How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?
Psychologist, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Author, The Cognitive Brain
EXPOSING THE LANDSCAPES OF DEEP SCIENTIFIC PROBLEMS
As I write this, a group of neuroscientists, psychologists, and philosophers located at far-flung corners of the world have been meeting online in a workshop devoted to solving what is arguably the fundamental problem in science — the mystery of human consciousness. The Internet has given me and the other participants in this effort the opportunity to ask each other probing questions, to engage in civil argument, specify areas of agreement, clarify points of disagreement, and to suggest what we should do next to advance our scientific understanding of consciousness. All of this discussion is taking place in near real-time, and all of our comments are preserved and archived for publication.
The usual scientific conferences did provide the opportunity to meet colleagues with common interests, present papers, and discuss them within very limited time frames. But this is nothing like what the Internet now makes possible. In online workshops of the kind in which I am now engaged, serious issues can be explored among key investigators, in depth, over many months; challenges can be posed and answered, and the current landscape of a deep scientific problem can be more sharply exposed. I believe that the Internet, used this way, will play a revolutionary role in promoting our understanding of the fundamental problems at the frontiers of science.
Assistant Professor, Neuroscience, Baylor College of Medicine; Author, Sum
SIX WAYS THE INTERNET MAY SAVE CIVILIZATION
The Internet has changed the way I think about our threats for societal collapse. When we learn of the empires that have tumbled before us, it is plausible to think that our civilization will adhere to the same path and eventually fall to a traditional malady — anything from epidemics to resource depletion. But the rapid advance of the Internet has thoroughly (and happily) changed my opinion about our customary existential threats. Here are six ways that I think the possession of a rapid and vast communication network will make us much luckier than our predecessors:
1. Disease Epidemics
One of our more dire prospects for collapse is an infectious disease epidemic. Bacterial or viral epidemics precipitated the fall of the Golden Age of Athens, the Roman Empire, and most of the empires of the Native Americans. The Internet can be our key to survival, because the ability to work telepresently can inhibit microbial transmission by reducing human-to-human contact. In the face of an otherwise devastating epidemic, businesses can keep supply chains running with the maximum number of employees working from home. This won't keep everyone off the streets, but it can reduce host density below the tipping point. If we are well-prepared when an epidemic arrives, we can fluidly shift into a self-quarantined society in which microbes fail due to host sparseness. Whatever the social ills of isolation, they bode worse for the microbes than for us.
2. Availability of Knowledge
Important discoveries have historically stayed local. Consider smallpox inoculation: this practice was underway in India, China and Africa for at least one hundred years before it made its way to Europe. By the time the idea reached North America, the native civilizations had long collapsed.
And information is not only hard to share, it's hard to keep alive. Collections of learning — from the Library at Alexandria to the Mayan corpus — have fallen to the bonfires of invaders or the winds of natural disasters. Knowledge is hard won but easily lost.
The Internet addresses the problem of knowledge-sharing better than any technology we've had. New discoveries latch on immediately: the information spreads widely and the redundancy prevents erasure. In this way, societies can optimally ratchet up, using the latest bricks of knowledge in their fortification against existential threats.
3. Speed by Decentralization
We are witnessing the downfall of slow central control in the media: news stories are increasingly becoming user-generated Nets of dynamically updated information. During the recent California wildfires, locals went to the TV stations to learn whether their neighborhoods were in danger. But the news stations appeared most concerned with the fate of celebrity mansions, so Californians changed their tack: they posted tweets, uploaded geotagged cell phone pics, and updated Facebook. And the balance tipped: the Internet carried the news more quickly and accurately than any news station could. In this decentralized regime, there were embedded reporters on every neighborhood block, and the news shockwave kept ahead of the firefront. In the right circumstances, this headstart could provide the extra hours that save us.
4. Minimization of censorship
Political censorship has been a familiar specter in the last century, with state-approved news outlets ruling the press, airwaves, and copying machines in the former USSR, Romania, Cuba, China, Iraq, and other countries. In all these cases, censorship hobbled the society and fomented revolutions. Historically, a more successful strategy has been to confront free speech with free speech — and the Internet allows this in a natural way. It democratizes the flow of information by offering access to the newspapers of the world, the photographers of every nation, the bloggers of every political stripe. Some postings are full of doctoring and dishonesty while others strive for independence and impartiality — but all are available for the end-user to sift through for reasoned consideration.
5. Democratization of Education
Most of the world does not have access to the education afforded to a small minority. For every Albert Einstein, Yo-Yo Ma or Barack Obama who has the opportunity for education, there are uncountable others who never get the chance. This vast squandering of talent translates directly into reduced economic output. In a world where economic meltdown is often tied to collapse, societies are well-advised to leverage all the human capital they have.
The Internet opens the gates of education to anyone who can get her hands on a computer. This is not always a trivial task, but the mere feasibility re-defines the playing field. A motivated teen anywhere on the planet can walk through the world's knowledge — from the Webs of Wikipedia to the curriculum of MIT's Open Course Ware.
6. Energy Savings
It is sometimes argued that societal collapse can be cast in terms of energy: when energy expenditure begins to outweigh energy return, collapse ensues. The Internet addresses the energy problem with a kind of natural ease. Consider the massive energy savings inherent in the shift from snail-mail to email. As recently as last decade, information amassed not in gigabytes but in cubic meters of filing cabinets. Beyond convenience, it may be that the technological shift from paper to electrons is critical to the future. Of course, there are energy costs to the banks of computers that underpin the Internet — but these costs are far less than the forests and coal beds and oil deposits that would be spent for the same quantity of information flow.
The tangle of events that trigger societal collapse can be complex, and there are several existential threats the Internet does not address. Nonetheless, it appears that vast, networked communication can serve as an antidote to several of the most common and fatal diseases of civilization. Almost by accident, we now command the capacity for self-quarantining, retaining knowledge, speeding information flow, reducing censorship, actualizing human capital, and saving energy resources. So the next time a co-worker laments about Internet addiction, the banality of tweets, or the decline of face-to-face conversation, I will sanguinely suggest that the Internet — even with all its flashy wastefulness — may just be the technology that saves us.
Director of the Center for Neurobiology and Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; Author, Better than Prozac
BETTER NEUROXING THROUGH THE INTERNET
Years ago, when Xerox machines first came to libraries, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. Instead of copying passages from journals in barely legible script we could put the important pages on the scanner and print a good replica that we could turn to whenever we liked. The process soon became so cheap that we could duplicate whole articles we were interested in, and then even articles we might be interested in. Soon we had piles of this stuff wherever we turned.
Sydney Brenner, who likes to pepper his research with observations about human folly, quickly realized that this technology also provided new opportunities for wasting time because many people were photocopying and filing a lot of irrelevant papers instead of carefully reading and remembering the key points of the most significant ones. This led to his playful warning that it is much more important to be "neuroxing" than Xeroxing.
Brenner's famous caveat didn't do much to shorten the copier lines. But the Internet did. Instead of collecting reprints by feeding the machine one page at a time the Internet allows us to build personal libraries of Pdfs by just clicking on links. It also allows us to keep up to date on the matters we are especially interested in by setting up alerts, and to keep sampling new fields in as much depth as we choose.
And the good news is that by eliminating our reliance on libraries and copiers while instantaneously providing user-friendly access to information this new technology is clearly facilitating intellectual activities rather than getting in their way. This is not to say that the Internet is free of time-wasting temptations. But if you want the latest and most relevant data about whatever you are interested in, the Internet can bring much of it to you in the blink of an eye. All ready to be neuroxed.
Business Affairs Editor, The Economist; Author, The Edible History of the Humanity
IT HAS SHARPENED MY MEMORY
The Internet has not changed the way I think. The old stone-age mental software still seems to be working surprisingly well in the 21st century, despite claims to the contrary. What the Internet has done, however, is sharpen my memory.
A quick search with a few well chosen keywords is usually enough to turn a decaying memory of a half-forgotten article, scientific paper or news item into perfect recall of the information in question. Previously, these things at the penumbra of recollection could only be recovered with a great deal of effort or luck. The Internet has, in effect, upgraded my memory of such marginal items from haphazard and partial to reliable and total. This means I can swim freely through the Internet's vast oceans of information, safe in the knowledge that any connections between items that subsequently occur to me can still be made. (My own work as a journalist and author is based on making connections in this way, but the same is true for many other information workers, a category that encompasses a growing fraction of the workforce.)
This is useful now, but I expect it to become much more useful as I get older and my memory starts to become less reliable — moving more of the information that passes through my mind into that penumbral region. Indeed, I am reminded of the impact that eyeglasses had after their development in the late 13th century (though my recollection of the details was sketchy until I, ahem, asked the Internet).
As Giordano of Pisa noted in 1306, "It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles that help one see well, an art that is one of the best and most necessary in the world." Eyeglasses doubled the useful working life of scribes and skilled craftsmen who were otherwise liable to suffer from farsightedness (presbyopia) from the age of around 40. The historian David Landes has suggested that this use of technology overcame what had previously been regarded as an unavoidable human limitation then spurred further innovations of a similar nature, such as the development of fine optical instruments and precision machine tools.
Perhaps the same will be true of the way the Internet enhances our mental faculties in the years to come.
I SEEM TO BE METADATA
Obliterating whole lineages — diatoms and dinosaurs, corals and crustaceans, ammonites and amphibians — shockwaves from the Yucatán impact 65 million years ago ripped through the intricate interdependencies of the planetary ecosystem, turning blankets of life into shrouds in one incandescent geological instant. Knocking out keystone species and toppling community structures, these shifts and extinctions opened up new opportunities, inviting avian and mammalian adaptive radiations and other bursts of innovation that transformed the living world — and eventually opening the way for our placenta-suckled, unprecedentedly luxuriant brains.
What with one thing and another, now here we are: The Internet and the World Wide Web that runs on it have struck our species' informational ecology with a similarly explosive impact, their shockwaves rippling through our cultural, social, economic, political, technological, scientific, and even cognitive landscapes.
To understand the nature and magnitude of what is to come, consider the effects of Gutenberg's ingenious marriage of the grape press, oil-based inks, and his method for inexpensively producing movable type. Before Gutenberg, books were scarce and expensive, requiring months or years of skilled individual effort to produce a single copy. Inevitably, they were primarily prestige goods for aristocrats and clerics, their content devoted to the narrow and largely useless status or ritual preoccupations of their owners. Slow-changing vessels bearing the distant echoes of ancient tradition, books were absent from the lives of all but a tiny fraction of humanity. Books then were travelers from the past rather than signals from the present, their cargo ignorance as often as knowledge. European awareness was parochial in the strict, original sense — limited to direct experience of the parish.
Yet a few decades after Gutenberg, there were millions of books flooding Europe, many written and owned by a new book-created middle class, full of new knowledge, art, disputation, and exploration. Mental horizons — once linked to the physical horizon just a few miles away — surged outward.
Formerly, knowledge of all kinds had been fixed by authority and embedded in hierarchy, and was by assumption and intention largely static. Yet the sharp drop in the price of reproducing books shattered this stagnant and immobilizing mentality. Printing rained new Renaissance texts and newly recovered classical works across Europe; printing catalyzed the scientific revolution; printing put technological and commercial innovation onto an upward arc still accelerating today. Printing ignited the previously wasted intellectual potential of huge segments of the population — people who, without printing would have died illiterate, uneducated, without voice or legacy.
Printing summoned into existence increasingly diversified bodies of new knowledge, multiplied productive divisions of labor, midwifed new professions, and greatly expanded the middle class. It threw up voluntary, meritocratic new hierarchies of knowledge and productivity to rival traditional hierarchies of force and superstition. In short, the release of printing technology into human societies brought into being a vast new ecosystem of knowledge — dense, diverse, rapidly changing, rapidly growing, and beyond the ability of any one mind to encompass, or any government to control.
Over the previous millennium, heretics had appeared perennially, only to be crushed. Implicitly and explicitly, beyond all question, orthodoxy defined and embodied virtue. But when, after Gutenberg, heretics such as Luther gained access to printing presses, the rapid and broad dissemination of their writings allowed dissidents to muster enough socially coordinated recruits to militarily stalemate attempts by hierarchies to suppress them. Hence, the assumption of a single orthodoxy husbanded by a single system of sanctified authority was broken, beyond all recovery.
For the same reason that communist governments restricted access to Marx's and Engels' original writings, the Church had made it a death penalty offense (to be preceded by torture) to translate the Bible into the languages people spoke and understood. The radical change in attitude toward authority, and the revaluation of minds even at the bottom of society, can be seen in William Tyndale's defense of his plan to translate the Bible into English: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself." (After his translation was printed, he was arrested, tied to the stake, and strangled.) Laymen, even plowboys, who now had access to Bibles (because they could both read and afford them) shockingly decided they could interpret sacred texts for themselves without the Church manipulatively interposing itself as intermediary between book and reader. Humans being what they are, religious wars followed, in struggles to make one or another doctrine (and elite) locally supreme.
Conflicts such as the Thirty Years War (with perhaps ten million dead and entire territories devastated) slowly awakened Europeans about the costs of violent intolerance, and starting among dissident Protestant communities, the recognized prerogatives of conscience and judgment devolved onto ever smaller units, eventually coming to rest in the individual (at least in some societies, and always disputed by rulers).
Freedom of thought and speech — where they exist — were unforeseen offspring of the printing press, and they change how we think. Political assumptions that had endured for millennia became inverted, making it thinkable that political legitimacy should arise from the sanction of the governed, rather than it being a natural entitlement of rulers. And science was the most radical of printing's many offspring.
Formerly, the social validation of correct opinion had been the prerogative of local force-based hierarchies, based on tradition, and intended to serve the powerful. Even disputes in natural philosophy had been settled by appeals to the textual authority of venerated ancients such as Aristotle. What alternative could there be? Yet, when the unified front of religious and secular authority began to fragment, logic and evidence could begin to play a role. What makes science distinct is that it is the human activity in which logic and evidence (suspect, because potentially subversive of authority) are allowed to play at least some role in evaluating claims.
Galileo — arguably the founder of modern science — was threatened with torture and placed under house arrest not for his scientific beliefs but rather for his deeper heresies about what validates knowledge: He argued that alongside scripture — which could be misinterpreted — God had written another book — the book of nature — written in mathematics, but open for all to see. Claims about the book of nature could be investigated using experiments, logic, and mathematics — a radical proposal that left no role for authority in the evaluation of (non-scriptural) truth. (Paralleling Tyndale's focus on the literate lay public, Galileo wrote almost all of his books in Italian rather than in Latin.) The Royal Society, founded two decades after Galileo's death, chose as their motto nullius in verba: on the authority of no one — a principle strikingly at variance with the pre-Gutenberg world.
The assumptions (e.g., I should be free to think about and question anything), methods (experimentation, statistical inference, modeling building), and content (evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, the computational theory of mind) of modern thought are unimaginably different from those held by our ancestors living before Gutenberg. All this — to simplify slightly — because of a drop in the cost of producing books.
So what is happening to us, now that the Internet has engulfed us? The Internet and its cybernetic creatures have dropped, by many more orders of magnitude, the cost (in money, effort, and time) of acquiring and publishing information. The knowledge (and disinformation) of the species is migrating online, a click away.
To take just first order consequences, we see all around us transformations in the making that will rival or exceed the printing revolution — for example, heating up the chain reactions of scientific, technical, and economic innovation by pulling out the moderating rods of distance and delay). Quantity, Stalin said, has a quality all its own. The Internet also unleashes monsters from the id — our evolved mental programs are far more easily triggered by images than by propositions, a reality jihadi Websites are exploiting in our new round of religious wars.
Our generation is living through this transformation, so although our cognitive unconscious is hidden from awareness, we can at least report on our direct experience on how our thinking has shifted before and after. I vividly remember my first day of browsing — firing link after link after link, suspended in an endless elation as I surveyed possibility after possibility for twenty hours straight — something I still feel.
Now my browsing operates out of two states of mind: the first is broad, rapid, intuitive scanning, where I feel free to click without goals, in order to maintain some kind of general scientific and cultural awareness without drowning in the endless sea. The second is a disciplined, focused exploration, where I am careful to ignore partisan pulls and ad hominem distractions, to dispense with my own sympathies or annoyance, to strip everything away except information about causation, and paths to potential falsification or critical tests.
Like a good Kuhnian, I attempt to pay special attention to anomalies in my favored theories, which are easier to identify now that I can scan more broadly. More generally, it seems like the scope of my research has become both broader and deeper, because both cost less. Finally, my mind seems to be increasingly interwoven into the Internet — what I store locally in my own brain seems more and more to be metadata for the parts of my understanding that are stored on the Internet.
Neurologist & Cognitive Neuroscientist, The New School; Coauthor, Children's Learning and Attention Problems
APOCALYPSE TOMORROW: THE GREAT ARMS RACE TAKES OFF INTO WEB SPACE
The Internet has supplied me with an answer to a question that has exercised me interminably: When I reach heaven, (surely!) how can I possibly spend infinite time without incurring infinite boredom? Well, as long as they provide Internet connection, I now see that I can.
The instant response, correct or otherwise, to every question sets up an intellectual Ponzi scheme. The answer multiplies the questions, which, in a potentially infinite progress, prompt yet more. Having previously functioned in serial fashion, while digging for new vistas through largely unexplored libraries, I now neither have to interact with any other human being, or even move, except my fingers. And I can pursue as many ideas in parallel as I want. The only hitch is the desire of various business concerns to make me pay for the information I crave. Once we have reached the stage of having universal Internet access implanted in our brains, even that will no longer be a problem, because we will be dealing in thoughts, and thoughts are famously considered to be free, if not gratuitous.
Multiplied by a multitude, and compounded over time, this proliferation of ideas will offer a potential for stacking invention on invention, scaling up to accomplishments undreamt by science fiction. And that will be just as well, because of the countervailing menace of the Internet. Here's why.
Evolution, generally a good thing, comes with two intractable problems. It is excruciatingly slow, and totally lacking in foresight (seriously unintelligent design). The progeny lives with the unforeseen consequences.
Our near-human ancestors were scattered in small groups across inhospitable and predator infested savannah. Individuals ruthless and cruel enough to repel those competing for scarce resources were favored by natural selection, did their thing and the species survived. Their inborn fury knew no bounds, which was not then much of a problem for external reasons; the bounds set on their ability to destroy by the short range of their weaponry (clubs), their sluggish transportation (legs), and their feeble vehicle of communication (voice), unable to reach outside their band to conjoin with others similarly inclined, so as to wreak havoc in substantial numbers. But as cultural innovation outstripped evolution with exponential momentum, the means for harm gained efficacy. In the meantime the destroyers persisted as small minorities in every population group, although as resources became less scarce their assistance to help the group survive has (or should have) become less and less needed.
Advances in weaponry have brought us to the point of being able to deliver havoc to all parts of earth, and at great speed. Only communication lagged behind in recent years, though radio and television did begin to infiltrate and integrate greater masses of the population. Yet the human population grew and grew, despite the massacre of multitudes by those so inclined. It seemed for a shining moment in history that the constructive was outstripping destructive. But nothing succeeds as planned.
How to coordinate limited numbers of likeminded destroyers the world over, so as collectively to inflict maximum harm? Use the Internet, Web networks, to recruit and plan, gift to conspirators and terrorists everywhere. The pace of the arms race is accelerating, while evolution is left way behind. Terror becomes globalized, and through it, the prospect of global suicide. Why would anyone want that? Because it is in their nature.
Consider the frog and the scorpion. Give me a ride across the stream. But you will sting me and I will die, replies the frog. But then I would drown, argues the scorpion. The frog swims, carrying his passenger, feels an ominous sting. Why, he asks. Because it is my nature, replies the scorpion.
Natural selection selects, but cannot explain why. After all, there is no one there to explain. So those selected naturally act according to their nature, then and now (but now with far greater reach). Blame it on unintelligent design.
There is a dynamic of cumulative invention in the human brain. A dynamic of insensate destruction is also inherent in the human brain. Behold the ultimate great arms race, brought to a head by the Internet, which acts as a double agent, and aids and energizes both sides. Perfect the species or drive it into extinction? The cockroaches will bear witness.
Macroecologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Biological Research Centre (BRC), Oxfordshire
THE EVOLVING GIANT
"Standing on giant's shoulders" is a common metaphor for scientific progress. In order to be a scientist, one must first climb the body of the giant, i.e. the accumulated knowledge of previous generations. Reading the published work of other scientists is therefore the most fundamental activity that we perform as academics. The Internet is changing not just the way we use the giant, but also how the giant grows with the accretion of new knowledge.
There are two ways in which scientists learn about relevant literature. One is to browse new publications, another is when they get cited by other papers. The former is more common in fast moving fields like medicine and physics, but the second is widespread in my own field of ecology, where the longevity of most research papers (judged by the half-life of citation decay) is in excess of a decade. The Internet has far-reaching consequences for both modes of knowledge acquisition.
Reading new publications has been revolutionised by services that alert us via email whenever new papers are published in a defined topic area. This means it's no longer necessary to spend time in the library looking though tables of contents (TOC). Although this has obvious benefits in efficiency, there is a cost in terms of the breadth of articles we are likely to consume. In the old days, one would glance at all the titles and perhaps most of the abstracts in a particular journal issue. For example, the current issue of the journal Ecology contains articles on bacteria, plants, insects, fish and birds, covering a wide range of research topics, both theoretical and empirical. Electronic TOC alerts mean that most researchers encounter only articles in their own area of specialism and are therefore much less likely to come across new and potentially transformative ideas. There is a paradox here: the Internet offers the potential to access the full spectrum of research papers, but actually results in a narrowing of focus. The same phenomenon has been observed in online social networks, which are no more socially and ethnically heterogeneous than real ones.
The Internet revolution has equally profound consequences for the second mode of knowledge acquisition. In the old days, I would read an article from start to finish and make a list of relevant citations to fetch from the library. Nowadays, the ubiquity of electronic articles in portable document format (PDFs) means I can get the cited article on screen in just a few clicks. There's no longer any need to move from my desk, or even to finish one article before going on to the next. Often when reading a PDF, I simply scan the text in search of a key assertion or statement. This changes the very nature of scientific publications and the way they are used. Articles become known through citation for a single contribution to knowledge: either a new method or a surprising result, but never both.
The changes to scientists' reading habits due to the Internet are similar to the distinction between grazing and browsing animals. Grazers like cattle consume grass in bulk during intensive feeding bouts. Most grass is not especially nutritious and is regurgitated later as the animals sit reflectively and chew the cud. Bulk feeding and rumination means that cattle are large and ungainly creatures. By contrast, browsers like deer are much more picky in the plants they eat and select only the greenest shoots. This means that deer consume smaller quantities of food than cattle, but are constantly on the move and spend much less time at rest. Thus, the modern Internet-era scientist may be mentally nimble as the deer is physically nimble, but lacks time for cattle-like rumination.
The Internet has undoubtedly brought great benefits to us all. At the same time, the Internet make us more specialised and compartmentalised in the kinds of knowledge we access and absorb. This is a problem is an age where interdisciplinary solutions are required to solve the complex and sometimes conflicting problems of climate change, poverty, disease and biodiversity loss. In this setting, the role of informal fora for cross-disciplinary engagement becomes even more important. Here it's harder to see the Internet as a solution because the chat room can never provide the chance encounters, nor replicate the convivial cosiness, of an old-fashioned low-tech coffee room.
Journalist, SEED Media Group; Author, Single in Manhattan
THE INCREASED NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHOSE THOUGHTS ARE IN MY HEAD
When you're on a plane, watching the cars below; the blinking, moving workings of a city, it's easy to believe that everything is connected, just moving parts in the same system. If you're one of the individual drivers on the ground, driving your car from B to A, the perspective is, of course, different. The individual driver feels very much like an individual, car to match your personality, on way to your chosen destination. The driver never feels like a moving dot in a row of a very large number of other moving dots.
The Internet sometimes makes me suspect that I'm that driver. Having the information from so many disparate systems merged (often invisibly), is steering my behavior into all kinds of paths, which I can only hope are beneficial. The visible connectedness through the Web has changed, maybe not how I think, but has increased the number of people whose thoughts are in my head. Because of the Internet, memes and calculations of more people (and/or computers) passes through us. Good or bad, this new level of connectedness sometimes gives me the feeling that if I could only be picked up a few feet over ground, what I would see, is an ant hill. All the ants, looking so different and special up close, seem suspiciously alike from this height. This new tool for connections has made more ants available every time I need to carry a branch, just as there are more ants in the way when I want to get in with the picnic basket.
But, as a larger variety of thoughts and images pass by, as I can search a thought and see the number of people who have had the same thought before me — as more and more systems talk to each other and take care of all kinds of logistics, I do think that this level of connectedness pushed us — beneficially — towards both the original and the local.
We can go original, either in creation or curation, and, if good, carve a new, little path in the anthill — or we can copy one of all the things out there and bring it home to our local group. Some ants manage to be original enough to benefit the whole anthill. But other ants can copy and modify the good stuff and bring it home. And in this marching back and forth, trying to get things done, communicate, make sense of things, I see myself not looking to leaders, but to curators who can efficiently signal where to find the good stuff.
What is made accessible to me through the Internet might not be changing how I think, but it does some of my thinking for me. And above all, the Internet is changing how I see myself. As real world activity and connections continue to be what matters most to me, the Internet, with its ability to record my behavior, is making it clearer that I am, in thought and in action, the sum of the thoughts and actions of other people to a greater extent then I have realized.
Mathematician and Economist; Principal, Natron Group
"GO VIRTUAL YOUNG MAN"
Oddly, the Internet is still invisible to the point where many serious thinkers continue to doubt whether it changes modern thought at all.
In science we generally first learn about invisible structures from anomalies in concrete systems. The existence of an invisible neutrino on the same footing as visible particles was predicted in 1930 by Wolfgang Pauli as the error term necessary to save the principles of conservation of energy and momentum in beta decay. Likewise, human memes invisible to DNA (e.g. tunes) were proposed in 1976 by Richard Dawkins as selection, to remain valid, must necessarily include all self-replicating units of transmission involved in tradeoffs with traditional genes.
Following this line of thinking, it is possible that a generalized Internet may even be definable with sufficient care as a kind of failure of the physical world to close as a self-contained system. Were a modern Rip van Winkle sufficiently clever, he might eventually infer something like the existence of file sharing networks from witnessing the collapse of music stores, CD sales, and the recording industry's revenue model.
The most important example of this principle has to do with markets and geography. The Internet has forced me to view physical and intellectual geography as instances of an overarching abstraction co-existing on a common footing. As exploration and trade in traditional physical goods like spice, silk and gold have long been linked, it is perhaps unsurprising that the marketplace of ideas should carry with it an intellectual geography all its own. The cartography of what may be termed the old world of ideas is well developed. Journals, prizes and endowed chairs give us landmarks to which we turn in the quest for designated thinkers and for those wishing to hug the shore of the familiar this proves a great aid.
Despite being relatively stable, the center of this scientific world began to shift in the last century from institutions in Europe to ones in North America. While there is currently a great deal of talk about a second shift from the U.S. towards Asia, it may instead happen that the next great migration will be dominated by flight to structures in the virtual from those moored to the physical.
Consider the award in 2006 of the Fields medal (the highest prize in mathematics) for a solution of the Poincare Conjecture. This was remarkable in that the research being recognized was not submitted to any journal. In choosing to decline the medal, peer review, publication and employment, the previously obscure Grigori Perelman chose to entrust the legacy of his great triumph solely to an Internet archive intended as a temporary holding tank for papers awaiting publication in established journals. In so doing, he forced the recognition of a new reality by showing that it was possible to move an indisputable intellectual achievement out of the tradition of referee gated journals bound to the stacks of university libraries into a new and poorly charted virtual sphere of the intellect.
But while markets may drive exploration, the actual settlement of the frontier at times requires the commitment of individuals questing for personal freedom, and here the new world of the Internet shines. It is widely assumed that my generation failed to produce towering figures like Crick, Dirac, Grothendieck or Samuelson because something in the nature of science had changed. I do not to subscribe to that theory. Suffice it to say that issues of academic freedom have me longing to settle among the noble homesteaders now gathering on the efficient frontier of the market place of ideas. My intellectual suitcases have been packed for months now as I try to screw up the courage and proper 'efficient frontier mentality' to follow my own advice to the next generation: "Go virtual young man."
THOMAS A. BASS
Professor of English at the University at Albany; Author, The Spy Who Loved Us
MY INTERNET MIND
What do I do with the Internet? I send out manuscripts and mail, buy things, listen to music, read books, hunt up information and news. The Internet is a great stew of opinion and facts. It is an encyclopedic marvel that has transformed my world. It has also undoubtedly transformed the way I think.
But if we humans are the sex organs of our technologies, reproducing them, expanding their domains and functionality — as Marshall McLuhan said — then perhaps I should turn the question upside down. Because of my reliance on the Internet, the number of hours each day I spend in its electronic embrace, have I begun to think like the Internet? Do I have an Internet mind that has been transformed by my proximity to this network of networks?
How does the Internet think? What does it want of me, as I go about distractedly meeting its demands? Again to cite McLuhan, this time quoting in full the passage that describes my outed brain and airborne nerves: "Electronic technology requires utter human docility and quiescence of meditation such as befits an organism that now wears its brain outside its skull and its nerves outside its hide. Man must serve his electric technology with the same servo-mechanistic fidelity with which he served his coracle, his canoe, his typography, and all the other extensions of his physical organs."
I have already used the word "distracted" to describe my Internet mind. We all know this feeling of being jumpy, edgy, nervous around the Net. Time is speeding up. Space contracting. Sentences are getting shorter. Thoughts swifter, dare we say shallower. Again McLuhan got the jump on us. Fifty years ago he announced, "Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information." Our "electric implosion" has ushered in an "age of anxiety."
This distracted state will end, said McLuhan, when our machines begin to think on their own. They will be smarter than us, as they already are in lots of ways, such as calculating numbers and flying airplanes. "Having extended or translated our central nervous system into the electromagnetic technology, it is but a further stage to transfer our consciousness to the computer world as well." This final hand-off from man to machine will allow us to "program consciousness," said McLuhan.
Luckily for those of us who, when we check the headlines, sometimes find our mouse hovering over a picture of the latest celebrity scandal, the computer consciousness currently evolving beyond our human minds will be more dignified than our current release. McLuhan assured us that this new consciousness would be free of "the Narcissus illusions of the entertainment world that beset mankind when he encounters himself extended in his own gimmickry."
A Catholic mystic touched by the spiritual optimism of Teillard de Chardin, McLuhan foresaw a glorious end to my acquisition of an Internet mind. "The computer, in short, promises by technology a Pentacostal condition of universal understanding and unity," he said. With computers functioning as translating machines, allowing me "to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness," I will be ushered eventually into "a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace." In the meantime, excuse me while I go check the headlines, pay some bills, and try not to click on too many of today's top-ten distractions.
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University; Author, Why We Love
For me, the Internet is a return to yesteryear; it simply allows me (and all the rest of us) to think and behave in ways for which we were built long long ago. Take love. For millions of years, our forebears traveled in little hunting and gathering bands. About 25 individuals lived together day and night; some ten to twelve were children and adolescents; the balance were adults. But everyone knew just about everybody else in a neighborhood of several hundred miles. They got together too. Annually in the dry season, bands congregated at the permanent waters that dotted eastern and southern Africa. Here as many as 500 men, women and children would mingle, chat, dine, dance, perhaps even worship — together. And although a pubescent girl who saw a cute boy at the next campfire might not know him personally, her mother probably knew his aunt or her older brother had hunted with his cousin. All were part of the same broad social Web.
Moreover, in the ever-present gossip circles, a young girl could easily collect data on a potential suitor's hunting skills, even whether he was amusing, kind or smart. We think it's natural to court a totally unknown person in a bar or club. But it's far more natural to know a few basic things about an individual before meeting him or her. Internet dating sites, chat rooms, social networking sites provide these details, enabling the modern human brain to pursue more comfortably its ancestral mating dance.
Then there's the issue of privacy. Some are mystified by the way others, particularly the young, so frivolously reveal their intimate lives on Facebook, Twitter, in emails and via other Internet billboards. This odd human habit has even spilled into our streets and other public places. How many times have you had to listen to someone nonchalantly blare out their problems on cell phones while you sat on a train or bus. Yet for millions of years our forebears had almost no privacy. With the Internet, we are returning to this practice of shared community.
So for me, the Internet has only magnified — on a grand scale — what I already knew about human nature. Sure, with "the Net," I more easily and rapidly acquire information than in the old days. I can more easily sustain connections with colleagues, friends and family. I no longer take long walks to the post office to mail manuscripts. I don't pound on typewriter keys all day, or use "white-out." My box of carbon paper is long gone. And sometimes I find it easier to express complex or difficult feelings via email than in person or on the phone. But my writing isn't any better…or worse. My perspectives haven't broadened…or narrowed. My values haven't altered. I have just as much data to organize. My energy level is just the same. My workload has probably increased. And colleagues want what they want from me even faster. My daily habits have changed — moderately.
But the way I think? I don't think any harder, faster, longer, or more effectively than I did before I bought my first computer in 1985. In fact, the rise of the Internet only reminds me of how little any of us have changed since the modern human brain evolved more than 35,000 years ago. We are still the same warlike, peace loving, curious, gregarious, proud, romantic, opportunistic — and naïve — creatures we were before the Internet, indeed before the automobile, the radio, the Civil War, or the ancient Sumerians. We still have the same brain our forebears had as they stalked woolly mammoths and mastodons; and we still chat and warm our hands where they once camped — on land that is now London, Beijing and New York. With the Internet, we just have a much louder megaphone with which to scream who we really are.