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Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul


Twenty or thirty years ago, people dreamed of a global mind that knew everything and could answer any question. In those early times, we imagined that we'd need a huge breakthrough in artificial intelligence to make the global mind work — we thought of it as resembling an extremely smart person. The conventional Hollywood image for the global mind's interface was a talking head on a wall-sized screen.

And now, in 2010, we have the global mind. Search-engines, user-curated encyclopedias, images of everything under the sun, clever apps to carry out simple computations — it's all happening. But old-school artificial intelligence is barely involved at all.

As it happens, data, and not algorithms, is where it's at. Put enough information into the planetary information cloud, crank up a search engine, and you've got an all-knowing global mind. The answers emerge.

Initially people resisted understanding this simple fact. Perhaps this was because the task of posting a planet's worth of data seemed so intractable. There were hopes that some magically simple AI program might be able to extrapolate a full set of information from a few well-chosen basic facts — just a person can figure out another person on the basis of a brief conversation.

At this point, it looks like there aren't going to be any incredibly concise aha-type AI programs for emulating how we think. The good news is that this doesn't matter. Given enough data, a computer network can fake intelligence. And — radical notion — maybe that's what our wetware brains are doing, too. Faking it with search and emergence. Searching a huge data base for patterns.

The seemingly insurmountable task of digitizing the world has been accomplished by ordinary people. This results from the happy miracle that the Internet is that it's unmoderated and cheap to use. Practically anyone can post information onto the Web, whether as comments, photos, or full-blown Web pages. We're like worker ants in a global colony, dragging little chunks of data this way and that. We do it for free; it's something we like to do.

Note that the Internet wouldn't work as a global mind if it were a completely flat and undistinguished sea of data. We need a way to locate the regions that are most desirable in terms of accuracy and elegance. An early, now-discarded, notion was that we would need some kind of information czar or committee to rank the data. But, here again, the anthill does the work for free.

By now it seems obvious that the only feasible way to rank the Internet's offerings is to track the online behaviors of individual users. By now it's hard to remember how radical and rickety such a dependence upon emergence used to seem. No control! What a crazy idea. But it works. No centralized system could ever keep pace.

An even more surprising success is found in user-curated encyclopedias. When I first heard of this notion, I was sure it wouldn't work. I assumed that trolls and zealots would infect all the posts. But the Internet has a more powerful protection system than I'd realized. Individual users are the primary defenders.

We might compare the Internet to a biological system in which new antibodies emerge to combat new pathogens. Malware is forever changing, but our defenses are forever evolving as well.

I am a novelist, and the task of creating a coherent and fresh novel always seems in some sense impossible. What I've learned over the course of my career is that I need to trust in emergence also known as the muse. I assemble a notes document filled with speculations, overheard conversations, story ideas, and flashy phrases. Day after day, I comb through my material, integrating it into my mental Net, forging links and ranks. And, fairly reliably, the scenes and chapters of my novel emerge. It's how my creative process works.

In our highest mental tasks, any dream of an orderly process is a will-o'-the wisp. And there's no need to feel remorseful about this. Search and emergence are good enough for the global mind — and they're good enough for us.

Hi-Tech Industry Consultant; Former Executive at Apple Computer and Microsoft Corporation


Before the Internet, I made more trips to the library and more phone calls. I read more books and my point of view was narrower and less informed. I walked more, biked more, hiked more, and played more. I made love more often. 

The seductive online sages, scholars, and muses that joyfully take my curious mind where ever it needs to go, where ever it can imagine going, whenever it wants, are beguiling. All my beloved screens offer infinite, charming, playful, powerful, informative, social windows into global human experience. 

The Internet, the online virtual universe, is my jungle gym and I swing from bar to bar: learning about: how writing can be either isolating or social; DIY Drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) at a Maker Faire; where to find a quantified self meetup; or how to make Sach moan sngo num pachok. I can use image search to look up hope or success or play. I can find a video on virtually anything; I learned how to safely open a young Thai coconut from this Internet of wonder.

As I stare out my window, at the unusually beautiful Seattle weather, I realize, I haven't been out to walk yet today — sweet Internet juices still dripping down my chin. I'll mind the clock now, so I can emerge back into the physical world.

The physical world is where I not only see, I also feel — a friend's loving gaze in conversation; the movement of my arms and legs and the breeze on my face as I walk outside; and the company of friends for a game night and potluck dinner. The Internet supports my thinking and the physical world supports that, as well as, rich sensing and feeling experiences.

It's no accident we're a culture increasingly obsessed with the Food Network and Farmer's Markets — they engage our senses and bring us together with others.

How has the Internet changed my thinking? The more I've loved and known it, the clearer the contrast, the more intense the tension between a physical life and a virtual life. The Internet stole my body, now a lifeless form hunched in front of a glowing screen. My senses dulled as my greedy mind became one with the global brain we call the Internet.

I am confident that I can find out about nearly anything online and also confident that in my time offline, I can be more fully alive. The only tool I've found for this balancing act is intention.

The sense of contrast between my online and offline lives has turned me back toward prizing the pleasures of the physical world. I now move with more resolve between each of these worlds, choosing one, then the other — surrendering neither.

Professor & Director, Institute of Philosophy School of Advanced Study University of London


The growth of the Internet has reversed previous assumptions: the private is now public; the local appears globally; information is entertainment; consumers turn into producers; everyone is an expert; and the socially isolated become part of an enormous community preferring the virtual to the real. What have all these changes brought about?

Initially, they appear empowering. Everyone can have their say, opinion is democratic; and at a time when natural resources are shrinking, and where environmental threats require us to limit our emissions, the Internet seems to be an ever expanding and almost limitless resource. Here, it seems, I discover a parallel world where neat models replace messy reality, where freedom reigns, where wrongs are righted, and where fates can be changed. I am cheered by the possibilities.

However, the truth is that the virtual world grows out of, and ultimately depends on, the one world whose inputs it draws on, whose resources it consumes, and whose flaws it inevitably inherits. I find everything there: the good, the bland, the important, the trivial, the fascinating and the off-putting. And just as there are crusading writers, and eye-witness reporters, there are also cyber lynch mobs, hate mailers and stalkers. As more of my information appears on the Net, more use is made of it, for good or for ill. Increasing Internet identity means increasing identity theft, and whatever I have encrypted, hackers will try to decode. So much so that governments and other organisations often restrict their most secure communications to older technologies, even sending scrolled messages in small capsules through pneumatic pipes. This, of course, fuels the suspicions of Internet conspiracy theorists.

Looking at what have I've gained, I now hear from a greater range of different voices, discover new talents with something to say: niche writers, collectors, musicians and artists. I have access to more books, journal articles, newspapers, tv programs, documentaries and films. Missed something live? It will be on the Web. The greatest proportion of these individuals and outputs were already offering something interesting or important to which the Internet gave worldwide access. Here we have ready-made content for the voracious Internet to consume and display.

But new media have emerged, too, whose content arose for, or on, the Internet: these include blogging, Wikipedia, and YouTube; along with new forms of shared communication, such as Facebook, Google Groups and Twitter. Will these new forms replace the ready-made contents? It's unclear. Amid the bread and circus element to the Internet here is a need for good quality materials, and a means to sort out the wheat from the chaff: garbage in, garbage out, as computer programmers say. It is our choice, some will say, and yet I find myself looking with sheer disbelief or ironic amusement at what people have chosen to put up on the Net. The greatest fascination is bloggers who rather knowingly provide alternative slices of life. Here we have diarists who desire to be intimate with everyone. Those with a distinctive voice and a good theme, have found a following, when worldwide word spreads, the result is usually a contract to publish their output, lightly edited, as a book, which in turn can be read on the Internet.

What of the new Web-dependent phenomena: open access and open source programming, virtual social networking, the co-construction of knowledge? All these are gains and reflect something hopeful: the collaborative effort of our joint endeavour; our willingness to share. The inclusive natures of these phenomena are encouraging. I want to join in and like the idea of making a modest contribution to a larger enterprise. But the new technologies let me witness their distancing and distorting influences: Internet fuelled fantasies where everyone can be a celebrity, or can live through their avatar in virtual reality, or develop alternative personalities in chat rooms — fantasies that someone, somewhere on the Internet is making money from.

How do I cope with the speeded up information age? The overload is overwhelming, but so is my desire to know and not to miss anything. I'm tempted to know a little bit about everything and look for pre-digested, concise, neatly formatted content from reliable sources. My reading habits have changed making me aware of how important well-packaged information has become. It's become necessary to consume thousands of abstracts from scientific journals, doing one's own fast search for what should be read in more detail. Debates seem to be decided at the level of abstracts. Repudiations signalled by the title and a hundred words. The real work, of course, goes on elsewhere but we want the Internet to brings us the results. This leaves me knowing less about more and more. At the same time I am exhilarated by the dizzying effort to make connections and integrate information. Learning is faster. Though the tendency to forge connecting themes can feel dangerously close to the search for patterns that overtakes the mentally ill. Time to slow down and engage in longer study.

The Internet shows me more and more about those who participate in it, but I worry lest I forget that not everything or everyone in the world has a home on the Internet. Missing are those who cannot read or write, who have no access to a computer, or who chose to remain disconnected. There is a danger of coming to think that what cannot be found on an Internet search doesn't exist, and that the virtual world is the world. It isn't. However bizarre and incredible the people populating the Internet are, they are still akin to me, people with knowledge of computers and their applications. Certainly, there is diversity and hierarchy, and vast domains of varied information, but nevertheless, except when Internet users turn their attention on the those who are excluded, or who exclude themselves, a mirror will be held up to those who sustain the information age, and it is only this part of the world I come to have scattered information about.

Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Senior Research Scientist, New York University; Author, Planetary Dreams


The Internet has made it far easier for professionals to access and search the scientific literature. Unfortunately, it has also increased the chances that we will lose part or all of that literature.

When I was young, I imagined that everything I wrote would be preserved forever. Future biographers would seek out every letter, diary and memorandum to capture the essence of my creativity. My first laboratory notebook still captured the same emotions. On page one I had printed, very legibly, the following preface: "To Posterity: This volume contains the authentic record of ingenious and original chemical research conducted by Robert Shapiro, currently a graduate student of organic chemistry at Harvard University."

Reality gradually whittled down my grandiosity, and I recognized that my published papers had the best chance of survival. The New York University library carried bound journals that dated from the 19th century, and the articles thay contained had obviously outlived their authors. As the number of my own published works grew, curiosity chose me to select one of them and track its impact. I deliberately picked one of minor importance.

A generation ago, a persistant PhD student and I had failed in an effort to synthesize a new substance of theoretical interest. We had however prepared some other new compounds and improved some methods, so I wrote a paper that was published in 1969 in The Journal of Organic Chemisty. Had our results ever mattered to anyone? Using new computer-driven search tools, I could quickly check whether it had had ever been noticed. To my surprise, I found that 11 papers and some patents had cited our publication, up to 2002. In one instance, our work provided a starting point for the preparation of new tranquilizers. I imagined that in the distant future, other workers might pull the appropriate volume off a library shelf and find my work to be some help. I did not forsee that such bound volumes might no longer exist.

The Journal of Organic Chemistry started in 1936, and continues up to the present. Its demands on library shelf space have increased over time: the first volume contained only 583 pages, while the 2009 edition had 9680. The arrival of the Internet rescued libraries from the space crisis created by the proliferation of new journals and the vast increase in the size of existing ones. Many paper subscriptions were replaced by electronic ones, and past holdings were converted to digital form. It is not hard to imagine a future time when paper copies of the scientific literature will no longer exist. Many new journals are appearing only in digital form.

This conversion has produced many benefits for readers. In the past I had to leave my office, ride an elevator, walk several blocks, take another elevator, and make my way through a maze of shelves to find a paper that I needed. Occasionally, the issue I wanted was being used by someone else or had been misplaced, and I had traveled in vain. Now I can bring most papers that I want onto a computer screen in my office or at home in a matter of minutes. I can store the publication in my computer, or print out a copy if I wish. But with this gain in the accessibility of the literature of science has come an increase in its vulnerability.

Materials that exist in one or a few copies are inherently at greater risk than those that are widely distributed. A Picasso painting might be destroyed but the Bible will survive. Alexander Stille in The Future of the Past reported that the works of Homer and Virgil survived from antiquity because their great popularity lead them to be copied and recopied. On the other hand, only 9 of Sophocles 120 plays have survived. Before the Internet came into play, I could take pride that my each of my papers was present in hundreds or thousands of libraries across the globe. Its survival into the future was enhanced by the protection afforded by multiple copies. The same applies, of course to the remainder of the scientific literature.

Thousands of paper copies of the literature have now been replaced by a few electronic records stored in computers. Furthermore, the storage medium is fragile. Some paper manuscripts have survived for centuries. The lifetimes of the various discs, drives and tapes currently used for digital storage are unknown, but are commonly estimated in decades. In some cases, works available only in electronic form have disappeared much more rapidly for another reason — lack of maintenance of the sites. One survey found that 12% of the Internet addresses cited in three prestigious medical and scientific journals were extinct two years after publication.

Such difficulties are unlikely to affect prestigious sources such as the Journal of Organic Chemistry. But material stored only on the Internet is far more vulnerable to destruction than the same material present in multiple paper copies. Electrical breakdown can disrupt access for a time, while cyberterrorism, civic disturbances, war and a variety of natural catastrophes could destroy part ar all of the storage system, leading to the irretrievable loss of sections of the scientific literature. Anton Zeilinger wrote in a previous edition of this series that a nuclear explosion outside the earth's atmosphere would cause all computers, and ultimately society, to break down.

How has this changed my thinking? I no longer write with the expectation of immortality in print. I am much more tempted to contribute to Internet discussion forums, blogs, and media which may not persist. I seek my reward from the immediate response that my efforts may bring, with little thought to the possibility that some stranger may see my words centuries from now, and wonder about the life that was led by the person who wrote them.

Open Source and Public Sector, Google


Oftentimes, I feel as if my brain is at best a creative and emotional caching front end on the Internet. With a few bare exceptions (my children, my wife, my family) I feel little practical need any more to commit my long term memory to endeavors I formerly spent days, weeks, months and years. I've come to think that I should memorize things more for the long term health of my brain rather for any real practical need in knowing, for example, that decimal 32 is space in ASCII, or that the second stanza of the Major-General's song shows his acquaintance with the binomial theorem.

I don't memorize phone numbers of nearly anyone outside my immediate family anymore and I used to proudly tuck away nearly all of them. Now, as a result of the richness of a life connected to the Internet, I mostly retain area codes, so that I can guess who might be calling. A casualty of contact syncing, perhaps, but still, I find myself considering many voice conversations or audio recordings to be too information sparse to be listened too unless I'm otherwise occupied with driving or cleaning the dishes.

For elements of culture especially, I don't wonder for long who was in the movie about the fall of communism with the woman in the coma. I just look it up, faster, online. I don't spend much time considering what techno song that is where the dude from star trek says "time becomes a loop", nor do I find it difficult to find, online, the name of that book I read which had the dude orbiting a neutron star for an alien race who finds out about its tidal effects. Nor do I have to consider what game was it that had the dog accompanying me through post-apocalyptic California? As I scroll pavlovian through my feed, the waves of knowledge roll over me.

When I travel, I no longer take any pictures of these outings, unless my family is in them, as I know there are better photos available to me, and of me, online if I feel like jogging my memory about a trip.

I don't even especially worry about where I am, either, considering myself not unlike a packet being routed not from client machine to router to server to backhaul to peer to machine to client machine, but instead from house to car to plane to car to hotel to car to office or conference to car to hotel to car to plane to home, with only jet lag my friend, and my laptop my source of entertaining books (Neutron Star), movies (Goodbye Lenin), games (Fallout) or music (Orbital) Meat to Munich with cellular data, headphones and circuits.

Some would equate this sort of information pruning to a kind of reinforced and embraced ignorance, or evidence of an empty life. Nicholas Carr, writing in The Atlantic Monthly, enjoyed some attention in 2008 with his article titled "Is Google making us stupid". The author, reacting to (or justifying) his own reduced attention span, accuses Google (my employer) of trying to do away with deep thinking, while indulging in what comes off as an absurd nostalgia for making knowledge difficult to find and obtain.

There was an important thought worthy of exploration within that article, that there is a kind of danger in reinforcing the shallow. I have come to understand, expect and accept that people try to find the Internet that aligns with their beliefs. This is impossible to change without strangling the Internet of the creativity that makes it so useful, as for every Wikipedia expanding and storing humankind's knowledge about everything, there is a conservapedia rewriting the bible to be more free market friendly.

But, people who wallow in ignorance are no different online than off. I don't believe that the Internet creates ignorant people. But what the Internet changes is the notion of unique thought. I have come to think that with nearly 6.7 billion people on the planet, with over a billion capable of expressing themselves on the Internet and hundreds of millions if not billions on the Internet via their cell phones, there is very little chance that any idea I might have outside my specialty hasn't already been explored, if not executed on. Within my specialty, even, there is a fair amount of what I'd charitably call non-unique thinking. This is not to say the world doesn't need practitioners, I proudly consider myself to be a good one, but only rarely do I come up with an approach that I'd consider unique within my specialty.

At one time I found this a rather bleak realization, thinking we're all just conduits from urge to hand to Net to work, but over the last decade, I've come to find it a source of comfort. Not all ideas need be mine; I can save the higher functions where it matters, locally with my family and on my work, on things I enjoy and treasure and less on loading a browser or opening a tab into today's ephemera.

Queries I executed while writing this article:

modern major general
google stupid
garden paving pruning cleaving
garden paring pruning cleaving
garden paring pruning
garden paring
dense antonyms
major general's Song
define: stanza
ascii chart
game had a dog accompanying me through post-apocalyptic california
orbiting a neutron star for an alien race finds out about tidal effects.
for an alien race finds out about tidal effects
orbiting a neutron star in a ship built by aliens
dude orbiting a neutron star for an alien race with eyes in their hands.
time becomes a loop
the german movie about the fall of communism with the woman in the coma
books printed each year
Internet enabled cell phones
people with Internet enabled cell phones
people with Internet enabled cellphones
planet population

Philosopher and Cognitive Scientist, University of Edinburgh. Author: Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension


How is the Internet changing the way I think? There is something tremendously slippery — but actually, despite my attention-seeking title, interestingly and importantly slippery — about this question. To see what it is, reflect first that the question has an apparently (perhaps merely apparently) trivial variant:

"Is the Internet changing the things I think?"

This is a question that has all kinds of apparently shallow answers. The Internet is certainly changing what I think (it makes all kinds of information and views available to me that would not be otherwise). It is also changing when I think it, how long it takes me to think it, and what I do with it when I've finished thinking it. It is even changing how I carry out lots of the thinking, making that a rather more communal enterprise than is used to be (at least in my area, which is scientifically informed Philosophy of Mind).

But that all sounds kind of shallow. We all know the Internet does that. What the question means to get at, surely, is something slippery but deeper, something that may or may not be true, viz:

"Is the Internet changing the nature of my thinking?"

It's this question, I suggest, that divides the bulk of the respondents. There are those who think that the nature of human thinking hasn't altered at all, and those who think it is becoming radically transformed. The question I want to ask in return, however, is simply this:

"How can we know?"

I don't think this question has any easy answer.

One place to start might be to distinguish what we think from the routines that we use to think it. By 'routines' I mean something in the ballpark of an algorithm: some kind of computational recipe for solving a problem or class of problems. Once we make this distinction it can seem (but this may turn out to be a deep illusion) plain sailing. For it then seems as if the question is simply one for science to figure out. For how would you know if the way you were thinking altered? If what you tend to think alters, does that imply that the way you are thinking it must be altered too? I guess not. Or try it the other way around. If what you tend to think and believe remains the same, does that imply that the way you are thinking it remains the same? I guess not.

The most that we can tell from our armchairs, it seems to me, is that what we are thinking (and when we tend to think it) is in some way altering. But of course, there can be no doubt that the Internet alters what we tend to think and when. If it didn't, we wouldn't need it. So that's true but kind of trivial.

Otherwise put: from my philosopher's armchair, all I know is what anyone else knows, and that's all about content. I know (on a good day) what I think. But as to the routines I use to think it, I have as little idea as I have (from my armchair) of what moves the planets. I have access to the results, not the means. Insofar as I have any ideas at all about what routines or means I use to do my thinking, those ideas are no doubt ragingly false. At best, they reflect how I think I think my thoughts, not how I do.

So far so good. At this point it looks like we must indeed turn to some kind of experimental science to find the answer to any non-trivial reading of the question.

Is the Internet changing the way I think? Let's put on our lab coats and go find out.

But how?

Suppose we go looking for some serious neural changes in heavy Internet users.

Problem: there are bound to be some changes, as surfing the Web is a skill and skills alter brains. But when does some such change count as a change to the way we think? Does learning to play the piano change the way I think? Presumably not in the kind of way that the question means. Even quite large neural changes might not reveal a change in the way we think. Perhaps it's just the same old way, being used to do some new stuff. Conversely, even a quite small neural change might amount to the installation of a whole new computational architecture (think of adding a recurrent loop to a simple neural network…a small 'neural' change with staggeringly profound computational consequences).

It gets worse.

Not only is it unclear what science needs to discover, it is unclear where science ought to look to discover (or not discover) it.

Suppose we convince ourselves, by whatever means, that as far as the basic mode of operation of the brain goes, Internet experience is not altering it one whit. That supports a negative answer only if we assume that the routines that fix the 'nature of human thinking' must be thoroughly biological: that they must be routines running within, and only within, the individual human brain. But surely it is this assumption that our experiences with the Internet (and with other 'intelligence amplifiers' before it) most clearly calls into question. Perhaps the Internet is changing the 'way we think' by changing the circuits that get to implement some aspects of human thinking, providing some hybrid (biological and non-biological) circuitry for thought itself. This would be a vision of the Internet as a kind of world-wide supra-cortex. Since this electronic supra-cortex patently does not work according to the same routines as, say, the neocortex, an affirmative answer to our target question seems easily on the cards.

But wait. Why look there in the first place? What exactly determines (or better, what should determine) where we look for the circuitry whose operational profile, even assuming we can find it, determines the 'way we think'?

This is a really hard question, and sadly, I don't know how to answer it. It threatens to bring us all the way back to where we started, with content. For perhaps one way to motivate an answer is to look for deep and systematic variation in human performances in various spheres of thought. But even if we find such variation, those who think that our 'ways of thinking' remain fundamentally unaltered can hold their ground by stressing that the basic mode of neural operation is unaltered, and has remained the same for (at least) tens of thousands of years.

Deep down, I suspect that our two interrogative options — the trivial-sounding question about what we think, and the deep-sounding one about the nature of our thinking — are simply not as distinct as the fans of either response (yes, the Internet is changing the way we think/ no, it isn't) might wish.

But I don't know how to prove this.


Commentator on Internet and politics "Net Effect" blog; Contributing editor, Foreign Policy


As it might take decades for the Internet to rewire how our brains actually process information, we should expect that most immediate changes would be social rather than biological in nature. Of those, two bother me in particular. One has to do with how the Internet changes what we think about; the other one — with who gets to do the thinking.

What I find particularly worrisome with regards to the "what" question is the rapid and inexorable disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence from our digital lives. One of the most significant but overlooked Internet developments of 2009 — the arrival of the so-called "real-time Web", whereby all new content is instantly indexed, read, and analyzed — is a potent reminder that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts. For most brokers dealing on today's global information exchange, past is a "strong sell".

In a sense, this is hardly surprising: the social beast that has taken over our digital lives has to be constantly fed with the most trivial of ephemera. And so we oblige, treating it to countless status updates and zetabytes of multimedia (almost a thousand photos are uploaded to Facebook every second!). This hunger for the present is deeply embedded in the very architecture and business models of social networking sites. Twitter and Facebook are not interested in what we were doing or thinking about five years ago; it's what we are doing or thinking about right now that they would really like to know.

These sites have good reasons for such a fundamentalist preference for the present, as it it greatly enhances their ability to sell our online lives to advertisers: after all, much of the time we are thinking of little else but satisfying our needs, spiritual or physical, and the sooner our needs can be articulated and matched with our respective demographic group, the more likely it is that we'll be coerced into buying something online.

Our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim of such reification of thinking. Thus, amidst all the recent hysteria about the demise of forgetting in the era of social networking, it's the demise of reminiscence that I find deeply troublesome. The digital age presents us with yet another paradox: while we have nearly infinite space to store our memories as well as all the multi-purpose gadgets to augment them with GPS coordinates and 360-degree panoramas, we have fewer opportunities to look back and engage with those memories.

The bottomless reservoirs of the present have blinded us to the positive and therapeutic aspects of the past. For most of us, "re engaging with the past" today means nothing more than feeling embarrassed over something that we did years ago after it has unexpectedly resurfaced on social networks. But there is much more to reminiscence than the feeling of embarrassment. Studies show that there is an intricate connection between reminiscence (particularly about positive events in our lives) and happiness: the more we do of the former, the more we feel of the latter. Substituting links to our past with links to our Facebook profiles and Twitter updates risks turning us into hyperactive, depressive, and easily irritant creatures who do not know how to appreciate own achievements.

The "who" question — i.e. who gets to do the thinking in the digital age — is much trickier. The most obvious answer — that the Internet has democratized access to knowledge and we are all thinkers now, bowing over our keyboards much like the character of Rodin's famous sculpture — is wrong. One of my greatest fears is that the Internet would widen the gap between the disengaged masses and the over engaged elites, thus thwarting our ability to collectively solve global problems — climate change and the need for smarter regulation in the financial industry come to mind — that require everyone's immediate attention. The Internet may yield more "thinking" about such issues but such "thinking" would not be equally distributed.

The Marxists have been wrong on many issues but they were probably right about the reactionary views espoused by the "lumpenproletariat". Today we are facing the emergence of the "cyber-lumpenprolitariat", of people who are being sucked into the digital whirlwind of gossip sites, trashy video games, populist and xenophobic blogs, and endless poking on social networking sites. The intellectual elites, on the other hand, continue thriving in the new digital environment, exploiting superb online tools for scientific research and collaboration, streaming art house films via Netflix, swapping their favorite books via e-readers, reconnecting with musical treasures of the bygone eras via iTunes, and, above all, perusing materials in the giant online libraries like the one that Google could soon unveil. The real disparities between the two groups become painfully obvious once members of the cyber-lumpenproletariat head to the polls and push for issues of extremely dubious — if not outright unethical — nature (the recent referendum on minarets in Switzerland is a case in point; the fact that Internet users voted the legalization of marijuana as the most burning issue on Obama's change.gov site is another one).

As an aside, given the growing concerns over copyright and the digitization of national cultural heritage in many parts of the world, there is a growing risk that this intellectual cornucopia would be available only in North America, creating yet another divide. Disconnected from Google's digital library, even the most prestigious universities in Europe or Asia may look less appealing than even middling community colleges in the US. This may seem counterintuitive but it's increasingly likely that the Internet would not diffuse knowledge-production and thinking around the globe but rather further concentrate it in one place.

Columnist ("The Medium"), The New York Times


People who study the real world, including historians and scientists, may find that the reality of the Internet changes how they think. But those of us who study symbolic systems, including philosophers and literary critics, find in the Internet another yet another symbolic system, albeit a humdinger, that yields — spectacularly, I must say — to our accustomed modes of inquiry.

Anyway, a new symbolic order need not disrupt Truth, wherever Truth may now be said to reside (Neurons? Climate change? Atheism?). Certainly to those of us who read more novels than MRIs, the Internet — and especially the World Wide Web — looks like what we know: a fictional world made mostly of words.

Philosophers and critics must only be careful, as we are trained to be careful, not to mistake this new, highly stylized and artificial order, the Internet, for reality itself. After all, all cultural forms and conceits that gain currency and influence — epic poetry, the Catholic mass, the British empire, photography — do so by purporting to be reality, to be transparent, to represent or proscribe life as it really is. As an arrangement of interlocking high, pop and folk art forms, the Internet is no different. This ought to be especially clear when what's meant by "the Internet" is that mostly comic, intensely commercial bourgeois space known as the World Wide Web.

We who have determinedly kept our heads while suffrage, the Holocaust, the highway system, Renaissance perspective, coeducation, the Pill, household appliances, the moon landing, the Kennedy assassination and rock 'n' roll were supposed to change existence forever, cannot falter now. Instead of theatrically changing our thinking, this time, we must keep our heads, which means — to me — that we must keep on reading and not mistake new texts for new worlds, or new forms for new brains.

Psychologist, MIT who studies the culture of the Internet; Author: Life on the Screen; Alone Together


You stare at a screen in your home or in your hand. You own it; it is passive and glows — all things that seem to promise safety and a bounded space. But the feeling of sending an e-mail or text or instant message is at odds with its reality. You feel in a zone that is private and ephemeral. But the Internet is public and forever. This is the disconnect of Internet communication. It begins to explain why people, sophisticated people, continue to send damaging e-mails and text messages that document them breaking the law and betraying their families. These make the headlines. Other consequences of the disconnect show up in the inner life of the generation that has grown up with always-on/always-on-you connectivity. The disconnect shapes their psychological and political sensibility.

Dawn, eighteen, "scrubs" her Facebook pages just before she receives her college acceptance letters. She says, "I didn't want stories and pictures about high school parties and boys out there. I want a fresh start." But she could only delete so much. Her friends have pictures of her on their pages and messages from her on their walls. All of these will remain. And on the Internet, the worlds "delete" and "erase" are metaphorical; files, photographs, mail, and search history are only deleted from your sight. All of this upsets Dawn. She says, "It's like somebody is about to find a horrible secret that I didn't know I left someplace."

The psychologist and psychoanalyst Erik Erikson argued that adolescents needed an experience of "moratorium," a time and space for relatively consequence-free experimentation. They need to fall in and out of love with people and ideas. I have argued that the Internet provides such spaces and is thus a rich ground for working through identity. But over time, it has become clear that the idea of the moratorium space does not easily mesh with a life that generates its own electronic shadow. Over time, many find a way to ignore or deny the shadow. For teenagers, the need for a moratorium space is so compelling that they will recreate it as fiction. And indeed, leaving an electronic trace can come to seem so natural that the shadow seems to disappear. We want to forget that we have become the instruments of our own surveillance.

In the spirit of keeping the shadow at a distance, some work at staying uninformed. Julia, eighteen, says "I've heard that school authorities and local police can get into your Facebook," but doesn't want to know the details. "I live on Facebook" she explains, and "I don't want to be upset." A seventeen-year-old girl thinks that Facebook "can see everything," but even though "you can try to get Facebook to change things," it is really out of her hands. She sums up: "That's just the way it is." A sixteen-year-old girl says that even without privacy, she feels safe because "No one would care about my little life." For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, the question of online privacy brings out claims of intentionally vague understandings and protests of impotence. This is a life of resignation: teens are sure that at some point their privacy will be invaded, but that this is the course of doing business in their world.

I grew up with my grandparents who were frightened by the McCarthy era. A government that spied on its citizens; this is what their families had fled. In Eastern Europe, my grandmother explained, you assumed that other people read your mail. This never led to good. When someone knows everything, everyone can be turned into an informer. She was proud to be in America where things were different. Every morning, we went together to the mailboxes of our apartment building. And many days, she would tell me as if it had never come up before, "In America, no one can look at your mail. It's a federal offense. That's the beauty of this country." For me, and from the earliest age, this civics lessons at the mailbox joined together privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are for today's teenagers who accommodate to the idea that their e-mail might be scanned by school authorities and that their online identities might be tampered with. Not a few sum up their position on all of this by saying in one way or another: "The way to deal is to just be good."

But sometimes a citizenry should not "be good." You have to leave room for this, space for dissent, real dissent. You need to leave technical space (a sacrosanct mailbox) and mental space. The two are intertwined. We make our technologies and they, in turn, make and shape us. My grandmother made me an American citizen and a civil libertarian in front of a row of mailboxes in Brooklyn. I am not sure what to tell and 18-year-old who thinks that Loopt (the application that uses the GPS capability of the iPhone to show you where your friends are) seems creepy but notes that it would be hard to keep it off her phone if all her friends had it. "They would think I had something to hide."

In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, a zone that needs to be protected. Life with an electronic shadow provokes anxieties that lead today's teenagers to look toward a past they never knew. This nostalgia of the young looks forward because it may remind us of things that are worth protecting. So, for example, teens talk longingly about the "full attention" that is implicit when someone sends you a letter or meets with you in a face-to-face meeting. And poignantly, they talk about seeking out a pay phone when they really want to have a private conversation.

The Internet teaches us to rethink nostalgia and give it a good name. I learned to be a citizen at the Brooklyn mailboxes. To me, opening up a conversation about rethinking the Net, privacy, and civil society is not backward-looking nostalgia or Luddite in the least. It seems like part of a healthy process of democracy defining its sacred spaces.

Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Essential Difference


Like you, all my email goes into my Sent Mailbox, just sitting there if I want to check back at what I said to whom years ago. So what a surprise to see that I send approximately 18,250 emails each year (roughly 50 a day). Assuming 3 minutes per email (let's face it, I can't afford to spend too long thinking about what I want to say), that's about 1000 hours a year on email alone. I've been on email since the early 90s. Was that time well spent?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, I have been able to keep in touch with family, friends, and colleagues in far-flung corners of the planet with ease, and have managed to pull off projects with teams spread across different cities in timescales that previously would have been unthinkable. All this feeds my continued use of email. But whilst these undoubted benefits are the reasons why I continue to email, it is not without its own cost. Most importantly, as the above analysis shows, email eats my time just as it likely eats yours. And unlike Darwin's famous 15,000 letters (penned with thought, and now the subject of the Darwin Correspondence Project in my university library in Cambridge), three-minute email exchanges do not deliver communication with any depth and as such are not intellectually valuable in their own right.

And we all recognize that email has its addictive side. Each time a message arrives there's just the chance that it might contain something exciting, something new, something special, a new opportunity. Like all effective behavioural reinforcement schedules, the reward is very intermittent: Maybe one in 100 emails contain something I really want to know or hear about. That's just enough to keep me checking my Inbox, but that means perhaps only 10 of the 1000 hours I spent on emails this year were actually wanted.

Bite-size emails also carry another cost: We all know there's no substitution for thinking hard and deep about a problem and how to solve it, or for getting to grips with a new area, and such tasks demand long periods of concentrated attention. Persistent, frequent email messages threaten our capacity for the real work. Becoming aware of what email is doing to our allocation of time is the first step to re-gaining control. Like other potential addictions we should perhaps attempt to counter the email habit by restricting it to certain times of the day, or by creating email-free zones by turning off Wi-Fi. This year's Edge question at least gives me pause to think whether I really want to be spending 1000 hours a year on email, at the expense of more valuable activities.

Futurist, Business Strategist; Cofounder. Global Business Network, a Monitor Company; Author, Inevitable Surprises


In 1973, just as I was starting work at Stanford Research Institute I had the good fortune to be one of the earliest users of what was then known as the ARPANET. Collaborative work at a distance was the goal of the experiment that led to the suitcase sized TI Silent 700 portable terminal with an acoustic coupler, and thermal printer on the back (no screen) sitting on my desk at home in Palo Alto. I was writing scenarios for the future of the State of Washington with the staff of Governor Dan Evans in Olympia. It was the beginning of the redistribution of my sense of identity.

In the 1980s I was also a participant in the WELL one of the first meaningful on-line communities. Nearly everyone who was part of the WELL had this sense of a very rich set of multiple perceptions constantly and instantly accessible. And not because the Deadheads were a large part of that community my sense of an aware distributed consciousness began to develop.

And finally with the coming of the modern Internet, the World Wide Web and the incredible explosion of knowledge access another level in transformation took hold. I am one of those people who used to read encyclopedias and almanacs. I just wanted to know more, actually, everything. I also make my living, researching, writing, speaking and consulting. Depth, breadth and richness of knowledge are what make it work in my passions and my profession. Before the Internet that was limited by the boundaries of my brain. Now there is a near infinite pool of accessible information that becomes my knowledge in a heartbeat measured in bits/sec. For those of us who wallow in the world of knowledge for pleasure and profit the Internet has become a vast extension of our potential selves.

The modern Internet has achieved much of what Ted Nelson articulated decades ago in his vision of the Xanadu project or Doug Englebart in his human augmentation vision at SRI. Nearly all useful knowledge is now accessible instantaneously from much of the world. Our effective personal memories are now vastly larger, essentially infinite. Our identity is embedded in what we know. And how I think is an expression of that identity. For me the Internet has led over time to that deep sense of collaboration, awareness and ubiquitous knowledge that means that my thought processes are not bound by the meat machine that is my brain, nor my locality nor my time.

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