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Anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris; Author, In Gods We Trust


I received this year's Edge Question while in Damascus, shuttling messages from Jerusalem aimed at probing possibilities for peace. And I got to thinking about how my thinking on world peace and transnational violence has been shaped by the Internet, and how the advent of the Internet has framed my view of human history and destiny.

I'm aware that I'm living on the cusp of perhaps the third great tipping point in human history, and that this is an awesome and lucky thing to experience.

First, I imagine myself with a small band moving out of Africa into the Fertile Crescent around 60,000 years ago or so, when humans mastered language and began to conquer the globe. More than half a million years ago, the Neanderthal and human branches of evolution began to split from our common ancestor Homo erectus (or perhaps Homo ergaster). Neanderthal, like erectus before, spread out of Africa and across Eurasia. But our ancestors, who acquired fully human body structures about 200,000 years ago, remained stuck in the savanna grasslands and scrub of eastern then southern Africa. Recent archaeological and DNA analyses suggest that our species may have tottered on the verge of extinction as recently as 70,000 years ago, dwindling to fewer than 2000 souls. Then, in almost miraculous change of fortune about 60,000 — 50,000 years ago, one or a few human bands moved out of Africa for good.

This beginning of human wanderlust was likely stirred by global cooling and the attendant parching of the African grasslands which led to loss of game and grain. But there is also the strong possibility, based on circumstantial evidence relating to a "cultural explosion" of human artifacts and technologies, that a mutation rewired the brain for computational efficiency. This rewiring allowed for recursion (embedding whole bundles of perceptions and thought within other bundles of perceptions and thoughts), which is an essential property of both human language (syntactic structures) and mindreading skills (or "Theory of Mind," the ability to infer other people's thoughts and perceptions: "I know, that she knows, that I know, that he knows, that… etc.).

Language and mindreading, in turn, became critical to development of peculiarly human forms of thinking and communication, including planning and cooperation among anonymous strangers, imagining plausible versus fictitious pasts and futures, the counterfactuals of reason and the supernaturals of religion. Together, language and mind reading generated both self-awareness and awareness of others. Other animals may have beliefs, but they don't know they have them. Once humans could entertain and communicate imaginary worlds and beliefs about beliefs, they could break apart and recombine representations of the material and social world at will, with our without regard to immediate or future biological needs.

Human societies, the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss argued, divide into "cold" and "hot" cultures. For most of the time that humans have walked the earth, there were only preliterate "cold" societies, whose people conceived of nature and social time as eternally static or entirely cyclical. The present order is conceived as a projection of an order that has existed since mythical times. The interpretation of the origins of the world and the development of society is rendered in mythological terms. Every element of the knowable universe would be connected in Kaleidoscope fashion to every other element in memorable stories, however arbitrary or fantastic, that could be passed down orally from generation to generation.

A typical mythic account of the world might "explain" how nomadic patterns of residence and seasonal movement emanated from patterns perceived in the stars; how star patterns, in turn, got their shapes from the wild animals around; and how men were made to organize themselves into larger totemic societies, dividing tasks and duties according to the "natural order."

So, I imagine myself in ancient Mesopotamia, trying to kick myself out of this cold cycle, as human history began to heat up at the dawn of writing. I try to conjure up in my mind how the seemingly unchanging and cyclical world of oral memory and myth, of frozen and eternal history, could almost all of a sudden, after tens of thousands of years of near stasis, flame forward along the Eurasian silk road into civilizations and world commerce, universal religions and government by law, armies and the accumulated knowledge that would one day become science.

Direct reciprocity of the form "I'll scratch your back and you scratch mine" works well within small bands or neighborhoods where people know one another and it would be hard to get away with cheating customers. But as societies become larger and more complex, transactions increasingly involve indirect forms of reciprocity: promises between strangers of delivery after payment or payment after delivery. Roads, writing, money, contracts and laws — the channels of communication and exchange that make state-level societies viable ? greatly increase prospects for variety, reliability and accountability in indirect transactions. As groups expanded in size, exploiting widening range of ecological habitats, an increasing division of productive and cognitive labor became both possible and preferable.

By the time of Jesus Christ, two millennia ago, four great neighboring polities spanned Eurasia's middle latitudes: the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire centered in Persia and Mesopotamia, the Kushan Empire of Central Asia and Northern India, and the Han Empire of China and Korea. The Kushan Empire had diplomatic links with the other three, and all four were linked by a Network of trade routes, known to posterity as "The Silk Road." It's along the Silk Road that Eurasia's three universalist moral religions — Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism — continued to interact, and mutated from their respective territorial and tribal origins into the three proselytizing, globalizing religions that today vie for the soul of humanity — Christianity, Islam and Buddhism.

The three globalizing religions created two new concepts in human thought: individual free choice and collective humanity. People not born into these religions could, in principle, choose to belong (or remain outside), without regard to ethnicity, tribe or territory. The mission of these religions was to extend moral salvation to all peoples, not just to a "Chosen People" that would light the way for others.

Secularized by European Enlightenment, the great quasi-religious "isms" of modern history– colonialism, socialism, anarchism, fascism, communism, democratic liberalism ? harnessed industry and science to continue on a global scale the human imperative of "Cooperate to Compete."

Now, today, I see myself riding on the information highway of cyberspace as if I were on a light beam, casting off previous human technologies and relationships, like books and nation states. If people could fly like Superman they wouldn't need cars or elevators; and if they can electronically surf for knowledge and relationships then physical libraries and borders become irrelevant.

I try to imagine what the world will be like with social relationships unbounded by space, and the spiraling fusion of memory and knowledge in a global social brain than anyone can access. Future generations will be able to bind with their ancestors in different ways because they can see and hear them as they actually were, and not just in isolated phrases, paintings and pictures. And the multiple pathways and redundancies in knowledge Networks will enable even the simple minded to approach the creations of genius.

Truth be told, I can no more foresee the actual forms of knowledge, technology and society that are likely to result than an ancient Bushman or Sumerian could foresee how people could split the atom, traipse on the moon, crack the genetic code, or meet for life in cyberspace. (And anyone who says they can is just blowing smoke in your face.)

But I am reasonably sure that whatever new forms arise, they will have to accommodate to fundamental aspects of human nature that have barely changed since the Stone Age: love, hate, jealousy, guilt, contempt, pride, loyalty, friendship, rivalry, the thrill of risk and adventure, accomplishment and victory, the desire for esteem and glory, the search for pattern and cause in everything that touches and interests us, and the inescapable need to fashion ideas and relationships sufficiently powerful to deny our nothingness in the random profusion of the universe.

As for future forms of human governance, I see as equally likely (as things look now) the chance that political freedom and diversity, or a brave new world of dumbing homogeneity and deadening control by consensus, will prevail or perhaps alternate in increasingly destructive cycles. For the Internet is currently both the oxygen of a truly open society, and of spectacular transnational terrorism.

Here are two snippets that illustrate this duality:

"On the Internet, nobody knows you' e a dog," said the cunning canine in Peter Steiner's 1993 New Yorker cartoon; and on the Internet, any two communicators can believe they are the world.

"The media is [sic] coming!" Skyped the Lashkar-e-tayibah handler to the killers for God at the Taj hotel in Mumbai, signaling to them that now was the best timing for their martyrdom.

Around the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura (December 28, 2009), I received an email from a friend in Tehran who said how helpless he felt to stop the merciless beating of a young woman at the hands of government thugs, but he went on to say that: "we will win this thing if the West does nothing but help us keep the lines of communication open with satellite Internet." The same day, I saw the Facebook communications of the Xmas plane bomber and the army psychiatrist who shot up Fort Hood who, along with many others, self bound into a virtual community whose Internet Imams spin Web dreams of glory in exchange for real and bloody sacrifice.

"I imagine how the great jihad will take place, how the Muslims will win, insha Allah [God willing], and rule the whole world, and establish the greatest empire once again!!!" reads one post from "farouk 1986," the angel-faced British-educated engineering student and son of a prominent Nigerian banker who attempted to blow up Northwest flight 253 out of Amsterdam as it was about to land in Detroit. "Happiness is martyrdom" can be as emotionally contagious to a lonely boy on the Internet as "Yes, we can." That is a psychologically stunning and socially far-reaching development that scientists have hardly begun to explore.

And so, as a result of the advent of the Internet, I spend most of my time these days trying to think how, with the aid of the Internet, to get "farouk 1986" and friends from blowing up people to Kingdom Come.

The Collapse of Cultures

Human rights constitute a pillar of one global political culture, originally centered upon the Americas and Europe, and is a growing part of a massive, Internet-driven global political awakening. The decidedly non-secular Jihad is another key mover in this transnational political awakening: thoroughly modern and innovative, despite atavistic cultural references. Its appeal, to youth especially, lies in its promise of moral simplicity, a harmonious and egalitarian community (at least for men) whose extent is limitless, and the call to passion and action on humanity's behalf. It is a twisting of the tenets of human rights, the granting to each individual the "natural right" of sovereignty. It claims a moral duty to annihilate any opposition to the coming of true justice, and gives the righteous the prerogative to kill. The means justify the end, where no sacrifice of individuals is too costly for progress towards the final good.

Many made giddy by globalization — the ever-faster and deeper integration of individuals, corporations, markets, nations, technologies and knowledge — believe that a connected world inexorably shrinks differences and divisions, making everyone safer and more secure in one great big happy family. If only it were not for people's pre-modern parochial biases: religions, ethnicities, native languages, nations, borders, trade barriers, historical chips on the shoulder.

This sentiment is especially common among scientists (me included) and the deacons of Davos, wealthy and powerful globetrotters who schmooze one another in airport VIP clubs, three-star restaurants and five-star hotels, and feel that pleasant buzz of comraderie over wine or martinis at the end of the day. I don't reject this world; I sometimes embrace it.

But my field experience and experiments in a variety of cultural settings lead me to believe that an awful lot of people on this planet respond to global connectivity very differently than does the power elite. While economic globalization has — steamrolled or left aside large chunks of humankind, political globalization actively engages people of all societies and walks of life. Even the global economy's driftwood: refugees, migrants, marginals, and those most frustrated in their aspirations.

For there is, together with a flat and fluid world, a more tribal, fragmented and divisive world, as people unmoored from millennial traditions and cultures flail about in search of a social identity that is at once individual and intimate but with a greater sense of purpose and possibility of survival than a man, or Man, alone.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which shattered the briefly timeless illusion of a stable bipolar world, and for the first time in history, most of humanity is politically engaged. Many, especially the young, are becoming increasingly independent yet interactive, in the search for respect and meaning in life, in their visions of economic advancement and environmental awareness. These youth form their identities in terms of global political cultures through exposure to the media.

Even the blistered legacies of imperialism and colonialism are now more about the mediatization of the past and contemporary construction of cultural identity than the material effects of things that happened. Global political cultures arise horizontally among peers with different histories, rather than vertically as before, in traditions tried and passed in place from generation to generation. Jihad offers the pride of great achievements for the underachieving: brave new hearts for an outworn and overstretched world.

Traditionally, politics and religion were closely connected to ethnicity and territory, and in more recent times to nations and cultural areas (or "civilizations"). No longer. Religion and politics are becoming increasingly detached from their cultures of origin, not so much because of the movement of peoples (only about 3 percent of the world's population migrates, notes French political scientist Olivier Roy), but through the worldwide traffic of media-friendly information and ideas. Thus, contrary to those who see global conflicts along long-standing "fault lines" and a "clash of civilizations," these conflicts represent a collapse of traditional territorial cultures, not their resurgence. The crisis is most likely to be resolved, I believe, in cyberspace. To what end I cannot tell, but can only hope.

Writer, Artist, Designer; Author, Generation A


The Internet has made me very casual with a level of omniscience that was unthinkable a decade ago. I now wonder if God gets bored knowing the answer to everything.

The Internet forces me, as a creator, to figure out who I really am and what is unique to me — or to anyone else, for that matter — I like this.

The Internet forces me to come to grips with the knowledge that my mother has visited many truly frightening places online that I'll never know about — and certainly don't want to know about. I no longer believe in a certain sort of naïveté.

The Internet toys with my sense of permanence. Every tiny transient moment now lasts forever: homework ... emails … jpegs… sex acts … we all know the list. Yesterday I looked up a discontinued brand of Campbell's Soup called 'Noodles & Ground Beef' and was taken (via Google Books) to page 37 of the February 1976 issue of Ebony magazine, to a recipe for 'Beefy Tomato Burger Soup' that incorporated a can of the aforementioned soup. You'd have thought something that ephemeral would have evaded Google's reach, but no. Transience is now permanence. At the same time, things that were supposed to be around forever (newspapers!) are now transient. This is an astonishing inversion of time perception that I've yet to fully absorb. Its long-term effect on me is to heighten my worry about the fate of the middle classes (doomed) as well as to make me wonder about the future of homogeneous bourgeois thinking (also doomed as we turn into one great big college town populated entirely by eccentrics, a great big Austin, Texas.)

The Internet forces me to renegotiate my relationship to the celebrity dimension of pop culture. There are too many celebrities now, and they all cancel each other out (15 minutes!) so there aren't megastars like there used to be. You might as well be eccentric yourself.

The Internet gives me hope that in the future everyone will wear Halloween costumes 365 days a year.

The Internet has certainly demystified my sense of geography and travel. On Google Maps I've explored remote Antarctic valleys as well as Robert Smithson's sculptural earthwork, 'Spiral Jetty.' And we've all taken Blackberries everywhere. In so many ways, anywhere is basically as good as anywhere else — so let's hope you ended up somewhere with a nice climate and pleasant scenery when the music stopped in the fall of 2008.

Speaking of music, the Internet has made me much more engaged with musical culture than I might have hoped for when coming of age in the 1970s. It used to be that a person's musical taste was frozen around the age of 23. Once this happened, a person (usually a guy) spent the rest of their life worshipping stacks of lovingly maintained 33 vinyl. Nowadays the curation of an individual's personal taste never ends. People don't ask, "Have you heard the new [whatever]?" Instead it's, "What have you found lately?" It's friendlier and allows for communication between people of all ages.

Psychologist, Dean of Social Sciences, Harvard University;Co- Author, Fundamentals of Psychology in Context


Other people can help us compensate for our mental and emotional deficiencies, much as a wooden leg can compensate for a physical deficiency. Specifically, other people can extend our intelligence and help us understand and regulate our emotions. I've argued that such relationships can become so close that other people essentially act as extensions of oneself, much like a wooden leg can serve as an extension of oneself. When another person helps us in such ways, he or she is participating in what I've called a "Social Prosthetic System." Such systems do not need to operate face-to-face, and it's clear to me that the Internet is expanding the range of my Social Prosthetic Systems. The Internet is already an enormous repository of the products of many minds, and the interactive aspects of the evolving Internet are bringing it ever closer to the sort of personal interactions that underlie Social Prosthetic Systems.

Even in its current state, the Internet has extended my memory, perception, and judgment.

Regarding memory: Once I look up something on the Internet, I don't need to retain all the details for future use — I know where to find that information again, and can quickly and easily do so. More generally, the Internet functions as if it is my memory. This function of the Internet is particularly striking when I'm writing; I no longer am comfortable writing if I'm not connected to the Internet. It's become completely natural to check facts as I write, taking a minute or two to dip into PubMed, Wikipedia, or the like. When I write with a browser open in the background, it feels like the browser is an extension of myself.

Regarding perception: Sometimes I feel as if the Internet has granted me clairvoyance: I can see things at a distance. I'm particularly struck by the ease of using videos, allowing me to feel as though I've witnessed a particular event in the news. It's a cliché, but the world really does feel smaller.

Regarding judgment: The Internet has made me smarter, in matters small and large. For example, when writing a textbook it's become second nature to check a dozen definitions of a key term, which helps me to distill the essence of its meaning. But more than that, I now regularly compare my views with those of many other people. If I have a "new idea," I now quickly look to see whether somebody else has already had it, or conceived of something similar — and I then compare and contrast what I think with what others have thought. This inevitably hones my own views. Moreover, I use the Internet for "sanity checks," trying to gauge whether my emotional reactions to an event are reasonable, quickly comparing them to those of others.

These effects of the Internet have become even more striking since I've used a smart phone. I now regularly pull out my phone to check a fact, to watch a video, and to read blogs. Such activities fill the spaces that used to be dead time (such as waiting for somebody to arrive for a lunch meeting).

But that's the upside. The downside is that when I used to have those dead periods, I often would let my thoughts drift, and sometimes would have an unexpected insight or idea. Those opportunities are now fewer and farther between. Like anything else, constant connectivity has posed various tradeoffs; nothing is without a price. But in this case, I think — on balance — it's a small price to pay. I am a better thinker now than I was before I integrated the Internet into my mental and emotional processing.

Software Pioneer, Author 'I think... there... 4am'


One look the 'most active search terms', called 'Google Zeitgeist', or the current 'TV ratings winners', or MTV's 'top ten musical artists' and I get the uncanny feeling of being surrounded by an alien race of humanoids.
Who are these people? And what are they doing with these glorious resources ?

That perception of desperate solitude has probably always been a central part of any sane and rational thinker — as well as less sane and irrational artist. A highly intense love-hate relationship of an active mind towards the teeming lemming millions surrounding and suffocating him. Now enter: the Web.

Has the Internet changed my own thinking? Dramatically so.
Not at the neuron level, but more abstractly: it completely redefined how we perceive the world and ourselves in it, new models of how we work and research, entertain ourselves, communicate with our family and friends, how we learn about the past and preserve our memories, what we expect of the future and how we plan for it, what we watch, read, listen to: all greatly influenced by technology in general and the Net in particular.

But it is a double-edged sword, a yinyang yoyo of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Long ago I stopped expecting 'the world as such' and 'society as a whole' to provide solutions for me on a silver plate. The only sensible strategy is an eclectic path to define quality of life for yourself, and use all tools in whatever customized fashion to forge your path.
In other words: the planet is in shambles, but you can try to help and still carve out a meaningful, peaceful & happy existence on it.

The Internet is the epitome of that concept: barely in its infancy, in a deplorable state between 'not quite there yet' and 'already half fallen apart', unruly chaos, ugly, confused, appealing to the worst base instincts, but: you can use it in entirely unprecedented ways to enhance your life ambitions, with more choices, options and knowledge than any crowned heads in history.

But it is worth contrasting the euphoria with a taste of the dystopia.

Not the obvious topics like terror and child porn — the lesser but mind numbingly pervasive evils unnerve me: virus, trojan & phishing scams, incessant Nigerian cash crap, shrink your debt, lengthen your penis, news lite going gaga over Gaga, while teens are violently 'happy slapping' and ultracore pr0n swapping, guys with tattoed faces play ego shooters with death metal screams...
...the tip of a dysfunctional iceberg.

Being there during the very early days of computing and the Net, I cannot help but compare the vision, the hope and the theory with the reality we find ourselves in decades later. There were such lofty expectations using multimedia in education and learning but already soon after, with Douglas Adams in a series of roundtable appearance in the nineties, we called it "multimediocrity".

No one then expected the extent of this seething underbelly, or the pathetic forms it would take.

A Byron poem, interrupted by hemorrhoids ointment ads? Clicking it you get: "Now! New! Find the best deals on hemorrhoids!"
I cringe, in several places.

Brockman's mail arrived...in the Gmail spam folder. I noticed the ad at the top: "Creamy Spam Broccoli Casserole" it said. "Serves Eight".
Silly and cynical, but not so bad.

Writing to a friend I began "we nearly died laughing", but even before finishing the paragraph, Google ads showed "funeral plots" & "discount caskets".
Morbid, but not so bad?

Watching an unbelievably beautiful video of Hubble probing the edge of space: unfathomable 17.000 comments, but half of them inane, gross, with atrocious spelling, insults from childish name-calling, immature outbursts, vicious moronic bullying to outright gibberish insanity. Reading YouTube comment threads can make you sense the end of the world as we knew it.
How sad, but I guess one doesn't have to look?

But that's not an acceptable answer. It is not just silly, cynical or morbid. It is all too easy to look away and cling to our personal list of "fave cool stuff" while the seams are showing, the veneer is loose.
The ethereal beauty also contains lethal ether to the less fortunate non-digerati, such as the children or the elderly.

The Internet brings the promise of connecting it all.
But it could also connect it all... into one gigantic mess.
The sum-total of human lack of knowledge.

Of course there are many positive counter examples. I cling to them daily. Wikipedia itself is a miracle of sorts, and incidentally, edge.org must be cited as a hidden gem. Actually, it is more like a 19th century salon, (no interactivity, not even a forum or comments) and ultimately these essays will be read — as a book! Telling and charming.

In my sixth decade now, I always had a wholehearted passion for new horizons, searching out the newest tools possible. I got into synthesizers in the late sixties to create sounds no one had heard before, then into computer graphics in the seventies to make images no one had ever seen.
And soon I became a tool maker myself and active in the emerging online world from ArpaNet, the Well to UseNet, creating daily chatrooms about pixels & philosophy, years before the Web even began.
So this is not a quick quip by some Luddite or Noob who 'doesn't get it', but rather a profound objection by a saddened observer since the earliest days, clinging to his deeply appreciative fascination for the immense potential.

Last decade I spent cocooned, quietly thinking about approaches, solutions, ideas. There is much to say, which, however, the margin is not large enough to contain.

Eventually, it will all get there, just as it always did spiral forwards and evolve, from Newton to Einstein just as from Newton to iPhone.

The Net will not reach its true potential in my little lifetime. But it surely has influenced the thinking in my lifetime like nothing else ever has.

Dept of Cognitive Biology, University of Vienna; Author, The Evolution of Language


When I consider the effect of the Internet on my thought, I keep coming back to the same metaphor. What makes the Internet fundamentally new is the many-to-many topology of connections it allows: suddenly any two Internet-equipped humans can transfer essentially any information, flexibly and efficiently. We can transfer words, code, equations, music or video anytime to anyone, essentially for free. We are no longer dependent on publishers or media producers to connect us. This parallels what happened, in animal evolution, as we evolved complex brains controlling our behavior, partially displacing the basically hormonal, one-to-many systems that came before. So let's consider this new information topology from the long evolutionary viewpoint, by comparing it to the information revolution that occurred during animal evolution over the last half-billion years: the evolution of brains.

Our planet has been around for 4.5 billion years, and life appeared very early, almost 4 billion years ago. But for three quarters of the subsequent period, life was exclusively unicellular, similar to today's bacteria, yeast or amoebae. The most profound organic revolution, after life itself, was thus the transition to complex multicellular organisms like trees, mushrooms and ourselves.

Consider this transition from the viewpoint of a single-celled organism. An amoeba is a self-sufficient entity, moving, sensing, feeding and reproducing independent of other cells. For three billion years of evolution, our ancestors were all free-living cells like this, independently "doing it for themselves," and were honed by this long period into tiny organisms more versatile and competent than any cell in our multicellular bodies. Were it capable of scorn, an amoeba would surely scoff at a red blood cell as little more than a stupid bag of protoplasm, barely alive, over-domesticated by the tyranny of multicellular specialization.

Nonetheless, being jacks of all trades, such cells were masters of none. Cooperative multicellularity allowed cells to specialize, mastering the individual tasks of support, feeding, and reproduction. Specialization and division of labor allowed teams of cells to vastly outclass their single-celled ancestors in terms of size, efficiency, and complexity, leading to a whole new class of organisms. But this new organization created its own problems of communication: how to ensure smooth, effective cooperation among all of these independent cells? This quandary directly parallels the origin of societies of specialized humans.

Our bodies have essentially two ways of solving the organizational problems raised by coordinating billions of semi-independent cells. In hormonal systems, master control cells broadcast potent signals all other cells must obey. Steroid hormones like estrogen or testosterone enter the body's cells, penetrating their nuclei and directly controlling gene expression. The endocrine system is like an immensely powerful dictatorship, issuing sweeping edicts that all must obey.

The other approach involved a novel cell type specialized for information processing: the neuron. While the endocrine approach works fine for plants and fungi, metazoans (multicellular animals) move, sense and act, requiring a more subtle neural form of control. From the beginning, neurons were organized into networks: they are teamworkers collaboratively processing information and reaching group decisions. Only neurons at the final output stage, like motor neuron, retain direct power over the body. And even motor neurons must act together to produce coordinated movement rather than uncontrolled twitching.

In humans, language provided the beginnings of a communicative organizational system, unifying individuals into larger, organized collectives. Although all animals communicate, their channels are typically narrow and do not support expression of any and all thoughts. Language enables humans to move arbitrary thoughts from one mind to another, creating a new, cultural level of group organization. For most of human evolution, this system was very local, allowing small bands of people to form local clusters of organization. Spoken language allowed hunter-gatherers to organize their foraging efforts, or small farming communities their harvest, but not much more.

The origin of writing allowed the first large-scale societies, organized on hierarchical (often despotic) lines: a few powerful kings and scribes had control over the communication channels, and issued edicts to all. This one-to-many topology is essentially endocrine. Despite their technological sophistication, radio and television share this topology. The proclamations and legal decisions of the ruler (or television producer) parallel the reproductive edicts carried by hormones within our bodies: commands issued to all, which all must obey.

Since Gutenberg, human society has slowly groped its way towards a new organizational principle. Literacy, mail, telegraphs and democracy were steps along the way to a new organizational metaphor, more like the nervous system than hormones. The Internet completes the process: now arbitrarily far-flung individuals can link, share information, and base their decisions upon this new shared source of meaning. Like individual neurons in our neocortex, each human can potentially influence and be influenced, rapidly, by information from anyone, anywhere. We, the metaphoric neurons of the global brain, are on the brink of a wholly new system of societal organization, one spanning the globe with the metaphoric axons of the Internet linking us together.

The protocols are already essentially in place. TCP/IP and HTML are the global brain equivalents of cAMP and neurotransmitters: universal protocols for information transfer. Soon a few dominant languages like English, Chinese and Spanish will provide for universal information exchange. Well-connected collective entities like Google and Wikipedia will play the role of brainstem nuclei to which all other information nexuses must adapt.

Two main problems mar this "global brain" metaphor. First, the current global brain is only tenuously linked to the organs of international power. Political, economic and military power remains insulated from the global brain, and powerful individuals can be expected to cling tightly to the endocrine model of control and information exchange. Second, our nervous systems evolved over 400 million years of natural selection, during which billions of competing false-starts and miswired individuals were ruthlessly weeded out. But there is only one global brain today, and no trial and error process to extract a functional configuration from the trillions of possible configurations. This formidable design task is left up to us.

Classicist; Provost, Georgetown University; Author, The Ruin of the Roman Empire


How is the Internet changing the way I think? My fingers have become part of my brain. What will come of this? It's far too early to say.

Once upon a time, knowledge consisted of what you knew yourself and what you heard — literally, with your ears — from others. If you were asked a question in those days you thought of what you had seen and heard and done yourself and what others had said to you. I'm rereading Thucydides this winter and watching the way everything depended on who you knew and where the messengers came from and whether they were delayed en route, walking from one end of Greece to another. Thucydides was literate, but his world hadn't absorbed that new technology yet.

With the invention of writing, the eyes took on a new role. Knowledge wasn't all in memory, but was found in present, visual stimuli: the written word in one form or another. We have built a might culture based on all the things that humankind can produce and the eye can study. What we could read in the traditional library of 25 years ago was orders of magnitude richer and more diverse than the most that any person could ever see, hear, or be told of in one lifetime. The modern correlative to Thucydides would be Churchill's history of World War II and the abundance of written documents he shows himself dependent on at every stage of the war. But imagine Churchill or Hitler with Internet-like access to information!

Now we change again. It's less than twenty years since the living presence of networked information has become part of our thinking machinery. What it will mean to us that vastly more people have nearly instantaneous access to vastly greater quantities of information cannot be said with confidence. In principle, it means a democratization of innovation and of debate. In practice, it also means a world in which many have already proven that they can ignore what they do not wish to think about, select what they wish to quote, and produce a public discourse demonstrably poorer than what we might have known in the past.

But just for myself, just for now, it's my fingers I notice. Ask me a good question today, and I find that I begin fiddling. If I am away from my desk, I pull out my Blackberry so quickly and instinctively that you probably think I'm ignoring your question and starting to read my e-mail or play Brickbreaker — and sometimes I am! But when I'm not — that is, when you've asked a really interesting question, it's a physical reaction, a gut feeling that I need to start manipulating (the Latin root for 'hand', *manus*, is in that word) the information at my fingertips, in order to find the data that will support a good answer. At my desktop, it's the same pattern: the sign of thinking is that I reach for the mouse and start "shaking it loose" — the circular pattern on the mouse pad that lets me see where the mouse arrow is, make sure the right browser is open, get a search window handy. My eyes and hands have already learned to work together in new ways with my brain in a process of clicking, typing a couple of words, clicking, scanning, clicking again that really is a new way of thinking for me.

That finger work is unconscious. It just starts to happen. But it's the way I can now tell thinking has begun as I begin working my way through an information world more tactile than ever before. Will we next have three-dimensional virtual spaces in which I gesture, touch, and run my fingers over the data? I don't know: nobody can. But we're off on a new and great adventure whose costs and benefits we will only slowly come to appreciate.

What all this means is that we are in a different space now, one that is largely unfamiliar to us even when we think we are using familiar tools (like a "newspaper" that has never been printed or an "encyclopedia" vastly larger than any shelf of buckram volumes), and one that has begun life by going through rapid changes that only hint at what is to come. I'm not going to prophesy where that goes, but I'll sit here a while longer, watching the ways I really have come to "let my fingers do the walking", wondering where they will lead.


a completely new form of sense

i am very interested in the Internet, especially right now.

the Internet is a completely new form of sense.

as a human, i have experienced reality; as have the rest of my species since we had the ability to self-realize, as a combination of what we see, smell, feel, hear, and taste.

but the Internet, and this is a term i think that is beyond the idea of just the Web on a computer (Websites, emails, blogs, twitter, google etc) that is become "something" that i cannot myself really define yet.

the Internet is really growing beyond this "something" so that even if someone does not have a computer, the Internet still affects them.

so this is very interesting because the Internet is becoming a new form of sense that has not existed since we became to self realize as humans.

and because this affects everybody, i feel that thinking about what the Internet is now must always come back to myself as an individual. cause it is becoming more and more important to see how our individual thoughts and actions affect everything else around us. it all still starts with the "i" with me.

a new collective sense of "i" is the Internet...

so that there is a new form of "i" that is also "we" at the same time because we are all involved with it.

i am not sure if i am answering your question, as it is a question that i do think about consiously everyday now but can't quite figure out.

and forgive me if i may sound like a bad sciece fiction writer, but if i may give any direction to your question, i think that the Internet is probably going to evolve by itself very very soon to give you better answers that i can hopefully ever give.

and i do not think i would even know it myself when that happens.

that is quite a scary thought.

Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe


I think less. My goal is to transfer my brain's functions, bit by bit, to the Cloud.

When I do think, I am lazier. There's no point in making the strenuous trek over to the library to find the source when you can get an expurgated electronic version on Google books right away. And why go look up the exact theorem when you can find an approximate version on Wikipedia?

OK, you can get burned. Math being what it is, an approximate theorem is typically an untrue theorem. Over the years, I have found most statements in purely scientific reference articles on Wikipedia to be 99.44% correct. It's that last .56% that gets you. I just wasted three months and almost published an incorrect result because one clause in the Wikipedia statement of a theorem was, in fact, wrong. It's a lucky thing the referee caught my error. In the meanwhile, however, I had used one of the great Internet innovations, the scientific preprint archive, to post the incorrect result on the Internet for everyone to see.

For hundreds of millions of years, Sex was the most efficient method for propagating information of dubious provenance: the origins of all those snippets of junk DNA are lost in the sands of reproductive history. Move aside, Sex: the world-wide Web has usurped your role. A single illegal download can propagate more parasitic bits of information than a host of mating Tse Tse flies. Indeed, as I looked further afield, I found that it was not just Wikipedia that was in error: essentially every digital statement of the clause in the theorem of interest was also incorrect. For better or worse, it appears that the only sure way to find the correct statement of a theorem is to trek to the library and to find some book written by some dead mathematician, maybe even the same one who proved the theorem in the first place.

In fact, the key to correctness probably does not even lie in the fact that the book was written by that mathematician, so much as that the book was scrupulously edited by the editor of the series who invited the mathematician to write the book. Prose, poetry, and theorems posted on the Internet are no less insightful and brilliant than their paper predecessors: they are simply less edited. Moreover, just when we need them most, the meticulously trained editors of our newspapers, journals, and publishing houses are being laid off in droves.

Life, too, has gone through periods of editorial collapse. During the Cambrian explosion, living systems discovered the evolutionary advantage of complex, multicellular forms. Like the digital organisms of today's Internet, the new Cambrian lifeforms rewrote the rules of habitat after habitat, evolving rapidly in the process. Finally, however, they filled their environment to its carrying capacity: at that point, just being cool, complex, and multicellular was no longer enough to insure survival. The sharp red pencil of natural selection came out and slashed away the gratuitous sequences of DNA.

For the moment, however, the ability of the Internet to propagate information promiscuously is largely a blessing. The preprint archives where scientific work (like my wrong paper) are posted for all to read are great levelers: a second- or third-world scientist with a modem can access the unedited state of the art in a scientific field as it is produced, rather than months or years later. They, in turn, can produce and post their own unedited preprints, and so on. As long as computer memories keep doubling in capacity every year or two, those stacks of unedited information will keep doubling and doubling, too, swamping the useful and correct in a sea of extraneous bits. Eventually, the laws of physics themselves will stop this exponential explosion of memory space, and we will be forced, once more, to edit. What will happen then?

Don't ask me. By then, the full brain transfer to the Cloud should be complete. I hope not to be thinking at all.

Research Fellow in Evolutionary Biology, Institute of Zoology, Zoological Society of London


I was rather stumped by this question because I have little experience of work or play without the Internet. My interests and the way I think, work and play have evolved alongside the Internet. Perhaps it would help if I could work out what life would be like for me without the Internet. Abstaining from the Internet is not a feasible experiment even on a personal level! Instead, I exploited the very resource we are evaluating, and asked my friends on Facebook what they thought their lives would be like without the Internet. If I could empathize with my alter-ego in a parallel 'offline' universe where there was no Internet, perhaps I can understand how the Internet has influenced the way I think.

Initial impressions of an Internet-free life from my Facebook friends were of general horror. The Internet plays a crucial role in our personal lives: my friends said they would be 'lost', 'stressed', 'anxious' and 'isolated' without it. They were concerned about 'No 24-7 chats?'; 'How would I make new friends/meet new people?'; 'How would I keep in touch with my friends abroad?'; 'I'd actually have to buy things in person from real people!'. We depend on the Internet as our social network, to connect with friends, strangers and to access resources. Sitting at my computer, I am one of the millions of 'nodes' making up the network. Whilst physical interactions with other nodes in the network is largely impossible, I am potentially connected to them all.

Caution and suspicion of the unfamiliar are ancestral traits of humans, ensuring survival by protecting against usurpation and theft of resources. A peculiar thing about the Internet is that it makes us highly receptive and indiscriminate in our interactions with complete strangers. The other day I received a message inviting me to join a Facebook group for people sharing 'Seirian' as their first name. Can I resist? Of course not! I'll probably never meet the other 17 Seirians, but I am now a 'node' connected to a virtual network of Seirians. Why did I join? Because I had nothing to lose, there were no real consequences, and I was curious to tap into a group of people wholly unconnected with my current social network. The more friendly connections I engage in, the greater the rewards I can potentially reap. If the 'Facebook Seirians' had knocked on my real front door instead of my virtual one, would I have signed up? No, of course not — too invasive, personal and potentially costly (they'd know where I live and I can't unplug them!). Contrary to our ancestral behaviours, we tolerate invasion of privacy online, and the success of the Internet relies on this.

Connectivity comes at the cost of privacy, but it does promote information acquisition and transfer. Although the initial response from my Facebook friends was fear of disconnection, more considered responses appreciated the Internet for the incredible resource it is, and that it could never be replaced with traditional modes of information storage and transfer. 'How do I find things out?'; 'Impossible to access information'; 'You mean I have to physically go shopping/visit the library?'; 'So slow..'; 'Small life'. The Internet relies on our greed for knowledge and connections, but also on our astonishing online generosity. We show inordinate levels of altruism on the Internet, wasting hours on chat room sites giving advice to complete strangers, or contributing anonymously to Wikipedia just to enrich other people's knowledge. There is no guarantee or expectation of reciprocation. Making friends and trusting strangers with personal information (be it your bank details or musical tastes) is an essential personality trait of an Internet user, despite being at odds with our ancestral natural caution. The data we happily give away on Facebook is exactly the sort of information that communist secret police sought through interrogation. By relaxing our suspicion (or perception) of strangers and behaving altruistically (indiscriminately) we share our own resources and gain access to a whole lot more.

I thought I had too little pre-Internet experience to be able to answer this question. But now I realize that we undergo rapid evolution into a different organism every time we log on. The Internet may not necessarily change the way we think, but it certainly shapes and directs our thoughts by changing our behaviour. Offline, we may be secretive, miserly, private, suspicious and self-centered. Online, we become philanthropic, generous, approachable, friendly, and dangerously unwary of strangers. Online behaviour would be selected out in an offline world because no-one would cooperate — people don't want unprompted friendship and generosity from complete strangers. Likewise, offline behaviour does badly in an online world — unless you give a little of yourself, you get restricted access to resources. The reason for our personality change is that the Internet is a portal to lazy escapism: at the twitch of the mouse we enter a world where the consequences of our actions don't seem real. The degree to which our online and offline personas differ will of course vary from one person to another. At the most extreme, online life is literally one of care-free fantasy — Live vicariously through your flawless avatar in the fantastical world of Second Life! What better way to escape the tedium and struggles of reality that confront our offline-selves?

Is the change from offline to online behaviour adaptive? We ultimately strive to maximise our individual inclusive fitness. We can do this using our communication skills (verbal and written) to persuade other people to alter their behaviour for mutual benefits. Early hominid verbal communication and hieroglyphs were the tools of persuasion used by our ancestors. The Internet is the third great breakthrough in human communication, and our behavioural plasticity is a necessary means for exploiting it. Do we need to moderate these shifts in behaviour? One of my Facebook friends said it would be 'relaxing' without the Internet. Is our addiction to the Internet leaving us no time or space to think and process the complex stream of interactions and knowledge we get from it? Sleep is essential for 'brain sorting' — maybe offline life (behaviour) is too.

To conclude my answer to the question, the Internet changes my behaviour every time I log on and in doing so influences how I think. My daring, cheeky, spontaneous, and interactive online persona, makes me quicker-thinking and encourages me to think further outside my offline box. I think in tandem with the Internet, using its knowledge to inspire and challenge my thoughts. My essay is a testament to this – Facebook inspired my thoughts and provoked this essay, so I couldn't have done it without the Internet.

Physician and Social Scientist, Harvard University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives


Efforts to change the way we think — and to enhance our cognitive capacity — are ancient. Brain enhancers come in several varieties. They can be either hardware or software, and they can be either internal or external to our bodies. External hardware includes things like cave paintings, written documents, eyeglasses, wristwatches, wearable computers, or brain-controlled machines. Internal hardware includes things like mind-altering substances, cochlear implants, or intra-cranial electrical stimulation. Internal software includes things like education, meditation, mnemonics, and cognitive therapy. And external software includes things like calendars, voting systems, search engines, and the Internet.

I've had personal experience with most of these — save cave painting and the more esoteric forms of hardware — and I think I can say with confidence that they have not changed my brain.

What especially attracts my attention, though, is that the more complex types of external software — including the Internet — tend to involve communication and interaction, and thus they tend to be specifically social: they tend to involve the thoughts, feelings, and actions of many individuals, pooled in some way to make them accessible to individuals, including me. The Internet thus facilitates an age-old tendency of the human mind to benefit from our tendency as a species to be homo dictyous (network man), an innate tendency we all have to connect with others and to be influenced by them. In this regard, the Internet is both mind-expanding and atavistic.

The Internet is no different than previous (equally monumental) brain-enhancing technologies such as books or telephony, and I doubt whether books and telephony have changed the way I think, in the sense of actually changing the way my brain works (which is the particular way I am taking the question before us). In fact, I would say that it is much more correct to say that our thinking gave rise to the Internet than that the Internet gave rise to our thinking. Another apt analogy is perhaps mathematics. It has taken centuries for humans to accumulate mathematical knowledge; and I learned geometry and calculus in high school in a way that probably would have astonished mathematicians just a few centuries ago. But, like other students, I did this with the same brain we've all had for millennia. The math surely changed how I think about the world. But did it change the way I think? Did it change my brain? The answer is mostly no.

To be clear, the Internet is assuredly changing quite a few things related to cognition and social interaction. One widely appreciated and important example of both is the way the Internet facilitates hive-mind phenomena, like Wikipedia, that integrate the altruistic impulses and the knowledge of thousands of far-flung individuals. To the extent that I participate in such things (and I do), my thinking and I are both affected by the Internet.

But most thinking serves social ends. A strong indicator of this fact is that the intellectual content of most conversation is trivial, and it certainly is not focused on complex ideas about philosophy or mathematics. In fact, how often — unless we are ten-year-old boys — do we even think or talk about predators or navigation, which have ostensibly been important topics of thought and conversation for quite some time? Mostly, we think about, and talk about, each other. This is probably even true for those of us who spend our lives as scientists.

Indeed, our brains likely evolved their capacity for intelligence in response to the demands of social (rather than environmental) complexity. The evolution of larger social groups among primates required and benefited from the evolution of a larger neo-cortex (the outer, thinking part of our brain), and managing social complexity in turn required and benefited from the evolution of language. Known as the "social brain hypothesis," this idea posits that the reason we think at all has to do with our embeddedness in social life.

What role might technology play in this? Very little, it turns out. Consider, for example, the fact that the size of military units has not changed materially in thousands of years, even though our communication technology (from signal fires to telegraphy to radio to radar) has. The basic unit in the Roman army (the "maniple") was composed of 120-130 men, and the size of the analogous unit in modern armies (the company) is still about the same.

The fact that effective human group size has not changed very substantially — even though communication technology has — suggests that it is not the technology that is crucial to our performance. Rather, the crucial factor is the ability of the human mind to track social relationships, to form mental rosters that identify who is who, and to form mental maps that track who is connected to whom and how strong or weak, or cooperative or adversarial, those relationships are. I do not think that the Internet has changed the ability of my brain to do this. While we may use the word "friends" to refer to all our contacts online, they are decidedly not our friends, in the truly social, emotional, or biological sense of the word.

There is no new self. There are no new others. And so there is no new brain, and no new way of thinking. We are the same species after the Internet as before. Yes, the Internet can make it easy for us to learn how to make a bomb or find a willing sexual partner. But the Internet itself is not changing the fundamental reality of my thinking any more than it is changing our fundamental proclivity to violence or our innate capacity for love.

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