Although I used the Internet back when it was just Arpanet, and even earlier as a teenager using a teletype to log into a state-of-the-art Honeywell mainframe from my school, I don't believe my way of thinking was changed by the Internet until around 2000. Why not?
The answer, I suspect, is the fantastic benefit that comes from massive connectivity and the resulting emergent phenomena. Back in my school days, the Internet was linear, predictable, and boring. It never talked back. When I hacked into the computer at MIT running an early symbolic manipulator program, something that could do algebra in a painfully inadequate way, I just used the Internet as a perfectly predictable tool. In my day-to-day life as a scientist, I mostly still do.
Back in 1996, I co-founded a software company that built its products and operated essentially entirely through the Internet; whether this was more efficient than a regular "bricks-and-mortar" company is debatable, but the fact was that through this medium, fabulously gifted individuals were able to participate in this experiment, who would never have dreamed of relocating for work like this. But this was still linear, predictable, and an essentially uninteresting use of the Internet.
No, for me, the theoretical physicist geek from central casting, the Internet is changing the way I think, because its "whole is greater than the sum of its parts". When I was a child, they told us that we would be living on the moon, that we would have anti-gravity jet packs, and video phones. They lied about everything but the video phones. With private blogs, Skype and a $40 Webcam, I can collaborate with my colleagues, write equations on my blackboard, and built networks of thought that stagger me with their effectiveness. My students and I work together so effectively through the Internet that its always-on-library dominates our discussions and helps us find the sharp questions that drive our research and thinking infinitely faster than before.
My day job is to make discoveries through thought, principally by exploiting analogies through acts of intellectual arbitrage. When we find two analogous questions in what were previously perceived to be unrelated fields, one field will invariably be more developed than the other, and so there is a scientific opportunity. This is how physicists go hunting. The Internet has become a better tool than the old paper scientific literature, because it responds in real time.
To see why this is a big deal for me, consider the following "homework hack". You want to become an instant expert in something that matters to you: maybe a homework assignment, maybe researching a life-threatening disease afflicting someone close to you. You can research it on the Internet using a search engineâ€¦ but as you know, you can search, but you can't really find. Google gives you unstructured information, but for a young person in a hurry, that is simply not good enough. Search engines are linear, predictable and essentially an uninteresting way to use the Internet.
Instead, try the following hack. Step 1: Make a Wiki page on the topic. Step 2: fill it with complete nonsense. Step 3: Wait a few days. Step 4: Visit the Wiki page, and harvest the results of what generous and anonymous souls from â€” well, who cares where they are from or who they are? â€” have corrected, contributed and enhanced in, one presumes, fits of righteous indignation. It really works. I know, because I have seen both sides of this transaction. There you have it: the emergence of a truly global, collective entity, something that has arisen from humans + Internet. It talks back.
This "homework hack" is, in reality, little more than the usual pattern of academic discourse, but carried out, in William Gibson's memorable phrase, with "one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button". Speed matters, because life is short. The next generation of professional thinkers already have all the right instincts about the infinite library that is their external mind, accessible in real time, and capable of accelerating the already Lamarckian process of evolution in thought and knowledge on timescales that really matter. I'm starting to get it too.
Roughly three billion years ago, microbial life invented the Internet and Lamarckian evolution. For them, the information is stored in molecules, and is recorded in genes that are transmitted between consenting microbes by a variety of mechanisms that we are still uncovering. Want to know how to become a more virulent microbial pathogen? Download the gene! Want to know how to hotwire a motorcycle? Go to the Website! So much quicker than random trial-and-error evolution, and it works â€¦ right now! And your children's always-on community of friends, texting "lol"s and other quick messages that really say "I'm here, I'm your friend, let's have a party" is no different than the quorum sensing of microbes, counting their numbers so that they can do something collectively, such as invade a host or grow a fruiting body from a biofilm.
I'm starting to think like the Internet, starting to think like biology. My thinking is better, faster, cheaper and more evolvable because of the Internet. And so is yours. You just don't know it yet.