laurence_c_smith's picture
Professor of Environmental Studies, Brown University; Author, Rivers of Power

I remember very well the day when the Internet began changing the way I think. It happened in the spring of 1993 in a drab, windowless computer lab at Cornell. One of my fellow graduate students (a former Microsoft programmer who liked to stay abreast of things) had drawn a crowd around his flickering UNIX box. I shouldered my way in, then became transfixed as his fingers flew over Xmosaic, the first widely available Web browser in the world.

Xmosaic was only months old. It had been written at the University of Illinois by an undergraduate student named Marc Andreessen (a year later he would launch Netscape, its multi-billion dollar successor) and Eric Bina at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications. Already there were some Web sites up and running. Urged on by his crowd's word-search suggestions ("Sex!" "Kurt Cobain!" "Landsat!"), my fellow student lifted the curtain on a new world of commerce, entertainment and scientific exchange in barely fifteen minutes. A sense that something important was happening filled the lab. By the next day everyone had Xmosaic up and running.

How has my thinking changed since that day in 1993? Like most everyone I've become both more addicted to information, and more informed. With so much knowledge poised instantly beneath my fingertips, I am far less tolerant of my own ignorance. If I don't know something, I look it up. Today I flit through dozens of newspapers a day when before I barely read one. Too many hours of my life are consumed in this way, and other tasks procrastinated, but I am perpetually educated in return.

I am now more economics-minded than before. In 1992 if I had to fly someplace I called the travel agent who worked around the corner and accepted whatever she said was a good fare. Today, I thrash competing search engines to shake the last nickel out of a plane ticket. Before shopping online I hunt and peck for secret discount codes. This superabundance of explicit pricing information has instilled in me an obsessive thriftiness that I did not possess before. Doubtless it has helped contribute to thousands of excellent travel agents losing their jobs, and even more hours of time wasted, in return for these perceived monetary savings.

The pace and scale of my branch of science have become turbocharged. Unlike before when scientific data were hard to get, expensive, and prized, my students and I now freely post or download enormous volumes at little or no cost. We ingest streaming torrents of satellite images and climate model simulations in near-real time; we post our own online for free use by unseen others around the planet. In a data-rich world, a new aesthetic of sharing, transparency, and collaboration has emerged to supplant the old one of data-hoarding and secretiveness. Earth science has become an extraordinarily exciting, vibrant and fast-advancing field because of this.

Perhaps the most profound change in my thinking is how the new ease of information access has allowed me to synthesize broad new ideas drawing from fields of scholarship outside my own. It took less than two years for me to finish a book identifying important convergent trends not only in climate science (my formal area of expertise) but globalization, population demographics, energy, political science, geography and law. While a synthesis of such scope might well have been possible without the light-speed world library of the Internet, I, for one, would never have attempted it.

Before 1993 my thinking was complacent, spendthrift, and narrow. Now, it is informed, tightfisted, and synthetic. I can't wait to see where it goes next.