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ED REGIS
Science writer; Author, What Is Life?

A MIRACLE AND A CURSE

The Internet is not changing the way I think (nor, so far as I am concerned, the way anyone else thinks, either, but that is not the Edge question). To state the matter somewhat naively, I continue to think the same way I always thought: by using my brain, my five (or six) senses, and by considering the relevant available information. I mean, how else can you think?

What it has changed for me is my use of time. The Internet is simultaneously the world's greatest time-saver and the greatest time-waster in history. As a time-saver, I'm reduced to stating the obvious: the Web embodies practically the whole of human knowledge, and most of it's only a mouse click away. An archive search that in the past might have taken a week, plus thousands of miles of travel, can now be done at blitz speeds in the privacy of your own home or office. Etcetera.

The flip side, however, is that the Internet is also the world's greatest time sink. This was explicitly acknowledged as a goal by the two twenty-something developers of one of the famous Web sites or browsers or search engines, I forget which (it may have been Yahoo), who once jocularly said: "We developed this thing so that you don't have to waste time to start wasting time. Now you can start wasting time right away."

As indeed you can. In the newsprint age, I studiously avoided reading the papers on the dual grounds that (a) the news from day to day is pretty much the same ("renewed fighting in Bosnia," "suicide bomber kills X people in Y city"), and (b) in most cases you can do absolutely nothing about it anyway. Besides, it's depressing.

These days, though, while the news content remains exactly the same as before, I am a regular reader of the New York Times online, plus of course Google News, plus my local paper. Plus I check the stock market many times daily, plus the weather, the Doppler radar, blogs, where I sometimes get into stupid, mind-sapping, time-eating flame wars, read the listserves that I subscribe to, check out Miata.net for any spiffy new Miata products or automotive gossip, deal with my e-mail…and this doesn't even half cover the Homeric catalog of Internet ships that I sail on from day to day.

Of course I don't have to do any of this stuff. No one forces me to. I can only blame myself.

Still, the Internet is so seductive—which is odd considering that it's so passive an agency. It doesn't actually do anything. It hasn't cured cancer, the common cold, or even hiccups.

The Internet is a miracle and a curse. Mostly a miracle.


GIULIO BOCCALETTI
Physicist, Atmospheric and Oceanic scientist, and Associate Principal with McKinsey & Company

COLLECTIVE ACTION AND THE GLOBAL ENVIRONMENT

The Internet has most definitely changed the way in which I think about collective action and the impact science can have on decision making, particularly when it comes to managing the global environment. Three things in particular come to mind: its role in providing a platform to overcome collective action problems, its ability to focus our collective consciousness from multidisciplinary issues to one problem — the management of planet Earth — and its impact in changing the pressures which science is subject to, as it deals with this new interest for all things planetary.

First, its role as a platform.

The global commons in which we operate — water resources, the carbon stock of the atmosphere, land and the oceans, tropical forests — easily exceed national boundaries, historically making top-down decisions about management difficult. However, these global commons are fully encompassed by global networked information systems, which therefore provide — beyond access to information — a platform that enables matching information to action for those who see an opportunity. And if we take a step back from the short term progress on policy convergence, this is what can be observed across the world.

Businesses and governments are steering productive efforts towards those global commons, in what many now call the "Green Economy", using networks to do so. This is a world where farmers, whether in the massive irrigation systems of the Indus plains of Pakistan or in the Australian Murray-Darling basin, can access in real time how much water they are allocated on-line and plan agricultural activities around them; where conservation programmes for tropical forests in Brazil or Indonesia — a critical component of our global strategy to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions — are being planned on the basis of mapping technologies that span the world; where we can use networked platforms to coordinate millions of individual decisions on consumption (and production) of energy through smart grids, information-laden networks for power transmission; where information about weather can be used operationally across the globe. And where, for the first time, intentional large-scale interventions on the Earth's climate, such as those attempting to increase carbon capture by the ocean, are being considered by ventures that already assume a fully networked world.

But over the last decade I have also observed the effect the Internet has had in creating a shared understanding of what the real problem is, demonstrating to me yet again the power of making science accessible.

There used to be an edifice of data and theories, inaccessible to all except for the few whose job it was to study "the Earth". In an attempt to create an integrated story, Earth scientists carefully built this edifice through layer after layer of complicated charts — global temperature fields, wind distribution, land use, geology, ice cover — and their theories drew on disparate disciplines to create an ambitious if incomplete picture of what the Earth looks like and, most importantly, how it functions and how it might change.

To the vast majority of the public though, this endeavor meant little if anything at all. 1958 was proclaimed International Geophysical Year — a sort of race to the Earth — but the only global event to reach the collective consciousness, out of this ambitious programme, was the Soviet launch of Sputnik, heralding rather the beginnings of the race to Space. When I started in this field over a decade ago, earth science departments struggled to attract the best science students away from engineering and physics departments, planetary issues would not have registered for most MBA students, and the closest businesses would get to them would be having a picture of the globe as their logo. The planet, as an integrated collection of large scale processes, was not really a consideration in most people's activities. It was at best a container, an invariant to our lives, one that we could rely on mostly being — well — there.

The widespread adoption of global information networks changed all this, allowing access to data and theories, often without the mediation of scientists, spreading ideas and encouraging public debate. And that precise edifice, the colourful maps representing different aspects of the planet's identity, the data which had been carefully caveated, became an interactive multidimensional space owned by no-one, explored by a wide set of agents. A space where our planet (and our role in it) became the subject of intense political, business, and social interests.

The Internet has given rise to one of the largest instances of collective realization witnessed thus far: people from across the globe, governments, businesses, have come to realize — more or less at the same time — that the Earth as a whole is not an academic abstraction, but an entity we interact with, which we can affect through our daily activities and that, in turn, affects us. The Internet has created what Lyotard might have thought of as a new concept of knowledge of the Earth, manufactured not by individuals, but by a collective act of negotiation.

Lastly comes the impact the Internet has had on science itself and the pressures it is subject to. As a scientist, I was trained in a keen understanding of the limits of what the Earth sciences can say, a feel for the inherent uncertainties hidden in the complexity of our planet's observed phenomena. But in what turns out to be a strikingly recursive story, this new conceptual and integrated model for the Earth, bourn out of the work of thousands of Earth scientists and crystallized in the collective consciousness by global access to information, is also having a profound effect on the questions I see science being called to answer.

By transforming the Earth from an object of study to an interactive environment that all are legitimized to explore — a place where the demands of the economy, the questions of society collide with the disciplinary boundaries of the scientific community — science is being pushed towards operational and applied issues. Choices on where to place off-shore wind turbines have a lot to do with where we believe the global circulation of the atmosphere will end up delivering most of the momentum it picks up in the tropics; concerns about the viability of the hydropower infrastructure are tied to our understanding of variability in the global hydrological cycle; questions on the future of carbon capture and storage — the idea of sequestering carbon emitted in deep receptacles — are fundamentally tied to our understanding of geology and biogeochemistry.

How should we plan for a changing climate? Where should we invest? What new technologies should we adopt? Such are the questions that science is being drawn to answer. The challenge is in making sure that, along with the knowledge, the limits of what science can tell us — and therefore the boundaries of what we can do — are not lost in translation, as they travel through the Internet.


ANDREW LIH
USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism; Author, The Wikipedia Revolution

THE REFINEMENT OF INFORMATION

What has changed my way of thinking is the ability of the Internet to support the deliberative aggregation of information, through filtering and refinement of independent voices, to create unprecedented works of knowledge.

Wikipedia is the greatest creation of massive collaboration so far. That we have a continuously updated, working draft of history that captures the state of human knowledge down to the granularity of each second is unique in the human experience.

Wikipedia, and now Twitter, as generic technical platforms have allowed participants to modify and optimize the virtual workspace to evolve new norms through cultural negotiation. With only basic general directives, participants implicitly evolve new community conventions through online stigmergic collaboration.

With the simple goal of writing an encyclopedia, Wikipedians developed guidelines regarding style, deliberation and conflict resolution while crafting community software measures to implement them. In the Twitter universe, retweeting and hashtags were organically crafted by users extended the "microblogging" concept to fit emerging community desires. This virtual blacksmithing in both the Wikipedia and Twitter workspaces support a form of evolvable media that is 'impossibly' supported by the Internet.

So far, our deep experiences with this form of collaboration have been in the domain of textual data. We see this also in journalistic endeavors that seek truth in public documents and records. News organizations such as Talking Points Memo and The Guardian (UK) have successfully mobilized the crowd to successfully tackle hundreds of thousands of pages of typically intractable data dumps. Mature text tools for searching, differential comparison and relational databases have made all this possible.

We have only started to consider the implications in the visual and multimedia domain. Today, we lack the sufficient tools to do so, but we will see more collaborative creation, editing and filtering of visual content and temporal media. Inevitably, the same creative stigmergic effect in the audio-visual domain from Internet-enabled collaboration will result in works of knowledge beyond our current imagination.

It is hard to predict exactly what they will be. But if you had asked me in 2000 whether something like Wikipedia was possible, I would have said absolutely not

 


JUNE COHEN
Director of Media, TED Conference; TED Talks

THE RISE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IS REALLY A REPRISE

In the early days of the Web, when I worked at HotWired, I thought mainly about the new. We were of the future, those of us in that San Francisco loft, champions of new media, new tools, new thinking. But lately, I've been thinking more about the old — about those aspects of human character and cognition that remain unchanged by time and technology. Over the past two decades, I've watched as the Internet changed the way we think and changed the way we live. But it hasn't changed us fundamentally. In fact, it may be returning us to the intensely social animals we evolved to be.

Every day, hundreds of millions of people use the Internet to blog and tweet and IM and Facebook, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And it is. The tools are new, but the behaviors come naturally. Because the rise of social media is actually a reprise, a return to the natural order.

When you take the long view — when you look at the Internet on an evolutionary timeline — everything we consider "old media" is actually very new. Books and newspapers became common only in the last 200 years, radio and film in the last 100, TV in the last 50. If all of human history were compressed into a single 24-hour day, media as we now know it emerged in the last 2 minutes before midnight.

Before that — for the vast majority of human history — all media was social media. Media was what happened between people. Whether you think of the proverbial campfire — around which group rituals were performed and mythologies passed on — or of simple everyday interactions: teaching, gossiping, making music, making each other laugh — media was participatory. Media was social.

So what we're seeing today isn't new. It's neither the unprecedented flowering of human potential nor the death of intelligent discourse, but rather the correction of a historical anomaly. There was a brief period of time in the 20th century when "media" was understood as something professionals created for others to passively consume. Collectively, we rejected this idea.

Humans are natural-born storytellers, and media has always formed the social glue that held our communities together. But mass media in the 20th century was so relentlessly one-way that it left room for little else. TV's lure proved so powerful, so intoxicating and so isolating that our older, participatory traditions — storytelling, music-making, simply eating together as a family — fell away. TV created a global audience, but destroyed the village in the process.

Enter the Internet. As soon as the technology became available to us, we began instinctively re-creating the kinds of content and communities we evolved to crave. Our ancestors lived in small tribes, keeping their friends close and their children closer. They quickly shared information that could have life-or-death consequences. They gathered round the fire for rituals and storytelling that bonded them as a tribe. And watch us now. The first thing most of us do with a new communications technology is to gather our tribe around us — emailing photos to our parents, nervously friending our kids on Facebook.

And we find every way we can to participate in media, to make it a group experience: We comment on YouTube videos; we upvote contestants on reality shows; we turn televised news events into live theater. Think of the millions who updated their Facebook status during Obama's inauguration ceremony, as if to say: "I'm here. I'm with you. I'm part of this." Our contributions may not be remarkable — they may be the written equivalent of shouting "Yay!" But then, the goal isn't to be profound; it's simply to belong.

And we share stories. We're designed to. If something surprises, delights or disgusts us, we feel an innate urge to pass it on. The same impulse that makes Internet videos "go viral" has been spreading ideas (and jokes, and chain letters) throughout history. This ancient process is merely accelerated online, and made visible, quantifiable, and — almost — predictable.

And of course we're telling our own stories too. We read regularly about celebrity bloggers with millions of fans, or Twitter campaigns that influence world events. But the truth is: Most bloggers, vloggers, tweeters and Facebookers are talking mainly to their friends. They compare lunches, swap songs and share the small stories of their day. They're not trying to be novelists or The New York Times. They're just reclaiming their place at the center of their own lives, with their t way of being, but it's a sea-change from the way family and friends around them.

In other words, when handed decentralized media tools of unprecedented power, we built a digital world strikingly similar to the tribal societies and oral cultures we evolved with. It may be an ancient way of being, but it's a sea-change from the way we lived and thought at the end of the 20th century.

So, as a member of the media, the Internet is changing how I think about my role: Not just as a conveyer of information, but as a convener of people. As a once-passive audience member, the Internet is changing the way I think by making me think, at every moment: What do I think of this? Who do I want to tell?

And as a thinker, the Internet has me dreaming about our distant past, which feels a lot closer than you would think.

 


IAN GOLD
Neuroscientist; Canada Research Chair in Philosophy & Psychiatry, McGill University

JOEL GOLD, M.D.
Psychiatrist; Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine

TWEET ME NICE

The social changes the Internet is bringing about have changed the way the two of us think about madness. The change in our thinking started, strangely enough, with reflections on Internet friends. The number of your Facebook friends, like the make of the car you drive, confers a certain status. It is not uncommon for someone to have virtual friends in the hundreds which seems to show, among other things, that the Internet is doing more for our social lives than wine coolers or the pill. In the days before Facebook and Twitter, time placed severe constraints on friendship. Even the traditional Christmas letter, now a fossil in the anthropological museum, couldn't be stamped and addressed 754 times by anybody with a full-time job. Technology has transcended time and made the Christmas letter viable again no matter how large one's social circle. Ironically, electronic social networking has made the Christmas letter otiose; your friends hardly need an account of the year's highlights when they can be fed a stream of reports on the day's events and your reflections on logical positivism or Lady Gaga.

It's hard to doubt that more friends are a good thing, friendship being among life's greatest boons. As Aristotle put it, "without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods." But of course friends are only as good as they are genuine, and it is hard to know what to think about Facebook friends. This familiar idea was made vivid to us recently by a very depressed young woman who came to see one of us for the first time. Among the causes of her depression, she said, was that she had no friends. Sitting on her psychiatrist's couch, desperately alone, she talked; and while she talked, she Twittered. Perhaps she was simply telling her Twitter friends that she was in a psychiatrist's office; perhaps, she was telling them that she was talking to her psychiatrist about having no real friends; and perhaps — despite her protestations to the contrary — she was getting some of friendship's benefits by having a virtual community. In the face of this striking contrast between the real and the virtual, however, it's hard not to think that a Facebook or Twitter friend is not quite what Aristotle had in mind.

Still, one probably shouldn't make too much of this. Many of the recipients of the Christmas letter wouldn't have been counted as friends, in Aristotle's sense, either. There is a distinction to be made between one's friends, and one's social group, a much larger community, which might include the Christmas letter people, the colleagues one floor below, or the family you catch up with at Bar Mitzvahs and funerals. Indeed, the Internet is also creating a hybrid social group that includes real friends and the friends-of-friends who are little more than strangers. Beyond these, many of us are also interacting with genuine strangers in chat rooms, virtual spaces, and second lives.

In contrast with friendship, however, an expanded social group is unlikely to be an unalloyed good because it is hardly news that the people in our lives are the sources not only of our greatest joys but also our most profound suffering. The sadistic boss can blight an existence however full of affection from others, and the sustaining spouse can morph into That Cheating Bastard. A larger social group is thus a double-edged sword, creating more opportunities for human misery as well as satisfaction. A hybrid social group that includes near-strangers and true strangers may also open to the door to real danger.

This mixed blessings of social life seem to have been writ large in our evolutionary history. The last time social life expanded as significantly as it has in the last couple of years was before there were any humans. The transition from non-primates to primates came with an expansion of social groups, and many scientists now think that the primate brain evolved under the pressures of this novel form of social life. With a larger social group there are more opportunities for cooperation and mutual benefit, but there are also novel threats. Each member of a social group will get more food if they hunt together, for example, than they would get hunting by alone, but they also expose themselves to free riders who take without contributing. By living in larger social groups, the physical environment is more manageable, but deception and social exploitation emerge as new dangers. Since both cooperation and competition are cognitively demanding, those with bigger brains — and the concomitant brain power — will have the advantage in both. The evolution of human intelligence may thus been driven primarily by the kindness and the malice of others.

Some of the best evidence for this idea is that there is a relation in primates between brain size (more precisely, relative neocortical volume) and the size of the social group in which the members of the species live: bigger brain, bigger group. Plotting social group as a function of brain size in primates allows us to extrapolate to humans. The anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, calculated that the volume of the human cortex predicts a social group of 150 — about the size of the villages that would have constituted our social environment for a great deal of evolutionary time, and which can still be found in "primitive" societies.

How could one test this hypothesis? In non-human primates, membership in a social group is typically designated by mutual grooming. Outside of hairdressing colleges and teenage-girl-sleep-overs, this isn't a very useful criterion for humans. But the Christmas letter (or card) does better. Getting a Christmas card is a minimal indicator of membership in someone's social group. In an ingenious experiment, Dunbar asked subjects to keep a record of all the Christmas cards they sent. Depending on how one counted, the number of card recipients was somewhere between 125 and 154, just about the right number for our brains. It appears, then, that over the course of millions of years of human history our brains have been tuned to the social opportunities and threats presented by groups of 150 or so. The Internet has turned the human village into a megalopolis and has thus inaugurated what might be the biggest sea-change in human evolution since the primeval campfires.

We come at last to madness. Psychiatry has known for decades that the megalopolis — indeed a city of any size — breeds psychosis. In particular, schizophrenia, the paradigm of a purely biological mental illness, becomes more prevalent as city size increases, even when the city is hardly more than a village. And this is the case not because mental illness in general becomes more common in cities; nor is it true that people who are psychotic tend to drift toward cities or stay in them. In creating much larger social groups for ourselves, ranging from true friends to near-strangers, could we be laying the ground for a pathogenic virtual city in which psychosis will be on the rise? Or will Facebook and Twitter draw us closer to friends in Aristotle's sense who can act as psychic prophylaxis against the madness-making power of others? Whatever the effects of the Internet on our inner lives, it seems clear that in changing the structure of our outer lives — the lives intertwined with those of others — the Internet is likely to be a more potent shaper of our minds than we have begun to imagine.

 


STEVE QUARTZ
Neuroscientist; Associate Professor of Philosophy, Caltech; Coauthor, Liars, Lovers, and Heroes: What the New Brain Science Reveals About How We Become Who We Are

WE KNOW LESS ABOUT THINKING THAN WE THINK

I don't know how the Internet is changing the way I think because I don't know how I think. For that matter, I don't think we know very much about how anyone thinks. Most likely our current best theories will end up relegated to the dustbin as not only wrong but misleading. Consider, for example, our tendency to reduce human thought to a few distinct processes. We've been doing this for a long time: Plato divided the mind into three parts, as did Freud. Today, many psychologists divide the mind into two (as Plato observed, you need at least two parts to account for mental conflict, as in that between reason and emotion). These dual-systems views distinguish between automatic and unconscious intuitive processes and slower and deliberative cognitive ones. This is appealing, but it suffers from considerable anomalies. Deliberative, reflective cognition has long been the normative standard for complex decision-making — the subject of decision theory and microeconomics. Recent evidence, however, suggests that unconscious processes may actually be better at solving complex problems.

Based on a misunderstanding of its capacity, our attention to normative deliberative decision-making probably contributed to a lot of bad decision-making. As attention turns increasingly to these unconscious, automatic processes, it is unlikely that they can be pigeon-holed into a dual-systems view. Theoretical neuroscience offers an alternative model with 3 distinct systems, a Pavlovian, a Habit, and a Goal-Directed system, each capable of behavioral control. Arguably, this provides a better understanding of human decision-making — the habit system may guide us to our daily Starbucks fix (even if we no longer like it), while the Pavlovian system may cause us to choose a pastry once there despite our goal of losing weight. But this too likely severely under-estimates the number of systems that constitute thought. If a confederacy of systems constitute thought, is their number closer to 4 or 400? I don't think we have much basis today for answering one way or another.

Consider also the tendency to treat thought as a logic system. The canonical model of cognitive science views thought as a process involving mental representations and rules for manipulating those representations (a language of thought). These rules are typically thought of as a logic, which allows various inferences to be made and allows thought to be systematic (i.e., rational).

Despite more than a half-century of research on various logics (once constituting the entire field of non-monotonic logics), we still don't know even the broad outlines of such a logic. Even if we did know more about its form, it turns out that it would not apply to most thought processes. That is, most thought processes appear not to conform to cognitive science's canonical view of thought. Instead, much of thought appears to rest on parallel, associative principles - all those currently categorized as automatic, unconscious ones, including probably most of vision, memory, learning, problem-solving, and decision-making. Here, neural network research, theoretical neuroscience, and contemporary machine learning provide suggestive early steps regarding these processes, but remain rudimentary. The complex dynamics underlying non-propositional forms of thought remain an essential mystery.

We also know very little about how brain processes underlie thought. We do not understand the principles by which a single neuron integrates signals, nor even the 'code' it uses to encode information and to signal it to other neurons. We do not yet have the theoretical tools to understand how a billion of these cells interact to create complex thought. How such interactions create our inner mental life and give rise to the phenomenology of our experience (consciousness) remains, I think, as much of a fundamental mystery today as it did centuries ago.

Finally, there is a troubling epistemological problem: to know whether the Internet is changing how I think my introspection into my own thinking would have to be reliable. Too many clever psychology and brain imaging experiments have made me suspicious of my own introspection. In place of the Cartesian notion that our mind is transparent to introspection, it is very likely that numerous biases undermine the possibility of self-knowledge, making our thinking as impermeable to ourselves as it is to others.


LAURENCE C. SMITH
Professor of Geography and Earth & Space Sciences, UCLA

INFORMED, TIGHTFISTED, AND SYNTHETIC

I remember very well the day when the Internet began changing the way I think. It happened in the spring of 1993 in a drab, windowless computer lab at Cornell. One of my fellow graduate students (a former Microsoft programmer who liked to stay abreast of things) had drawn a crowd around his flickering UNIX box. I shouldered my way in, then became transfixed as his fingers flew over Xmosaic, the first widely available Web browser in the world.

Xmosaic was only months old. It had been written at the University of Illinois by an undergraduate student named Marc Andreessen (a year later he would launch Netscape, its multi-billion dollar successor) and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications. Already there were some Web sites up and running. Urged on by his crowd's word-search suggestions ("Sex!" "Kurt Cobain!" "Landsat!"), my fellow student lifted the curtain on a new world of commerce, entertainment and scientific exchange in barely fifteen minutes. A sense that something important was happening filled the lab. By the next day everyone had Xmosaic up and running.

How has my thinking changed since that day in 1993? Like most everyone I've become both more addicted to information, and more informed. With so much knowledge poised instantly beneath my fingertips, I am far less tolerant of my own ignorance. If I don't know something, I look it up. Today I flit through dozens of newspapers a day when before I barely read one. Too many hours of my life are consumed in this way, and other tasks procrastinated, but I am perpetually educated in return.

I am now more economics-minded than before. In 1992 if I had to fly someplace I called the travel agent who worked around the corner and accepted whatever she said was a good fare. Today, I thrash competing search engines to shake the last nickel out of a plane ticket. Before shopping online I hunt and peck for secret discount codes. This superabundance of explicit pricing information has instilled in me an obsessive thriftiness that I did not possess before. Doubtless it has helped contribute to thousands of excellent travel agents losing their jobs, and even more hours of time wasted, in return for these perceived monetary savings.

The pace and scale of my branch of science have become turbocharged. Unlike before when scientific data were hard to get, expensive, and prized, my students and I now freely post or download enormous volumes at little or no cost. We ingest streaming torrents of satellite images and climate model simulations in near-real time; we post our own online for free use by unseen others around the planet. In a data-rich world, a new aesthetic of sharing, transparency, and collaboration has emerged to supplant the old one of data-hoarding and secretiveness. Earth science has become an extraordinarily exciting, vibrant and fast-advancing field because of this.

Perhaps the most profound change in my thinking is how the new ease of information access has allowed me to synthesize broad new ideas drawing from fields of scholarship outside my own. It took less than two years for me to finish a book identifying important convergent trends not only in climate science (my formal area of expertise) but globalization, population demographics, energy, political science, geography and law. While a synthesis of such scope might well have been possible without the light-speed world library of the Internet, I, for one, would never have attempted it.

Before 1993 my thinking was complacent, spendthrift, and narrow. Now, it is informed, tightfisted, and synthetic. I can't wait to see where it goes next.


TONY CONRAD
Experimental Filmmaker; Musician/Composer

A QUESTION WITH(OUT) AN ANSWER

This is a question without an answer, like "When did you stop beating your husband?" It speaks across a divide that's transparent in language, but not in social structuring. Even if you decide to disagree with Nicolas Luhmann, he is the clearest spokesperson on this point when he writes:

"Systems of the mind and systems of communication exist completely independently of each other…however, they form a relationship of structural complementarity."
And "the independence of each closed system is a requirement for structural complementarity, that is, for the reciprocal initiation (but not determination) of the actualized choice of structure."

What are we trying to deal with here? The question itself, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" intimates that it "has," in some sense, materially infected the structure of (inter)subjectivity; that language itself (that is, our common "consciousness" and unconscious), in the context of global Internet communications, is altered or somehow functions differently. But in the way that language is our shared "thinking," there is no way that the Internet might change only the way "you" think or I think; this "thinking" is a mediated collectivity that does not function meaningfully as a "you" or "I" but as "we": The question can ONLY be "How is the Internet changing the way WE think?"

Talk around it, don't answer; it's that riddle, whose answer is not to be answered.

The Internet has sapped my illocutionary force. Even before, various communication channels represented radically differentiated registers of illocutionary force; for instance, I could write words that I wouldn't use carelessly in civil society. Like fuck you, reader, if you don't like this, go fucking kill yourself, you shit, unless you care for yourself. The distance and anonymity of the Internet abets radical illocutionary shifts in language resources. This restaging of modes of address at all levels has impinged especially effectively on me as a culture worker who engages in interpersonal confrontations at various ranges of effective distances between me and the subject.

Internet communication is intimate. Internet activity is usually — almost always — individual, a confrontation between the solo subject and the interface with Everything. Sitting alone at my laptop, I'm shrouded in an enveloping trance, a shaped direction; the Internet is intimate, comes in very close, takes up a station nearly inside the sensorium, internal to the subject and somehow exempting the noumenal world, in a way that is quite privileged. Just as a good novel shares its style of thinking, its language and outlook, with me, the Internet also gets internalized to a great degree. Aha…but then, along with this surface — the "neutral" screen surface that carries this or that here or there — comes a fluid of advertising structures. This also happens in magazines and TV, but their surfaces are far less fluid, the distances between information strategies and attentional manipulation far greater, more explicit.

How is the Internet changing the way you (or I) think. What thinking? Is this intended to focus our attention on focused attention? In short, on trance? "flow"? focus? attention? For me, these areas are guided by unconscious processes (which is what advertisers count on): skeins of desires, memory constructs, social links, affiliations and associations, bundled in carefully culturally-regulated assemblages. I become aware that many tools of advertising are formal correlates of classic trance-induction rituals, which in turn are closely paralleled by conceptual and formal art strategies. The trance induction procedure that disrupts focused thinking by counting backwards could serve as a conceptual or formal art piece. So could the disruptive spellings of advertising — "kool," E-Z," "kleen," etc. — that similarly disrupt focused thinking. The "intrusion" of advertising onto the Internet hasn't been simply additive; it is multiplicative. Advertising communication modulates my attentional systems; that's its aim. As an artist, I become aware that the function of these formal structures and devices is the command and control of my attention.

In the matrix of intersections among globalization, new media, and jurisprudence are unoccupied spaces that I think Tricksters should locate and occupy. What kind of social role does this thinking suggest? Twenty years ago I advocated that media artists should try to break laws that had not yet been written, or, as I put it in a public address at the time: instead of impotent and fitful gestures to service and educate "the community," the need is really: 1. To find creative engagements with the law, to set instrumental moral examples for the new home camcorder user. And: 2. To invent new crimes.

Not only artists and outsiders, but I and everyone on the Internet have become "criminalized." In a city anonymity invites both opportunistic and planned criminality, because there are far fewer chances of being recognized than in a village. Online, my identity is a security negotiation, as at airports and banks. But airports and banks are institutions, isolated from "home," whereas the Internet is intimate.

The fact that I can shop at home itself means that I can steal and be stolen from at home too. The pervasive capacity for deception that the Internet embodies is directly coupled to intimacy — not only the intimacy of circumstantial space, such as the home, but intimacies of the imaginary: sexual desires, secret wishes, possessiveness and power dreams, hunger and fatigue, ill health and the threat of death. These are Big Things; they bulldoze fears of criminality aside and open the gates to criminal thoughts, on the one hand, and victimization on the other. These "thoughts" are less coherent plans than mindsets, a general drift or modality of moral outlook, and this sea change of outlook has made for adjustments in my language, expectations, social commerce, vigilance, and levels of depression or exhilaration, in a proliferating tangle of ways.

By de-localizing, rapidly substituting communications for travel (or perhaps creating a convergence between these two systems), the Internet has transposed the global socioeconomic "North/South" vector into a socially "vertical" vector, as "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer." These vectors, "North/South" and "rich/poor," may not commonly be perceived as globally equivalent — but neocolonialism does equal the globalization of wage slavery accompanied by huge bonuses among financial managers, with the larger effect of class structure rigidification and the global assurance of corporate hegemony.

The Internet, which has been the vehicle for this 90° shift, comprises also the vehicle for stabilization of the "new order," since it is the convergence site for every channel of mass communications. …But if everyone has "free" access to information sources, won't these social disparities be resolved through agonistic processes of one sort or another? …or is it instead possible that the "opposition" movement will merely sustain a quasi-stable dialectical balance. These are Internet "thoughts" that daily bring me pain.

Analytical "understanding" doesn't resolve conflicts. In fact, the resolution of social disparities is being addressed more trenchantly today by religious fervor than by academic analysis; so the control of belief systems by the Internet, and its evolving strategies for adjusting our "minds," represents the balance of future power. Is this at work on me? Likely so; as it happens, belief, conviction, and knowledge are language structures, dangling in the language breeze — a breeze that is inflected, regulated, and abetted by formal processes that attract me: repetition, metaphorical displacement, tradition and ritual, iconic simplification, bait and switch and other psychological tricks ("You can't have any spinach!" "No! I WANT spinach!"), and framing or setting-apart.

The Internet's global agenda is counterpoised to the "real world" conditions of my geographic localism. "Community" has become a fluidly negotiable term because of the Internet. However conceived, though, "community" on line is radically different from "community" in a geographically local sense. Second Life offers and extreme example of the former; opposed to this is the way local churches in my "real world" do functionally address community housing and schooling issues in my city. However, when these same churches "reach out" on line, or even on TV, their function is diluted to meaninglessness.

The Internet, by distracting me from local matters of immediate and actionable significance, has destructively interfered with my neighborhood agency. Nevertheless, to the degree that "all politics is local" the Internet can to a degree be used to expand awareness and interactivity within and of a geographically limited function. It cost-effectively supplements direct mail public relations, leading neighbors to events and connectedness that otherwise would slip past them. All of this is helpful, but it doesn't account for the urgency with which people believe the Internet is a direct route to power for them, when in fact the Internet is so exploitable by power as a control mechanism. Meanwhile I've begun to think of power differently.

In my West/North world, consensus formation has been atomized as a byproduct of net surfing. I can turn anywhere and find confirmation or contestation of almost anything I may happen to "have in mind." The intimacy of Internet peer group communications (Facebook, etc.) challenges the parents, tribes, churches, communities, workplaces, and schools whose authority formerly dominated the plane of large-scale belief formation and condensation. Meanwhile in regions where Internet communication is more rare, more regulated, more obviously slanted, and net surfing is less stochastic than in my West/North, religious conviction is more coherent and is linked to idioms of authority.

A narrow information channel can pretend to "be" the parents, tribes, churches, communities, workplaces, and schools that for me are washed away by my surfing relativism. But the illusion of individual empowerment that Internet surfing thrusts upon me is simply the backwash of a tidal rise in the technologies of control, effected in two directions: power's structuring of "freedom" of choice and exchange, and power's concomitant harvesting of data with explicit aims to regulate my "real world" behavior.

Internet surfing completely absorbs me in the flux and flow of the present moment, in contrast to reading a book, or learning a machine, or studying with a teacher. These enterprises demand sustained "linear thinking," even as their substrata can jump from one place to another: habitual sustained periods of focus are necessary. But my students don't think they "need" to read a whole book to respond to any given challenge; they can simply go to the Internet with their query and a search engine will "think outside the box" for them. This has made me despondent about a general degradation, around me, in people's habituation to focused linear thinking.

Today I opened an email message that asked me how the Internet is changing the way I think. I've received thousands of phone calls, but never got one that asked how the telephone had affected my thinking. I've read many books, without ever coming across this question about books, at least put so directly. The same with speaking to friends or watching movies. Now, in general I regard the rise of inventions such as the Internet from a constructivist perspective; in this instance as a consequence of the built-out social needs — among capital and the military — for telegraphy, telephones, fax, and so forth. So what is it about the Internet then? Which social necessity made it so singularly reflexive?


PAUL W. EWALD
Professor of Biology, Amherst College; Author, Evolution of Infectious Disease

CONCEPTUAL COMPASSES FOR DEEPER GENERALISTS

When I was a kid in the early '60s my mother took me on weekly trips to the Wilmette Public Library. It was a well-stocked warren of interconnected sandy-brick buildings that grew in increments as Wilmette morphed from farmland to modest houses with vacant lots, to an upwardly mobile, bland, Chicago suburb, and finally to a pricey, bland, Chicago suburb. My most vivid memory of those visits was the central aisle, flanked by thousands of books reflecting glints of "modern" fluorescent lights from their crackly plastic covers. I decided to read them all. I began taking out five books each weekend with the idea that I would exchange them for another five a week later, and continue until the mission was accomplished. Fortunately for my adolescence, I soon realized a deflating fact: the library was acquiring more than five books per week.

The modern Internet has greatly increased the availability of information, both the valuable stuff and the flotsam. Using a conceptual compass a generalist can navigate the flotsam, to gain the depth of a specialist in many areas. The compass-driven generalist need no longer be dismissed as the Mississippi River, a mile wide and a foot deep.

My current fixation offers an illustration. I'm trying to develop a unified understanding of the causes of cancer. This goal may seem like a pipe-dream. Quick reference to the Internet seems to confirm this characterization. Plugging "cancer" into Google I got 173 million hits, most of them probably flotsam. Plugging cancer into PubMed I got 2.3 million scientific works. Some of these will be flotsam, but most have something of value. If I read 10 papers per day every day, I could read all 2.3 million papers in 630 years. These numbers are discouraging, but it gets worse. Pubmed tells me that in 2009 there were 280 articles on cancer published per day. Memories of the Wilmette Public Library loom large.

I navigate through this storm of information using my favorite conceptual compass: Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. Application of evolutionary principles often draws attention to paradoxes and flaws in arguments. These problems, if recognized, are often swept under the rug, but they become unavoidably conspicuous when the correct alternative argument is formulated. One of my research strategies is to identify medical conventional wisdom that is inconsistent with evolutionary principles. I then formulate alternative explanations that are consistent and then evaluate all of them with evidence.

In the case of cancer, expert opinion has focused on mutations that transform well-behaved cells into rogue cells. This emphasis (bias?) has been so narrow that experts have dismissed other factors as exceptions to the rule. But it raises a paradox: the chance of getting the necessary mutations without destroying the viability of the cell seems much too low to account for the widespread occurrence of cancers. Paramount among the cancer-inducing mutations are those that disrupt regulatory processes that have evolved to prevent damage from cancer and other diseases cell proliferation. One of these barriers to cancer is the arrest of cellular replication. Another is a cap on the total number of cell divisions. Still another is the tendency for cells to commit suicide when genetic damage is detected.

For a century, research has shown that infections can cause cancer. For most of this time this knowledge was roundly dismissed as applying only to nonhuman animals. Over the past thirty years, however, the connection between infection and human cancer has become ever stronger. In the 1970s most cancer experts concluded that infection could be accepted as a cause of no more than 1% of human cancer. Today infectious causes are generally accepted for about 20% of human cancer, and there's no end to this trend in sight.

When infections were first found to cause cancer, experts adjusted their perspective by the path of least resistance. They assumed that infections contribute to cancer because they increase mutation rate. An alternative view is that infectious agents evolve to sabotage the barriers to cancer. Why? Because barriers to cancer are also barriers to persistence within a host, particularly for viruses. By causing the cells they live in to divide in a precancerous state, viruses can survive and replicate below the immunological radar.

The depth of biological knowledge and the ability of the Internet to access this depth allows even a generalist to evaluate these two alternative explanations. Every cancer causing virus that has been well studied is known to sabotage these barriers. Additional mutations (some of the perhaps induced by infection) then finish the transformation to cancer.

Which viruses evolve persistence? This question is of critical practical importance because we are probably in the midst of determining full the scope of infection-induced cancer. Evolving an ability to commandeer host cells and drive them into a pre-cancerous state is quite a feat, especially for viruses, which tend to have only a dozen or so genes. To evolve mechanisms of persistence, viruses probably need a long time or very strong selective pressures over a short period of time. Evolutionary considerations suggest that transmission by sex or high-contact kissing could generate such strong selection, because the long intervals between changes in sex or kissing partners (for most people) places a premium on persistence within an individual. The literature on human cancer viruses confirms this idea--almost all are transmitted by kissing or by sex.

The extent to which this information improves quality and quantity of life will depend on whether people get access to it and alter their behavior to reduce their risk. The earlier the better, because exposure to these viruses rises dramatically soon after puberty. Luckily, kids now have broad access to information before they have access to sexual partners. It will be tougher for the rest of us who grew up before the modern Internet, in the primitive decades of the 20th century.


JAMES CROAK
Artist

ART MAKING GOING RURAL

When the Sui Dynasty sent the Literati, the scholar-gentry, to teach Confucian classics to the unschooled Chinese farmlands, they dragged carts of calligraphy and paintings to the isolated hamlets throughout the vast countryside. For centuries it was how culture was dispersed in China and among some islands of Japan. Today they would drag a cable.

The Internet allowed me to move to the countryside and make sculpture in the open snowy woods instead of the dark canyons of New York City. I resided in urban centers, especially New York, for most my adult life but in spare time I was drawn to rural places, sojourns to the Gulf of Mexico, sabbaticals to the Rockies, treks into the Arizona desert among the Saguaro and Devil's Claw, but those places never seemed to be a place to work, too isolated, until the Internet.

I always loved raw nature, but I saw it as antithetical to contributing to the cultural world that centers in the nexus of a large city. But a gradual thing happened, while located in that nexus, the center of Manhattan, the Internet grew up around me: trips to the library became trips to my screen, art-house movies gave way to, well, trips to my screen where YouTube and Netflix provide a private movie house living on my desk. The daily lift ride to my postal box became several trips to the screen each day as fountain pens and stamps gave way to instant chatter among friends and not-friends. Taxi rides to supply shops gave way to Internet orders, let UPS lug it home. Negotiating the racks of neighborhood bookstores gave way to browsing Amazon with their reams of attached reviews. Evermore the pluriform reasons to live in a metropolis were appearing on my desk and not out past my doorman.

The dawning happened during a photo trip to the Everglades, I took my computer with me, not just the phone to tap on, or a dim lap-top, but the big screen to a strip motel whose swinging sign bragged "Internet" in perhaps the best Palmer Script ever painted in peacock blue. There atop the luan mahogany was the same view that I had in NYC, the New York Times Website, an FTP site, rows of email, my bank's Web site with a new charge for Conch Shell Fantasy swallowed an hour earlier. Our common nervous system had followed me into the sea of grass and I knew right then I would follow that blinking cable farther into the countryside.

Robert Frost wrote about arriving in a place in the woods so deep even his horse was puzzled:

He gives his harness bells a shake To ask if there is some mistake. The only other sound's the sweep Of easy wind and downy flake.

I did follow that cable into the country among trees not felled for newspapers not printed because home delivery is the Web. In keeping with this revelation a Kindle will come next. My shelves cluttered with a life time of collected books will not increase, at least not at the previous steady rate; instead they will give way to the electric tablet, as rewritable as the clay tablets of Babylon, but with a magic cuneiform from the WiFi spirit that hovers in the air and inscribes stories for me to read. I need only petition this WiFi for a story or a daily newspaper and the reed begins carving "within 60 seconds." Rewritable tablet to fixed paper to rewritable tablet in only six thousand years, and all three can be read under a tree.

The 1935 Rural Electrification Project wired the American countryside with electricity transforming farming and ranching a century beyond the balance of the world. When President Roosevelt began the program less than 10% of the rural areas had electricity; along with water pumps soon came radio and television beaming thoughts of a planet into an isolated world. The unnamed Internet cable project spreading through rural areas will have equal impact, a portable civilization on the end of a tube of glass bringing the big city advantage to a more soothing setting.

Can one telecommute as a sculptor? I send images of new pieces back and forth to my dealer, works in progress can be beamed in a second and further discussions of where they might land. As sculpture is not flat they cannot be confused with a blunted jpeg as perhaps painting can, a qualitative flattening that worries painters. Larger works can be created simply because I have more space in the country, living in Manhattan I thought in terms of square feet, in the country in terms of acres. After email my most basic Internet task is using the net as a photo library often eliminating the need to track down and hire life models. Need an eleven year old wearing a long bathing suit twisting to the left with hands in the air; give me two minutes and I will have it, often from multiple angles, printed out and stapled to the wall of my studio. Internet means figurative accuracy.

It also means dialog among like-minded people, I presently have four banters — email threads — underway with art or architecture students in as many countries, they are not bashful about sending notes out of the blue requesting recipes for making this or that, or education I recommend or how to prevail as an artist, etcetera. I answer most out a curiosity of what is on the next generation's mind, hoping to keep my own mind pliable. The barriers for the student to reach out to the experienced have fallen, no longer a letter passed from publisher to dealer to artist over a month or two, but instead a note read at breakfast and a response by lunch.

For me the Internet made art-making rural, not centered in cities as it had been for centuries.


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