2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

Historian of ideas; Author, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours
The Internet And Slowness

I still remember typing essays on a much loved typewriter in my first year of university. Then the first computer, the first email account, the slow yet fluid entry into a new digital world that felt strangely natural. The advent of the Internet age happened progressively, we saw it develop like a child born of many brains, a protean animal whose characteristics were at once predictable and unknown. As soon as the digital sphere and became a worldwide reality recognizable as a new era, predictions and analyses about it grew. Edge itself was born as the creature was still growing new limbs. The tools for research and communication about this research developed along with new thinking about mind-machine interaction, about the future of education, about the impact of the Internet on texts and writing, about the issues of filtering, relevance, learning and memory.

And then somehow the creature became autonomous, an ordinary part of our universe. We are no longer surprised, no longer engaged in so much meta-analysis: we are dependent, some of us are addicted to this marvelous tool, this multi-faceted medium that is — as predicted even ten years ago — concentrating all of communication, knowledge, entertainment, business. I, like so many of us, spend so many hours before a flat computer screen, typing away, even when surrounded by countless books, that it is hard to say exactly how the Internet has affected me. The Internet is becoming as ordinary as the telephone. Humans are very good at adapting to the technologies we create, and the Internet is the most malleable, the most human of all technologies, just as it can also be intensely alienating from everything we've lived as before now.

I waver between these two positions: at times gratefully dependent on this marvel, at other times horrified at what this dependence signifies. Too much concentrated in one place, too much accessible from one's house, the need to move about in the real world nearly nil, the rapid establishment of social networking Websites changing our relationships, the reduction of three-dimensionality to that flat screen. Rapidity, accessibility, one-click for everything: where has slowness gone, and tranquillity, solitude, quiet? The world I took for granted as a child, and that my childhood books beautifully represented, jerks with the brand new world of artificial glare and electrically created realities, faster, louder, unrelated to nature, self-contained.

The technologies we create always have an impact on the real world, but rarely has a technology had such an impact on minds. We know what is happening to those who were born after the advent of the Internet and for those like me who started out with typewrites, books, slowness, reality measured by geographical distance and local clocks, the world that is emerging now is very different indeed from the world we knew.

I am of that generation for which adapting to computers was welcome and easy, but for which the pre-Internet age remains real. I can relate to those who call the radio the wireless, and I admire people in their 70s or 80s who communicate by email, because they come from further away still. Perhaps the way forward would be to emphasize the teaching of history in schools, to develop curricula on the history of technology, to remind today's children that their technology, absolutely embracing as it feels, is relative, and does not represent the totality of the universe. Millions of children around the world don't need to be reminded of this — they have no access to technology at all, many not even to modern plumbing — but those who do should know how to place this tool historically and politically.

As for me, I am learning how to make room for the need to slow down and disconnect without giving up on my addiction to Google, email, and rapidity. I was lucky enough to come from somewhere else, from a time when information was not digitized. And that is what perhaps enables me to use the Internet with a measure of wisdom.