Deep Thinkers Debate: 'How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

[ Wed. Jan. 13. 2010 ]

Edge is an organization of deep, visionary thinkers on science and culture. Each year the group poses a question, this year collecting 168 essay responses to the question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" 

In answer, academics, scientists and philosophers responded with musings on the Internetenabling telecommunication, or functioning as a sort of prosthesis, or robbing us of our old, linear" mode of thinking. Actor Alan Alda described the Web as "speed plus mobs." Responses alternate between the quirky and the profound ("In this future, knowledge will be fully outside the individual, focus will be fully inside, and everybody's selves will truly be spread everywhere.") 

Since it takes a while to read the entire collection--and the Atlantic Wire should know, as we tried--here are some of the more piquant answers. Visit the Edge website for the full experience. For a smart, funny answer in video form, see here.

  • We Haven't Changed, declares Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis. Our brains "likely evolved ... in response to the demands of social (rather than environmental) complexity," and would likely only continue to evolve as our social framework changes. Our social framework has not changed: from our family units to our military units, he points out, our social structures remain fairly similar to what they were over 1000 years ago. "The Internet itself is not changing the fundamental reality of my thinking any more than it is changing our fundamental proclivity to violence or our innate capacity for love."
  • Bordering on Mental Illness Barry C. Smith of the University of London writes of the new importance of "well-packaged information." He says he is personally "exhilarated by the dizzying effort to make connections and integrate information. Learning is faster. Though the tendency to forge connecting themes can feel dangerously close to the search for patterns that overtakes the mentally ill."
  • New 'Survival of the Focused' Stanford psychologist Brian Knutson thinks the Internet may bias us towards our "present" selves rather than "future" selves, leading to procrastination: "I worry that the Internet may impose a 'survival of the focused,' in which individuals gifted with some natural capacity to stay on target or who are hopped up on enough stimulants forge ahead, while the rest of us flail helplessly in some web-based attentional vortex."
  • Language is a Technology, Too, points out another Stanford psychologist, Lera Boroditsky. Some technologies "we no longer even notice as technologies: they just seem like natural extensions of our minds. Numbers are one such example: a human-invented tool that once learned has incredible productive power in the mind. Writing is another such example. It no longer seems magical in the literate world that one could communicate a complex set of thoughts silently across vast reaches of time and space using only a cocktail napkin and some strategically applied stains." Boroditsky ends with a jab at renowned philosopher Dan Dennett, who makes his own point about how "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and the Internet is absolute.
  • We Are Immortal, is Juan Enriquez's startling conclusion. "Future sociologists and archaeologists," unlike current ones studying ancient Rome, "will have access to excruciatingly detailed pictures on an individual basis." There are drawbacks: "those of a certain age learned long ago, from the triumphs and tragedies of Greek Gods, that there are clear rules separating the mortal and immortal. Trespasses tolerated and forgiven in the fallible human have drastic consequences for Gods. In the immortal world all is not forgiven and mostly forgotten after you shuffle off to Heaven."
  • Cells are to Humans as Humans are to Internet Humanity W. Tecumseh Fitch, cognitive biologist at the University of Vienna, looks at the way single cells gradually grouped into multi-celled organisms that required organization, with certain cells exerting control over others through hormones and neurons. Humans are now "the metaphoric neurons or the global brain," he says, with HTML for neurotransmitters as we rush to "the brink of a wholly new system of societal organization." He sees "two main problems," though, with his metaphor:

First, the current global brain is only tenuously linked to the organs of international power ... Second, our nervous systems evolved over 400 million years of natural selection, during which billions of competing false-starts and miswired individuals were ruthlessly weeded out. But there is only one global brain today, and no trial and error process to extract a functional configuration from the trillions of possible configurations. This formidable design task is left up to us.

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