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Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Changing Minds


The Internet has changed my life greatly, but not in a way that I could have anticipated, nor in the way that the question implies. Put succinctly, just as if a newly discovered preliterate tribe had challenged my beliefs about human language and human culture, the Internet has altered my views of human development and human potential.

Several years ago, I had a chance conversation with Jonathan Fanton, then President of the MacArthur Foundation. He mentioned that the Foundation was sponsoring a major study , to the tune of 50 million dollars, of how young people are being changed by the new digital media, such as the Internet. At the time, as part of our GoodWork research Project, I was involved in studies of ethics and focusing particularly on the ethical orientation of young people. And so I asked Pres. Fanton "Are you look at the ways in which the ethics of youth may be affected?" He told me that the Foundation had not thought about this issue. After several conversations and a grant application, our GoodPlay project, a social science study of ethics in the digital media, was launched.

Even though I myself am a digital immigrant — I sometimes refer to myself as a digital paleolith — I now spend many hours a week thinking about the ways in which nearly all of us — young and old — are affected by being on line, networked, surfing, or posting for so much of the day. I've become convinced that the 'digital revolution' might be as epochmaking as the invention of writing or, certainly, the invention of printing or of broadcast. While I agree with those who caution that it is premature to detail what the effects might be, it is not too early to begin to think, observe, reflect, conduct pivotal observations and experiments. Indeed, I wish that social scientists, and/or other observers had been around, when earlier new media of communication had debuted.

Asked for my current thinking, I would make the following points. The lives and minds of young people are far more fragmented than at earlier times. This mutipliicity of connections, networks, avatars, messages, may not bother them but certainly makes for identities that are more fluid and less stable. Times for reflection, introspection, solitude, are scarce. Longstanding views of privacy and ownership/authorship are being rapidly undermined. Probably most dramatically, what it has meant for millennia to belong to a community is being totally renegotiated as a result of instant 24-7 access to anyone who is connected to the Internet. How this will affect intimacy, imagination, democracy, social action, citizenship, and other staples of human kind is up for grabs.

For older persons (even older than I am), the digital world is mysterious. For those of us who are middle aged or beyond, we continue to live in two worlds — the pre-digital and the digital — and we may either be nostalgic for the days without blackberries or relieved that we no longer have to trudge off to the library. But all persons who want to understand their children or their grandchildren must make the effort to 'go native' — and at such times, we digital immigrants or digital paleoliths can feel as fragmented, as uncertain about privacy, as pulled by membership in diverse, and perhaps incommensurate communities, as any 15 year old.

Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Breaking the Spell


We philosophers don't agree about much, but one simple slogan that just about everybody accepts is 'ought' implies 'can'. You aren't obliged to do something impossible (for you). In the past this handily excused researchers from scouring the world's libraries for obscure works that might have anticipated their apparently novel and original discoveries, since life is short, and the time and effort that would have to be expended to do a thorough job of canvassing would be beyond anybody's means. Not any more. Everybody has all-but-free and all-but-instantaneous access to the world's archives on just about every topic. A few seconds with Google Scholar can give you a few hundred more peer-reviewed articles to check out. But this is really more scholarly can-do than I want. I don't want to spend my precious research time scrolling through miles of published work, even with a well-tuned search engine! So (like everyone else, I figure), I compromise. I regret the loss of innocence imposed on me by the Internet. "I could have done otherwise, but didn't" is the constant background refrain of all the skimpings I permit myself, all the shortcuts I take, and thus a faint tinge of guilt hangs over them all.

I also find that I am becoming a much more reactive thinker, responding — how can I do otherwise? — to a host of well-justified requests for my assistance (it will only take a few minutes) and postponing indefinitely my larger, more cumbersome projects that require a few uninterrupted hours just to get rolling. This tiny Edge essay is a prime example. It would be easy to resist this compression of my attention span if there weren't so many good reasons offered for taking these interruptions seriously. To date, my attempts to fend off this unwelcome trend by raising the threshold of my imperviousness have failed to keep up with the escalation. Stronger measures are called for. But do I regret the time spent writing this piece? No, on reflection I can convince myself that it may actually bring more valuable illumination to more people than a whole philosophical monograph on mereology or modal realism (don't ask). But will I ever get back to my book writing?

As Lord Acton famously said (I know — I just did a search to make sure I remembered it correctly — he said it in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887): "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." We are all today in possession of nearly absolute power in several–but not all–dimensions of thinking, and since this hugely distorts the balance between what is hard and what is easy, it may indeed corrupt us all in ways that we cannot prevent.

Architect and writer; editor at Abitare magazine.


I believe in the concept of the haptic nervous system, where the brain and neuronal cells are distributed along the nerve fibres of the whole body, not just resident in the skull. I therefore believe that body and brain are connected and that learning is also a physical phenomena.

I know how Internet has changed my body, not really how it changed my way of thinking.

My short sight has remained fairly stable: actually reading from a screen is forcing neither the retina nor the muscles of my eyes. Therefore I could avoid recurring to laser therapy so as to correct retinal tension, as it happened to me in the early nineties. In that period I used to study architecture and drawing by hand meant a great stress to my eyes, almost causing holes and retinal detachment.

Due to the position in front of the screen of the computer and to the lack of physical exercise deriving by a too intense use of the Internet (to every advance in connection speed more hours of it) I developed two herniated discs in the cervical region (detected in 2005) and two herniated discs in the lumbar region (detected in 2008). The first two provoke numbness and a certain diminution of strength in my thumbs, while the two last ones determine sciatica pains in my right leg, which is variable but aggravated by the position used to navigate the Internet for long hours. So it hurts more in the weekdays. There was anyway a family history of hernias.

The numbness of the thumbs, a disorder deriving from the compression of the spinal nerves in my neck, is aggravated by the use of portable devices from which to access the web, where the thumbs are the main fingers to be used, so that muscular fatigue is a secondary factor of stress. iPhones should carry some disclaimers about that.

On the other hand the information provided by the Internet and then stored in lightweight portable devices such as pen drives of external hard-disks save me from carrying heavy books around, therefore protecting my back. I can also shop online waiting for the goods to be delivered at my door. These were the main changes, registered so far.

The Internet also offers me with an instant and fast set of information about the pathologies that I know I suffer from and the new symptoms that arise suddenly, thus sustaining a mild form of hypochondria. It seems ironical that due to the easiness of this information, rather than thinking more of the world outside me, I tend to think more about myself and how I feel and what this could mean (not always, but quite frequently): I surf the website of some obscure osteopath in Nebraska to then come back at my petty little problems.

So I would say that at least Internet made me a more informed patient. But I am not sure if that knowledge is really valuable: the paediatrician of my daughters forbid me to check online about the illnesses they might be suffering, as my inclination to self-learning tends not to regard only myself but all my family and as the grim perspective that I tend to imagine can be very wrong. I wonder if the difficulty of getting information before the Internet was not somehow protecting us from a new diffused expertise as the one of Bouvard and Pecuchet.





Since I started to use Internet and all the options it offers in matter of communications, my perception of global time changed radically.

I'm now much more aware of time differences and, in a restless way, my nights became hunted from the presence of the other working day time around the world.

I'm became obsessed with being constantly updated about my correspondence and I lost that " no man's land " that was the time it took to a letter to arrive at destination, to receive and answer and travel all the way back to me.

My days become nights and my nights became brighter and more " available ".

As much as I can, and since I understood this trap, I try to fight back this system and to take back control of my time, but it's hard specially when it radically changed the perception I have of time itself.

Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow


Answering this question should be a slam-dunk, right? After all, thinking about thinking is my racket. Yet I must confess to being perplexed. I am not even sure we have good evidence that the way humans think has been changed by the advent of the printing press . . . Of course the speed of accessing information and the extent of information at one's fingertips has been extended enormously, but has that actually affected the way thinking unfolds?

If I am to rely on my personal experience, I would probably suggest the following hypotheses:

1. I am less likely to pursue new lines of thought before turning to the Internet to check either existing data-bases, or asking a colleague directly (result: less sustained thought?)

2. Information from the Internet is often decontextualized, but being quick it satisfies immediate needs at the expense of deeper understanding (result: more superficial thought?)

3. At the same time, connection between ideas, facts. Etc., can be more easily established on the Web — if one takes the time to do so — (result: more intra-personally integrated thought?)

4. The development of cooperative sites ranging from Wikipedia to open-source software (and including Edge?) makes the thought process more public, more interactive, more transpersonal, resulting in something similar to what Teilhard de Chardin anticipated over half a century ago as the "Noosphere", or a global consciousness that he saw as the next step in human evolution.

Like all technologies, this one has both positive and negative consequences. I am not sure I would bet on the first two (negative) hypotheses being closer to the truth; or on the next two, which are more positive. And of course, both sets could be true at the same time.

Berkman Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies, Harvard; Author, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom


Answering this question requires that we know what we mean when we say "the Internet;" and what we mean when we say "the way you think." If by "the way you think" you mean "the way your brain functions when you are doing certain kinds of operations," as some people might think, I am provisionally prepared to accept the answer "not at all." Provisionally, because it is not entirely clear to me that this is true.

For example, it might be that I use less of those physical processes involved in long-term memory, and more of those associated with applying routines and processes. When books were rare and expensive (or nonexistent) people trained more from an early age to memorize long pieces; emphasizing memory aids like rhyming or meter. When I know that any given piece of information is trivially retrievable, I will de-emphasize the time-saving device of memory, and emphasize the time-saving device of knowing how to search. I leave it to the brain scientists to ponder whether this means that different parts of my brain will be more or less activated. I'm not sure it matters all that much to the humanly interesting question of does the Internet change the way we think.

I will answer your question as though it were phrased, instead, as "how the Internet has changed the way you come to form and revise beliefs": about what is a correct statement about the state of the world: for example: that globe is warming due to human action; or about the state of a social claim: whether a blue shirt does, or does not, go with black pants; or whether it is immoral to enforce patents on medicines in ways that result in prices too high for the drugs to be distributed in Africa, where millions of people die each year from diseases preventable by application of these drugs, and where generics manufacturers stand at the ready to make those drugs available at affordable prices.

This leads us to the first question: what do you mean when you ask about "the Internet"? By "Internet" I, at least, mean a social-cultural condition in which we are more readily and seamlessly connected to more people, of varying degrees of closeness and remoteness to us, to more social and organizational structures, both those in which we are members and those in which we are not, and to more cultural artifacts and knowledge-embedded objects. Some of what is different is that people who are otherwise very close to each other more readily connect with each other.

An email with an inchoate thought; half a fragment to a friend, is the kind of thing that I can do today with more people than those with whom I can readily grab a cup of coffee, and with people whose friendship I value but who are geographically remote. Social distance has also moderated. Sending an email to a personal stranger who stands in an organizational, institutional, or socially proximate role is slightly easier, and is socially considered less intrusive, than making a phone call used to be.

At the margin, it makes approaching someone who has relevant knowledge or insight to my belief-formation process that much easier. Most radical is the recognition that someone, somewhere, who is entirely remote from me along geographic, social, or organizational dimensions has thought about something similar or pertinent. Existing as we do in a context that captures the transcript of so many of our conversations — from Wikipedia talk pages to the blogs or lists — makes the conversations others have had about questions we are thinking about vastly more readable to us than was true in the past.

If by "the way I think" we evoke Descartes' /cogito/, the self-referential "I think," then all we would think of with regard to the Internet is information search and memory enhancement. But if we understand thought as a much more dialogic and dialectic process, if "I think" entails "I am in conversations," then the Internet probably does change how I think quite a bit. No, it doesn't mean that "everyone is connected to everyone else" and exists in a constant stream of babble. But it does mean that we can talk to each other, in serially-expanding circles of social, geographic, and organizational remoteness, and listen to some of each other's conversations; and learn.

Thinking with these new capabilities requires both a new kind of open mindedness, and a new kind of skepticism. Open mindedness, because it is increasingly turning out that knowledge and insight reside in many more places than we historically recognized. A 16 year-old Norwegian kid might solve the question of how to crack DVD scrambling system. A ski lift operator and shoe salesman from Minnesota, who happens to be a political junky who hangs out on DailyKos, may have more insights into the dynamics of the Minnesota Senate election recount than the experts of CNN or the New York Times.

But there is also plenty of nonsense. We all know this. And so alongside the open mindedness we also have come to develop a healthy dose of skepticism — both about those who are institutionally anointed experts, and about those who are institutional outsiders. Belief formation and revision is an open and skeptical conversation: searching for interlocutors, forming provisional beliefs, giving them weight, continuously updating. We cannot seek authority; only partial degrees of provisional confidence. It requires that we take on the habits of the scientist, the investigative reporter, and the media critic as an integral part of the normal flow of life, learning, and understanding.

Maybe that's how I've always been. Maybe it has nothing to do with the Internet. I'm curious to see what others in this crowd are saying; curious to hear what some of my friends would say.

Cognitive Scientist; Author, Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind


I am not sure the Internet has changed the way we think so much as the way we act. Information has become cheap, and spend more time on-line than in libraries, but there's been no biological evolution: human brains remain human brains, with a finite capacity for absorbing information and host of cognitive biases that impair our judgements. People have vastly more information at their disposal now, but it doesn't mean they know how to use that information wisely. Teenagers, for example, often gauge the reliability of a Website by how slick a site is, rather than on the nature of the site's sources.

My suggestion? Let us use the Internet as an impetus for completely rebooting our educational system, reorienting it from its current but antiquated 18th century emphasis on memorization — pointless in the age of Wikipedia — to a more modern emphasis on critical thinking skills, on metacognition and decision-making. Instead of teaching kids mere facts we should be teaching children how to reason, reflect, plan, investigate and evaluate.

If we can do that, then (and perhaps only then) we might truly change how people think.

Neuroscientist, Chairman, Human Science Center and Department of Medical Psychology, Munich University; Author, Mindworks


It is painful to admit, but I have never thought about thinking before the Internet. With a pre-scientific attitude I had (and most of the time still have) the impression that "I" do not think at all, but that "it thinks", resulting sometimes in what appears to be a solution or an insight, but usually ends in nowhere. Apparently, I am at the mercy of uncontrolled and uncontrollable processes, presumably in my brain, but before the Internet I never cared about these processes themselves.

This is how I experience this "proto-thinking": It is like swimming in an ocean with no visible horizon, but sometimes suddenly an island surfaces unexpectedly indicating a direction, but before I reach this island it has disappeared again. This feeling to be at a loss has become much stronger with the Internet. There is no direction, there are no islands, - and this can no longer be accepted. What can I do swimming in this ocean of information, in a world of too much? Maybe it is useful to think about thinking as others like John Brockman have done successfully, and who can ask then a question about thinking and the Internet. Maybe it is helpful to think about thinking as a therapy against loss of cognitive control, fighting against the "too much" resulting in "too little". The goal must be to create a personal framework for orientation in the world of too much by asking questions like "what is thinking", or "why is there thinking"?

These are my personal answers, presumably shared by many others. Why is there thinking? From a biological point of view, (and can there be another one?), thinking is a service function of our brain to create a homeostatic state or an internal equilibrium. Of course, thinking is not the only service function; this is also true for perception, emotional evaluation or working memory. But these latter functions are characterized by a rather short time horizon. To expand this horizon, thinking has arrived in evolution. Thus, virtual behavior has become possible. Goal-oriented thinking allows the anticipation of a successful action and creates freedom in behavioral control such that the organism no longer has to react instantaneously. The option space of potential successful actions to reach a homeostatic state is considerably enlarged.

Next question: "What is thinking?" For successful "Probehandeln", as Sigmund Freud has referred to thinking, the letter "C" may serve to remember different operations. Thinking is necessarily defined within a CONTEXT or a frame. Without context, I navigate through the Internet without any orientation hoping to find a jewel by harvesting serendipity (what indeed sometimes happens).

Thinking requires material for thinking operations, i.e. without a mental CATEGORY there would be no thinking. Thinking must be about something, clearly and distinctly defined as René Descartes has asked for in his first rule of thinking in the "Discours de la méthode". But one category is not sufficient.

Thinking requires several categories in order to allow COMPARISON which is according to Rudolf Carnap the most basic mental operation. Comparing is possible with respect to quantity or to quality, i.e. different categories can be more or less or "this vs that", and the result of a comparison allows CHOICE which is the basis of a decision and then of action.

The process of categorizing, comparing and chosing must follow a correct temporal order or sequence which only then allows the extraction of CAUSALITY based on the proper CONTINUITY of mental operations. But how do I know whether thinking has brought be me to the right answer?

The CONSTELLATION of the different operations and the answer to a question which has been gained by thinking has to fit into the landscape of previous thinking and what is considered to be true. This may be signalled by what Archimedes has experienced as "Heureka". This experience is more than an analytical appreciation, but results in a feeling of satisfaction that indeed the anticipated goal in virtual space has been reached.

Certainly, I would have never thought about the seven "C" as elements of thinking if I would not have been lost in the world of too much. Thus, thinking has become a necessary therapy.

University of Vienna and Scientific Director, Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, Austrian Academy of Sciences


Yes, I have learned, like many others,

— to write short e-mails, because people don’t want to read beyond line 10.

— to write single-issue e-mails, because any second or third issues get lost.

— to check my e-mails on the i-phone or blackberry every five minutes, because the important message could be arriving at any moment.

— to expect that our brain function will significantly be reduced in the coming decades to very simple decision-making, and so on and so on.

Well, seriously, I find it utterly impressive how the notion of information is becoming more and more important in our society. Or rather, of what we think what information is. What is information? From a very pragmatic operational point of view, one could argue that information is the truth value of a proposition. Is it raining now? Yes/no. Are airplanes flying because they are lighter than air? Yes/no. Does she love me? Yes/no.

Evidently, there are questions which are easier to answer, and others which are very difficult, or maybe even impossible to answer in a reliable way like the last one. While for the first two questions, we can devise scientific procedures how to decide them, even including borderline cases, for the last question, such an algorithm seems impossible, even though some of our biology friends try to convince us that it is just a matter of deterministic procedures in our brains and in our bodies. There are other questions which will forever be beyond any methodical scientific decision procedures, like: Does God exist? Or: Which of the two slits in a double-slit interference experiment does a quantum particle take?

These last two questions are of a very different nature, although both are unanswerable. The question whether God exists is not only beyond any solid scientific argumentation, it must be like that. Any other possibility would be the end of religion. If God were provably existent, then the notion of belief is empty. Any religious behaviour would be mere opportunism. But what about the quantum question? Which of the two paths does a particle take in a double-slit experiment?

We learned from quantum physics that to answer this kind of question, we need to do an experiment which allows us to determine whether the particle takes slit A or slit B. But that, we also learned, significantly modifies the experiment itself. Answering the question implies introducing the specific apparatus which allows us to answer that specific question. Introducing an apparatus which permits to determine which slit a particle takes automatically means that the phenomenon of quantum interference disappears because of the unavoidable interaction with that apparatus. Or, in the picture of the famous Schrödinger cat, asking whether the cat is alive or dead immediately destroys the quantum superposition of the alive and dead states.

Therefore, we here have a completely new situation, not encountered before in science and probably not in philosophy either. Creating a situation where a question can be answered completely modifies the old situation. An experimental quantum setup, or any quantum situation, can only represent a finite amount of information, here either interference or path information. And it is up to the experimentalist to decide which information is actually existing, real, manifest, in a concrete situation. The experimentalist does this by choosing appropriate apparatus. So, information has a very fundamental nature of a new kind not present in classical, non-quantum science.

What does this all have to do with the Internet? Today, we are busy developing quantum communication over large distances. Using quantum communication links, one will connect future quantum computers which work in a completely new complexity class compared to existing computers. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that humanity develops a technology which has no parallel at all in the known Universe. There are no quantum computers out there, assuming that the functioning of the brain can, in the end, be explained by non-quantum processes.

What will all that mean for our communication? This is impossible to tell. It is more impossible to tell than the historic fact that it was impossible to predict the applications of inventions like the laser or microchips, just to name two more recent examples. We will be entering a completely new world where information is even more fundamental than today. And it is hoped that, looking back, when the present irritation experienced by many because of the Internet, will appear to have been just an episode in the development of humanity. But maybe I am too optimistic.

CEO, Biotechonomy; was Founding Director, Harvard Business School's Life Sciences Project; Author, The Untied States of America


The most important impact on my life and yours is that the Internet grants immortality. Think of your old archaeology/sociology/history course, or your visits to various museums. Think of how painstakingly arrowheads, outhouses, bones, beads, textiles, sentence fragments etc. have been discovered, uncovered, studied, and preserved.

But these few scraps have provided real knowledge while leaving large lagoons filled with conjecture, theories, speculation and outright fairy tales. Despite this, we still know an awful lot about a very few.

Because most of our knowledge of the past depends on very little about very few, the story of very few lives survives.

As we got better at transmitting and preserving data, we learned quite a bit more about many more.

Biographies could rely not just on letters, songs, and folk tales but on increasingly complete business ledgers, bills of sale, newspapers, and government and religious records.

By the time of the last great typhoid epidemics and fires in the U.S. and Europe, we could trace the history of specific houses, families, wells, cows, and outhouses. We could build a specific history of a neighborhood, family, and individual. But there were still very large lagoons in our knowledge. Not so today. Any electronic archaeologist, sociologist or historian examining our e-lives would be able to understand, map, computer, contrast, and judge our lives in a degree of detail incomprehensible to any previous generation. Think of a single day of our lives. Almost the first thing that happens after turning off an alarm clock, before brushing teeth, having coffee, seeing a child, or opening a paper is reaching for that phone, iPhone, or Blackberry. As it comes on and speaks to us or we speak through it, it continues to create a map of almost everything in our lives.

Future sociologists and archaeologists will have access to excruciatingly detailed pictures on an individual basis of what arrived, what was read, ignored, deleted, forwarded and responded to. Complement this stream of data with Facebook, Twitter, Google, blogs, newspapers, analyst reports, Flickr, and you get a far more concrete and complete picture of each and every one of us than even the most extraordinary detail found by historians on the most studied, respected and reviled of leaders.

And by the way, this cache is decentralized. It exists and multiplies at various sites. Digging through the Egyptian pyramids will look like child’s play compared to what future scholars will find at Google, Microsoft, the NSA, the credit bureaus or any host of parallel universes.

It is virtually impossible to edit or eliminate most traces of our lives today and for better or worse, we have now achieved that which the most powerful Egyptians and Greeks always sought — immortality.

So how has this new found immortality affected my thinking? Well 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.

Architect, teaching at Politecnico of Milan, visiting professor at Harvard GSD, editor in chief of the Abitare monthly/magazine

internet is wind

internet is wind.
a constant — and dominant — wind, that unsettles and swathes us.
in recent years we have become familiar with walking by displacing our weight, our equilibrium in an opposite direction to this wind.
only in this manner are we able to walk straight, without succumbing, without completely folding to its logic of simultaneous and globalized reciprocity.

but it is enough to unplug the connection, turn the corner, find shelter, place oneself "leeward" and internet disappears.
leaving us unbalanced, for a moment, folded in the direction of the wind due to the inertia of the effort of resistance we have made until that moment.
and yet, at that moment, the effort seems a formidable resource.
suddenly we are in front of what is not said; of that which we can’t and will not ever communicate of our own interior, of our personal idiosyncrasies, of our distorted individuality.

thought in the era of internet has this uniqueness:
there, the space-time that we are able to protect from this wind become precious occasions to understand what we cannot say, what we are not willing to deposit in the forum of planetary simultaneity.
so as to understand what we really are.

Architect, Cartographer; Founder, TED Conference; Author, 33: Understanding Change & the Change in Understanding












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