We need a dug-out canoe to navigate the net

[ Wed. Jan. 27. 2010 ]

The new Apple iPad isn’t the half of it. The torrent of internet information is forcing us to change the way we think

Ben Macintyre

In 1953, when the internet was not even a technological twinkle in the eye, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories: the hedgehog and the fox: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.

Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment. The new Apple iPad is merely the latest step in the fusion of the human mind and the internet. This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.

Edge (www.edge.org), a website dedicated to ideas and technology, recently asked scores of philosophers, scientists and scholars a simple but fundamental question: “How is the internet changing the way you think?” The responses were astonishingly varied, yet most agreed that the web had profoundly affected the way we gather our thoughts, if not the way we deploy that information.

For both better and worse, fox-thinking is dominant. At its worst, it means shorter attention spans, shallower memories, fragmented, unsustained argument, the undermining of intellectual property rights and a tendency to mistake anecdote for fact. At its best, the internet represents an intellectual revolution, fostering free collaboration as never before, with dramatically improved access to boundless information, the great store of the world’s knowledge just a few keystrokes and clicks away. In the great bubbling cauldron of cyberspace, remarkable new recipes are being cooked up every minute.


The nimble internet fox is both an extraordinary time-saver, nipping from one place to another on instant mind-journeys that would once have taken years. But he is also a prodigious time-waster, wandering down distracting avenues of celebrity gossip, pornography, invective and the minutiae of other peoples’ lives.

The internet is changing the very nature of human memory. Erudition and experience, the store of knowledge built up by an individual over years, is becoming less important than the ability to focus and edit: extracting information from the machine has superseded the ability to recall it unaided. For example, I thought I could remember the line about the hedgehog and the fox, but I did not feel I “knew” it until, in a few seconds, I had looked it up online.

In internet-driven thought, the premium is not on what you know, but what you can discover. We do not watch or absorb the internet, but scour it for what is useful. This requires a particular sort of mind, and as the digital world continues its colonisation of our own, fox-like minds will increasingly dominate the workplace. As David Dalrymple, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, puts it: “The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is.” How the internet teaches us to think depends on whether we treat it as a primary school playground, a place for puerile fights, shallow entertainment, chatter and self-absorption, or a forum of higher learning, packed with delights and discovery, offering unprecedented opportunities for exchanging ideas. Most of us, of course, treat it as both simultaneously.

Reading the web usefully requires a new form of literacy, the ability to sift from the abundance of information what is helpful from what is pointless or merely distracting. Many feel overloaded by the onslaught of information: too many websites, too many messages, a deafening chorus of tweets and texts. Internet thinking is not just about browsing and gathering, but choosing and rejecting. The internet fox knows many things, but while hungrily snarfing up titbits from every corner, he must also know what is indigestible, what is nourishing and what is poisonous.

A few hundred years ago literacy was rare and extremely valuable. Today anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard is a publisher. A generation ago knowledge had to be actively sought out; today we are bombarded with information, much of it bad, biased or simply irrelevant.

The fundamental way we think has not changed, but the way we access information, and the sheer volume of that information, be it scintillating or spam, has altered in ways that are both inspiring and daunting. Chipping away the rotten wood is, perhaps, the most fundamental skill for the online brain: the discipline of allocating attention, filtering, questioning.

This is where the Indian canoe comes in. According to the science historian George Dyson, the Indians of the Pacific North West had two, very different methods of boatbuilding. The Aleuts, living on treeless islands, constructed kayaks from what they could find on the beaches, skins stretched across a framework of driftwood. The Tlingit, by contrast, cut down huge trees, and hollowed out an entire canoe, cutting and burning away the excess wood.

“We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information,” writes Dyson. “Now, we have to learn to become dug-out canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.” As the intellectual torrent of the internet swells with each technological advance, there is only one creature who can be confident of staying afloat: the fox, paddling in the dug-out canoe.

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