a big global show, but they are. It is one thing now, an intermedia with 2 billion screens peering into it. The whole ball of connections — including all its books, all its pages, all its tweets, all its movies, all its games, all its posts, all its streams — is like one vast global book (or movie, etc.), and we are only beginning to learn how to read it. Knowing that this large thing is there, and that I am in constant communication with it, has changed how I think.