How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?
Neuroscientist, Stanford University; Author, Monkeyluv
FORGET WISDOM OF THE CROWD
I should start by saying that I'm not really one to ask about such things, as I am an extremely unsophisticated user of the Internet. I've never sold anything on E-Bay, bought anything from Amazon or posted something on You Tube. I don't have an avatar on Second Life and I've never "met" anyone online. And I've never successfully defrauded the wealthy widow of a Nigerian dictator. So I'm not much of an expert on this.
However, like most everyone else, I've wasted huge amounts of time wandering around the Internet. As part of my profession, I think a lot about the behavior of primates, including humans, and the behavior manifest in the Internet has subtly changed my thinking. Much has been made of the emergent properties of the Internet. The archetypal example, of course, is Wikipedia.
A few years back, Nature commissioned a study that showed that when it came to accuracy about hard-core science facts, Wikipedia was within hailing distance of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Immensely cool — within just a few years, a self-correcting bottom-up system of quality that's fundamentally independent of authorities from on high is breathing down the neck of the mother of all sources of knowledge. The proverbial wisdom of crowds. It strikes me that there may be a very interesting consequence of this. When you have generations growing up with bottom-up emergence as routine, when wisdom of the crowd phenomena tell you more accurately what movies you'll like than can some professional movie critic, people are more likely to realize that life can have emerged with all its adaptive complexity without some omnipotent being with a game plan.
As another plus, the Internet has made me think that the downtrodden have a slightly better chance of being heard — the efficacy of the crowd. A small example of that recent elections in which candidates have run Internet campaigns. Far more consequential, of course, is the ability of the people to vote online about who should win American Idol. But what I'm beginning to think is possible is that someday, an abused populace will rise up, and doing nothing more than sitting at their computers and hacking away, freeze a government and bring down a dictator. Forget a Velvet Revolution. An Online Revolution.
Mind you, amid that optimism, it's hard not to despair a bit at the idiocy of the crowd, as insane rumors careen about the Internet.
However, the thing that has most changed my thinking is the array of oddities online. By this, I don't mean the fact that 147 million people have watched Charlie Bit Me, with another 20 million watching the various remixes. That's small change. I mean the truly strange Websites. Like the ones for people with apotemnophilia, a psychiatric disease where the person wishes to lose a limb.
There's someone who sol Webd a piece of gum online for $263 that Britney Spears had spit out. A Website for people who like to chew on ice cubes. Websites (yes, plural) for people who are aroused by pictures of large stuffed animals "having sex." And one for people who have been cured of that particular taste by Jesus. An online museum of barf bags from airlines from around the world. A Website store for people who like to buy garden gnomes and stab them in the head with sharp things. And then post pictures of it. On and on. The weirdness of (subsets of) the crowd.
As a result of wasting my time over the years surfing the Internet, I've come to better understand how people have a terrible craving to find others like themselves, and the more unconventional the person, the more the need. I've come to realize that there can be wildly unforeseen consequences in a material world crammed with the likes of barf bags and garden gnomes. And most of all, the existence of these worlds has led me to appreciate more deeply the staggering variety and richness of the internal lives of humans. So maybe not such a waste of time.
CUT AND PASTE
The Internet has not so much changed my thinking as it has expanded my preexisting artistic sensibility. Like many collagist, I cobble together quilts of disparate information that rely on uncanny juxtapositions to create new meaning. Cut and paste has always been the way I think. I used to spend days in bookstores and libraries searching for raw images and information to be reorganized and repurposed into my pictures.
Now I sit in front of my computer and grab them out of the Internet hive mind that expands endlessly outwards, a giant, evolving global collage that participants edit to conform to their needs and sensibilities. This process of hunting and capturing reduces me to a pair of hungry eyes and two thinking hands. (My whole body is for later, for when I build my pictures analog-style.) When the image is finally assembled, it sings in the chorus of a million authors. I am the conductor and through me, this collective hums. The electricity overwhelms me. I'm no longer a rugged individualist.
There was a time, not that long ago, when the apostles of the coming digital age predicted the obsolescence of unique art objects. They forgot that some once believed that the emergence of photography would render paintings useless. As we now know, the emergence of photography actually helped free artists from the need to describe the world realistically, and this helped revivify painting and jumpstart modernism. From then on, artists could do anything they wanted, and they did. Photography caused all hell to break loose, and that hell and some new ones are now fighting it out in an info-cloud.
Now I can do more than I ever thought I wanted. The Internet has given me a new paintbrush that I can use towards the making of singular things. In this landscape of endless copies, a real thing, made by a person, with its repository of the creator's time and it's tactility, scale and surface quality is almost startling in its strangeness.
Growing up in the land of theme parks, I became aware at an early age that the unreal is the realist thing there is. Waterfalls without pumps and electricity? Impossible! A sublime without LSD? Who are you kidding? Experiencing all this made me want to make real things about my unreal world. Now I can capture banal elements of the shimmering digital mirage and fix them into place where they can become strange again.
Oh real, tangible things, is my love for you proof of my own obsolescence? I'm filled with nostalgia for the dying objects of the old economy. Over the years, I would occasionally draw on top of handmade, unique photograms. Now, the kind of photo paper that can withstand my scribbling has become extinct. I've also sporadically used the front page of the New York Times as a backdrop for collage and paint interventions. How long will it be before it too is no longer available? (Still, vinyl refuses to die. Maybe there is hope.) I used to be jealous of cultural forms that existed through an economy of copies. Books, newspapers, magazines, films and recordings offered a democratic way for consumers to pony up a tiny chunk of money that helped the author or enterprise survive and sometimes even prosper.
Now copies are worth even less than the paper they're not printed on. Despite the new economy, unique art objects seem to have maintained a semblance of monetary value. (For the time being at least.) While a few patrons have always supported a few artists, most art is still not worth much. In the future, I expect that we'll all be poor, but for the time being, value is now given to living humans doing real things, or real things made by living humans. (Well, all living humans except for poets. No one said the Internet was fair.)
I'm an information grazer. I've always felt comfortable with skidding across vast plains of data, connecting the dots wherever it feels right. The Internet mirrors the cross connectivity of my own mind — a mind, it should be noted, that has been hybridized by drugs and other consciousness altering activities. Aldous Huxley famously posited that to enable us to live, the brain and nervous system eliminates unessential information from the totality of our minds. Psychedelics, on the other hand, overwhelm our minds with the fullness of the world. In other words, information overload is just another way of being psychedelic. I can live with this. All good art experiences are inherently psychoactive. Art modifies perception and offers either a window or a mirror. Sometimes, if we're lucky, it does it all at the same time.
Huxley tells us that our minds are constantly editing down the world into manageable bits. The problem with the Internet is that the menu has gotten too big, too unwieldy and too full of lies and stupidity. Who can apprehend or trust it? For instance, if I search for "naked lady" I come up with 16,400,000 items in 0.18 seconds. Somewhere lies the perfect naked lady, but where is she? I get cranky and impatient. I know she's there somewhere and I want her now. I've become habituated to getting everything right away. I'm the editor who thinks he's in control, but my fingers on a keyboard have a tough time finding a few trees in this haystack of needles. Wherever I settle, I always suspect a better choice is just around the corner.
Associate Professor of Psychology, Princeton University
AN IMPENETRABLE MACHINE
A subject in a psychology experiment stands in a room with various objects strewn around the floor and two cords hanging from the ceiling. He is tasked with finding ways to tie the two cords together. The only problem is that they are far enough apart that if he grabs onto one, he cannot reach the other. After devising some obvious solutions (such as lengthening one of the cords with an extension cord), the subject is stumped. Then, the experimenter casually bumps into one of the cords, causing it to swing to and fro. The subject suddenly has a new idea! He swings one cord towards the other, thus allowing him to reach both at once.
Here's something interesting about this experiment: Subjects failed to recognize the experimenter's role in leading them to this new idea. They believed that the thought of swinging the cord just "dawned" on them, or that it resulted from systematic analysis, or from consulting physics principles, or from images they conjured of monkeys swinging in trees. As this experiment and others like it (reviewed in a classic article by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson) illustrate, people are unaware of the particular influences that produce their thoughts. We know what we think, but we don't know why we think it. When a friend claims that it is her penchant for socialist ideals that leads her to support the latest healthcare reform bill, it might be wise for you to assume she likes the bill but to doubt her reasons why (and she ought to share your skepticism!).
This brings me to the question of how the Internet has changed the way I think. The problem is this: When it comes to my thoughts, I can honestly tell you what I think (about everything from mint chip ice cream to e-mail… I love the former and am ambivalent about the latter), but I can only speculate as to why I think those things (does my love of mint chip ice cream reflect its unique flavor, or fond childhood memories of summer vacations with my pre-divorced parents?). How has the Internet changed the way I think? I can't really say, because I have no direct knowledge of what influences my thinking.
The idea that my own mental processes are impenetrable to me is a tough one to swallow. It's hard to accept that, at a very basic level, I don't know what's going on in my own head. At the same time, the idea has a certain obviousness to it — of course I can't recount the enormous complexity of biochemical processes and neural firing that gives rise to my thoughts. The typical neuron in my brain has 1000s of synaptic connections to other neurons. Sound familiar?
The Internet's most popular search tool also feeds me thoughts (tangible ideas encoded in words) via a massively-connected system that operates in way that is hidden to me. The obscurity of Google's inner workings (or the Net's more generally) makes its potential impact on my thoughts somewhat unnerving. My thinking may be influenced by unexpected search hits and extraneous words and images that are derived via a process beyond my comprehension and control. So while I have the feeling that it's me driving the machine, perhaps it's more the machine driving me. But wait, hasn't that always been the case? Same process, different machine.
Architect; Solomonoff Architecture Studio
OF KNOWLEDGE, CONTENT, PLACE AND SPACE
The Internet is producing a fundamental alteration in the relationship between knowledge, content, place and space. If we consider the world as divided into two similarly populous halves: the ones born before 1980 and the ones born after 1980 — of course there are other important differences such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, geography, etc., yet I see the 1980 as significant in the shift and alteration in the relationship of knowledge, place and space, due to the use of the Internet.
I am responding to this question from Funes, a locality of 15,000 inhabitants in the core of the Argentine Pampas (country side). I am in what is called a "locutorio"; a place with eight fully equipped computers that charges $0.20 dollars (twenty cents) for fifteen minutes of Internet use. Five other users are here. A woman in her 20's talking via Skype (with headphones) with her sister and niece in Spain, a 30+ man in a white shirt and tie scanning a resume, two teens playing a video with what I guess is a multi-placed or non-placed community. A man on a Facebook page posting photos of a baby and a trip and myself, a 42 year-old architect on vacation with an assignment due in two hours!
I am the elder here. I am the nonlocal here. Yet the computer helps me and corrects my spelling without asking anyone.
Years ago when I was an architectural student and wanted to know about, say, Guarino Guarini's importance as an architect, I would go two flights down the stairs at Avery Library, get a few cards, follow the numbered instructions on those index cards and find, two or four or seven feet worth of books in a shelf dedicated to the subject...then I would look at few cross referenced words in such cards, such us, "mannerist architecture", go another path in the same room, and identify another few feet of books on the subject. I would leaf through all the found books and get a vague, yet physical sense of how much there was to know about the subject matter.
Now I Google "Guarino Guarini", and in 0.45 seconds, gets 108,000 entries, and the first page reveals specific details: he was born on January 7, 1624, and lived until March 6, 1683, six images of cupolas, a Wikipedia, and Encyclopedia Britannica entry. My Google search is both very detailed yet not at all physical. I can't tell how much I like this person's personality or work. I can't decide if I want to flip through more entries.
I am in a car traveling from New York to Philadelphia. I have GPS but no maps. The GPS announces where to go and takes into account traffic and tolls. I trust the GPS, yet in my memory I wish to reconstruct a trip I took years ago with other friends. In that other trip I had a map, I entered the city from a bridge, the foreground was industrial and decrepit the background was vertical and contemporary...at least that is what I remember...was it so? I zoom out the GPS to see if the GPS map reveals an alternative entry route, a different way the city geography can be approached. Nothing in the GPS map looks like the space I remember. What happened? Is my memory of the place faulty or is the focus of the GPS too narrow?
The feeling I want to convey with these examples/scenes is how over time and with the advent of the internet our sense of orientation, space and place have changed, our sense of the details necessary to make decisions has changed. If decisions take into account the many ways in which information comes to us then the internet at this point privileges what we can see and read over many other aspects of knowledge and sensation. How much something weights, how does it feels, how stable it is. Are we, the ones that knew places before the internet, more able to navigate them now or less? Do we make better or worse decisions based on the content we take in? Do we have longer better rests in far away places or constant place-less-ness? How have image, space, place and content been altered to give us a sense of here and now?
DAVID M. BUSS
Professor of Psychology, University of Texas, Austin; Coauthor: Why Women Have Sex
INTERNET MATING STRATEGIES
The ancient strategies of human mating are implemented in novel ways on the Internet. Humans evolved in small groups with available mates limited to a few dozen possibilities. The Web provides unprecedented and tantalizing access to thousands or millions. The stigma of traditional dating services, once the refuge of the lonely and forlorn, has disappeared in the digital world of modern mating.
The bounty of mating opportunities in today's computational sphere yields some tangible benefits. It allows people to secure better mating fits, access to that special someone who happens to share unique interests in underground rock bands, obscure novelists, or unheard of foreign movies. It can abbreviate search costs, eliminating the non-starters without slogging through the cumbersome dating maze. The Internet affords practice. The stuttering shy in person can be eloquently bold on the keyboard. Lonely nights can be transformed into articulate booty calls. Because of the surfeit of opportunity, the Internet may yield good bargains on the mating market, a maximization of one's mate value, or access to the otherwise unattainable. It allows some to luxuriate in sexual adventures unimaginable in the small group living of our distant past.
Humans are loathe to settle when better prospects entice. The abundance of mating opportunities sometimes produces paralyzing indecision. A more exciting encounter, a more attractive partner, a true soul mate might be a few clicks away. The World Wide Web may reduce commitment to a 'one and only' because opportunities for promising others seem so plentiful. It can cloak sexual deception. Are the personal descriptions accurate? Are images photo-shopped? It opens new avenues for exploitation. Sexual predators inexorably innovate their tactics on the unwary, the innocent, or those open to adventure. At the same time, computer-savvy victims countermand those maneuvers, manipulate marauders, and reduce their vulnerability to predation in a never-ending arms-race.
In most ways, though, the Internet has not altered how we think about mating. Nor has it changed our underlying sexual psychology. Men continue to value physical appearance. Women continue to value ambition, status, and financial prospects. Both sexes continue to trade up when they can, and cut losses when they can't. Sexual economics remain. Only the format has changed. Hunter-gatherer market exchanges of sex and meat have been replaced with Internet markets of sugar-babies and sugar-daddies. The mating and dating sites most successful are those that exploit our ancient mating psychology. Evolved mechanisms of mind now can be played out in the global, semi-anonymous modern world of interconnectivity. The eternal quest for love, spirituality, or sexual union may evaporate in the clouds of cyberspace. But then again, glory in affairs of the heart has always been fleeting.
Historian of ideas; Author, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours
THE INTERNET AND SLOWNESS
I still remember typing essays on a much loved typewriter in my first year of university. Then the first computer, the first email account, the slow yet fluid entry into a new digital world that felt strangely natural. The advent of the Internet age happened progressively, we saw it develop like a child born of many brains, a protean animal whose characteristics were at once predictable and unknown. As soon as the digital sphere and became a worldwide reality recognizable as a new era, predictions and analyses about it grew. Edge itself was born as the creature was still growing new limbs. The tools for research and communication about this research developed along with new thinking about mind-machine interaction, about the future of education, about the impact of the Internet on texts and writing, about the issues of filtering, relevance, learning and memory.
And then somehow the creature became autonomous, an ordinary part of our universe. We are no longer surprised, no longer engaged in so much meta-analysis: we are dependent, some of us are addicted to this marvelous tool, this multi-faceted medium that is — as predicted even ten years ago — concentrating all of communication, knowledge, entertainment, business. I, like so many of us, spend so many hours before a flat computer screen, typing away, even when surrounded by countless books, that it is hard to say exactly how the Internet has affected me. The Internet is becoming as ordinary as the telephone. Humans are very good at adapting to the technologies we create, and the Internet is the most malleable, the most human of all technologies, just as it can also be intensely alienating from everything we've lived as before now.
I waver between these two positions: at times gratefully dependent on this marvel, at other times horrified at what this dependence signifies. Too much concentrated in one place, too much accessible from one's house, the need to move about in the real world nearly nil, the rapid establishment of social networking Websites changing our relationships, the reduction of three-dimensionality to that flat screen. Rapidity, accessibility, one-click for everything: where has slowness gone, and tranquillity, solitude, quiet? The world I took for granted as a child, and that my childhood books beautifully represented, jerks with the brand new world of artificial glare and electrically created realities, faster, louder, unrelated to nature, self-contained.
The technologies we create always have an impact on the real world, but rarely has a technology had such an impact on minds. We know what is happening to those who were born after the advent of the Internet and for those like me who started out with typewrites, books, slowness, reality measured by geographical distance and local clocks, the world that is emerging now is very different indeed from the world we knew.
I am of that generation for which adapting to computers was welcome and easy, but for which the pre-Internet age remains real. I can relate to those who call the radio the wireless, and I admire people in their 70s or 80s who communicate by email, because they come from further away still. Perhaps the way forward would be to emphasize the teaching of history in schools, to develop curricula on the history of technology, to remind today's children that their technology, absolutely embracing as it feels, is relative, and does not represent the totality of the universe. Millions of children around the world don't need to be reminded of this — they have no access to technology at all, many not even to modern plumbing — but those who do should know how to place this tool historically and politically.
As for me, I am learning how to make room for the need to slow down and disconnect without giving up on my addiction to Google, email, and rapidity. I was lucky enough to come from somewhere else, from a time when information was not digitized. And that is what perhaps enables me to use the Internet with a measure of wisdom.
Institut Nicod, Paris; www.interdisciplines.org
THE POWER OF CONVERSATION
I spend more than half of my working hours doing my email: I have 4407 messages in my Gmail Inbox today: stuff that I haven't read yet, that I have to reply to, or that I keep in the Inbox just to take advantage of the search facilities and be able to easily retrieve it when needed.
Each time I find myself in the end of the afternoon still writing messages to friends, colleagues, perfect strangers, students, etc. I have the guilty feeling of having wasted my day, as the weakness of my will had prevailed on any sense of duty and intellectual responsibility. Psychological reactions can be harsh to the point of inflicting myself various forms of punishment such as imprisonment in a dusty Parisian library without Internet connection or voluntary switching off of the modem at my place. That is because I have the precise idea that my work is NOT writing emails: rather it is a matter of writing papers and learned essays on philosophy and related issues.
But what is philosophy? What is academic work in general, at least in the humanities? One of my mentors once said to me: Being an academic just means being part of a conversation. That's it. Plato used the dialogue as a form of expression to render in a more vivid way the dialectic process of thinking and constructing knowledge from open verbal confrontation. One of the books that influenced me most during my undergraduate philosophical studies in Italy was Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. I read on the Edge site that Edge is a conversation. So, what is so bad about email conversations that are invading my life? What is the big difference between the contemplative state in front of the blank page of a new paper and the excited exchange through Gmail or skype with a colleague living in another part of the world?
My intellectual life started to get much better when I realized that the difference is not that much: that even papers and comments to the papers, reviews, replies, etc. are conversations at slow motion. I write a paper for an academic journal, the paper is evaluated by other philosophers who suggest improvements, it is then disseminated to the academic community in order to prompt new conversations on a topic or launch new topics for discussion. That is the rule of the game. And if I make an introspective effort and try to visualize my way of thinking, I realize that I am never alone in my mind: a number of more or less invited guests are sitting around somewhere in my brain, challenging me when I claim with overconfidence this and that or when I definitely affirm my resolution to act in a certain way.
Arguing is a basic ingredient of thinking: our way of structuring our thought would have been very different without the powerful tool of verbal exchange. So, let's acknowledge that the Internet allows us to think and write in a much more natural way than the one imposed by the written culture tradition: the dialogical dimension of our thinking is now enhanced by continuous, liquid exchanges with others.
The way out of the guilty feeling of wasting our time is to commit ourselves to interesting and well articulated conversations, as we accept invitations to dinners in which we hope to have a stimulating chat and not falling asleep after the second glass of wine. I run a Website that keeps track of high-level, learned conversations between academics. I find that each media produces its wastes: most books are just noise that disappears few months after the first release. I don't think we should concentrate of the wastes, rather, we should try to make a responsible use of our conversational skills and free ourselves from unreal commitments to accidental formats, such as the book or the academic paper, whose authoritative role depends on the immense role they played in our education.
If it happens that what we will leave to the next generation are threads of useful and learned conversations, then be it: I see this as an improvement in our way of externalizing our thinking, a much more natural way of being intelligent in a social world.
Computational Legal Scholar; Fellow, Yale Law School Internet and Society Project
COGITAMUS, ERGO SUM? THE "DIFFERENCE BETWEEN KNOWING THE NAME OF SOMETHING AND KNOWING SOMETHING"
My title quotes Richard Feynman, and I am using his words to express how the Internet is providing not only information about our world, but also making available the means to understand it in a deep sense. The increased use of the computer in scientific research, from simple data analysis to simulations, means the ability to recreate and verify facts for oneself is very real, as scientists can release the complete software environment and data required to reproduce their results on the Internet. The Internet is opening this possibility to society at large for the first time. If our home computing power or disk space is insufficient, the Internet connects us to massive computing power such as the Teragrid or the cloud. We are posed to empower our own decision making through Internet-based verification of what we believe, important for self-determination but also for the validity of the computational results themselves. The result is a change in how I expect to understand the world.
Data analysis has risen as an intellectual force of its own, with implications for how we accept new knowledge as facts. In 1962 John Tukey first proposed data analysis as a field in its own right and split the field of statistics in two. At that time, statistics was synonymous with mathematical analysis and the Information Age was only just beginning. Tukey foresaw the coming data deluge and that the traditional machinery of mathematical statistics, such as hypothesis testing and confidence statements, had relatively little to offer for these new problems. There was an enormous amount of analysis to be done on vast amounts of data, and insisting on mathematics ran the risk of missing important findings. Now, data analysis is presenting challenging mathematical questions and we are running that same risk in reverse.
When awash in data it is common to use the following three-step investigative method: a new phenomenon is found in the data, followed by an analysis strategy justified on heuristic grounds, and then some computational examples of apparent success are provided. This approach makes it nearly impossible to derive the deeper intellectual understanding that the mathematical framework is geared to uncover. Our basic tools of modern data analysis, from regression to principal components, were developed by scientists working squarely in the mathematical tradition, and are based on theorems and analysis. As the Internet facilitates a national hobby of data analysis, our thinking about scientific discovery is no longer typically in the intellectual tradition of mathematics. This tradition, and the area of my training, defines a meaningful investigation as involving a formal definition of the phenomenon of interest, stated carefully in a mathematical model, and use of a strategy for analysis that follows logically from the model. It is accompanied at every step by efforts to show how the opportunity for error and mistakes has been minimized. As data analysts we must have the same high standards for transparency in our findings, and consequently I am pushing my thinking toward deeper intellectual rigor, more in line with the mathematical tradition and less in line with the data analysis tradition so facilitated by the Internet.
Mathematics has been developing responses to the ubiquity of error for hundreds of years, resulting in formal logic and the mathematical proof. Computation is similarly highly error-prone, but recent enough to still be developing equivalent standards of openness and collective verification. An essential response is reproducibility of results: the release of code and data that generated the computational findings we'd like to consider as a contribution to society's stock of knowledge. This subjects computational research to the same standards of openness as filled by the role of the proof in mathematics.
The Internet has changed how I think about science, and how to identify it. Today most computational results aren't accompanied by their underlying code and data, and my opening description of being able to recreate results for oneself is not commonplace. But I believe this will become typical - the draw of verifying what we know for ourselves and being less reliant on the conclusions of others has remained evident in our long search for truth about our world. This seems a natural evolution from a state of knowledge derived from mystical sources with little ability to question and verify, through a science-facing society still with an epistemological gulf between scientist and non-scientist. Now, the Internet allows more of our understanding to seep from the ivory tower, closing that gulf and empowering us to know things for ourselves and changing our expectations about what it means to live in an open, data-driven, society.
Chair of Reproductive Biology, Director Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh; Author, After Dolly
THE INTERNET HAS NOT CHANGED THE WAY THAT I THINK
Use of the Internet has not changed the way that I think, but it is making a unique contribution by providing me with immediate and convenient access to an extraordinary range of ideas and information. This development can be considered as a natural extension to the sequence that began with tablets of clay, continued through papyrus, parchment, handwritten manuscripts on paper to the recent mass produced books printed on paper. Happily the Internet provides us with access to many of these earlier forms of the written word as well as to electronic communications.
Access to information and ideas has always been important for both personal development and progress of a community or nation. As a school boy, when I first became interested in facts and ideas my family were living in an industrial part of the north of England and at that time I made great use of a public library. The library was part of an industrial village established by a philanthropic entrepreneur who made his money by importing Alpacas' cashmere-like fleece and weaving fine clothes. Alpacas are members of the camelid family found in the Andes of Peru and Chile. The village, which is now a World Heritage Site is Saltaire, named after the entrepreneur Sir Titus Salt. He provided not only houses, a hospital, but schools and a technical college, and the library. I took it for granted that libraries which provided access to books, most of which could be borrowed and taken home, were available everywhere. This is still not the case, but in the near future the Internet may provide an equivalent opportunity for people everywhere.
Whereas libraries have been established in most major societies, it is only in the recent past that they have been made generally available to ordinary citizens. One of the earliest libraries for which records remain is the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt which was founded around 300BC by pharaoh Ptolemy I. It grew to hold several hundred thousand scrolls, some of which are said to have been taken from boats that happened to dock at Alexandria while carrying out their trade.
The library contributed to the establishment of Alexandria as a major seat of learning. Sadly the library was destroyed by fire. Never the less it represented a particular landmark in the development of the concept of a library as a collection of books to provide a reservoir of knowledge, that should be staffed by specific keepers whose tasks included expansion of the collection. Other similar libraries were established during this period, including those at Ephesus in Turkey and Sankore in Timbuktu.
During the period of the Roman Empire wealthy and influential people continued the practice of establishing libraries, most of which were open only to scholars with the appropriate qualifications. A survey in 378AD identified 29 libraries in Rome, but as the Empire declined the habit of establishing and maintaining libraries was lost. The development of monasteries provided a renewed stimulus for learning. They amassed book collections and introduced the habit of exchanging volumes. Recognizing the importance of learning the Benedictine rules required that monks spent specified periods of time reading. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages wealthy families again began to collect books and then donate their libraries to seats of learning in places such as Florence, Paris, Vatican City and Oxford.
All of these libraries depended upon the copying of text by hand and it was only the development of printing by Gutenberg in the 1400s that production of books was transformed they were much more readily available. During the period 1400 to 1800 there was an extraordinary expansion of libraries, by universities and nations. Some of these were named after major benefactors, such as the Bodlean Library in Oxford and the library donated by the Massachusetts clergyman John Harvard, after whom the university is named. In the United States the Library of Congress was founded in 1800 and after a fire during the War of Independence its stock was replenished by the purchase of the collection that had been amassed by Thomas Jefferson. The Library of Congress now claims to be the largest library in the world with more than 150 million items.
It was also during this period that public libraries became more common and books became more generally available for the first time. In some cases subscriptions were used to purchase books, but there was no charge for subsequent loans. One such was the Library Company of Philadelphia established by a group that included Benjamin Franklin in 1731.
The oldest surviving free reference library in the United Kingdom, Chetham's, was established in Manchester in 1653. Some 200 years later Karl Marx and Frederick Engels carried out research for Das Kapital in this library. It was at this time that the UK parliament passed an Act to promote the formation of Public Libraries. In the United States the first free public library was only formed in 1833, in New Hampshire. The Scots born entrepreneur Andrew Carniegie went on to build more than 1,700 public libraries in the US between 1881 and 1919. These libraries were the first to make large numbers of books available to the general public.
Of course books are only valuable to those who have access to them, can read and are encouraged to do so. Often reading was associated with religion as knowledge of the sacred scripture was important. In England around 1200 the ability to read a particular Psalm entitled a defendant to be tried in an ecclesiastical court, which was typically more lenient than a civil court. In some places funds were allocated specifically to teach people to read the scriptures, but this provision was not always available universally. At the time of the civil war in the US owners were prohibited from teaching their slaves to read and write. As recently as 1964 the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was arrested and expelled for daring to teach peasants to read.
Universal access to the Internet could have an exceptionally important contribution to make to future political developments. Access to the Internet would then provide the opportunity to everyone anywhere in the world to obtain a great deal of information on any subject that they choose. Knowledge accumulated over centuries of human experience is an important counter to fashions of the moment communicated through commercial mass media. It is hard to imagine that making each of us aware of the circumstances and beliefs of people in other parts of the world can do anything but good. We would surely be more likely to assist countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to form liberal democracies by helping to provide education, training, employment and so wealth and greater understanding than by military take over, which inevitably causes a very large numbers of civilian casualties and a great deal of damage.
There is one cautionary note. Texts of any kind, be they on parchment or available through electronic systems, are only as useful as they are accurate. In the days when books were prepared by hand the accuracy of scribes was recognized as being of paramount importance. In a rather different way, but of equal importance, we depend upon the rigor of the research done by those whose electronically reproduced articles we read.
Professor of Psychology, Provost, Senior Vice President, Tufts University
THE INTERNET PROMOTES THE SYNCHRONIZATION OF MINDS
Synchronization of thought and behavior promotes group cohesion — for better or worse. People love to share experiences and emotions. We delight in coordinated activity. We feel the pull of conformity. And we feed off each other. Synchronization creates a sense of group agency, in which the group is greater than the sum of the people in it.
The Internet sparks synchronization across vast populations. Never before in history have people been able to relate to each other on this scale. The discovery of new tools has always changed the way we think. We are social beings, and the Internet is the most powerful social tool with which the human brain has ever worked.
Through the Internet, people with common backgrounds, interests or problems can find each other, creating new groups with new identities in unprecedented ways. Amorphous groups can become energized, as people who had gone their separate ways reconnect. As with all technologies, this powerful social tool can be used constructively or destructively. Either way, it certainly has changed the way we think about ourselves.
People yearn to be part of a group. Most feel part of multiple groups. Group identity is as important to us as anything else, and — provide the glue that binds us together. Group affiliation is affirming, exhilarating and motivating. As the Internet develops the bandwidth to communicate seamlessly in real time — with more of the nuance of in-person communication — its binding power will become ever more compelling.
The down side of synchronization on this scale is the risk of herding behavior or virtual mobs. However, the transparency and anonymity of the Internet allows contrary feelings to be expressed, which can balance out the narrowing effect of groupthink. Whether for good or ill, this unprecedented communications platform has transformed how we think.
In the early days of the Internet, few predicted that it would plug into our social instincts as it has. The binding force of the Internet has not only changed the way we think about ourselves and the world, it has possibly enabled an emergent form of cognition — one that occurs when individual minds are intricately synchronized.
Supposedly the Internet was invented at CERN. If CERN is really responsible for this infinitely large filing cabinet, filled to bursting by lunatics, salesmen, hobbyists and pornographers, that folds up like Masefield's box of delights and fits into my pocket, then CERN poses an even larger threat to the world than the fabled potential production of black holes.
Nonetheless, I use it, or does it use me? Is it a new cultural ecology, an ecology of mind? If it is, who are the real predators, who is being eaten on-line? Is it me?
Once I longed to create an interface that would simulate my interaction with the real world. Now I realize that the interface I want is the real world. Can the Internet give me that back?
Is it an archive? I can learn a new idea every day on the Internet. I have learned about many old ideas and many false ideas. I have read many obvious lies. This capacity to indefinitely sustain a lie is celebrated as freedom. Denialism enters stage left, cloaked as skepticism. We need a navigation system we can trust. Someday soon we'll need our 20th century experts and interpreters to be replaced by 21st century creator-pilots.
Is it an open system? It seems impossible to find out on the Internet what it really costs the planet to sustain the Internet and its toys, what it costs our culture to think, to play, to fondle and adore itself. Seven of the world's largest corporations own all the routers and cables. Everyone pays the ferryman.
Is it liberating? The old, the poor and the uneducated are locked out. Everyone else is locked in. All studies show mass users locked in reversed and concentric learning patterns, seeking only the familiar, even, perhaps especially, if novelty is their version of the same old thing. As a shared space, it is a failure, celebrating only those that obey its rules. We sniff out our digital blazes, following the circular depletion of our own curiosity reservoirs. We are running out of selves.
Is it really just about communication? To travel is to enter a world of monastic chimes and insectile clicks, as unloved cell phone chatter is replaced by mobile anchorites locked in virtual communion with their own agendas and prejudices, cursing when their connections fail and they are returned to the real, immediate world. But unplugging only returns us, and them, to a space in-waiting, designed and ordered by the same system.
Is it a new space? If this is true, then immediately I am drawn to the implied space inevitably also being created, the anti-net. If it's a new space, how big are we, when we are on-line? But what's really missing here? Meaning, touch, time and place are what's missing here. We need a holographic rethinking of scale and content.
But like you, I'm back every day, 'collaborating' as they say. Because there is something being built, or building itself, in this not-yet space. Perhaps the Internet we know is merely a harbinger and like Ulysses returning, dirty, false and lame, it will only truly reveal itself when we are ready. Perhaps it will unfold itself soon and help us bring the real ecology back to life, unveil the conspiracies, shatter the mirrors, tear down the walls, rejoice and bring forth the promise that is truly waiting in us, waiting only for it's release. I'm ready now.