In 1953, when the internet was not even a technological twinkle in the eye, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided thinkers into two categories: the hedgehog and the fox: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.
Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment. The new Apple iPad is merely the latest step in the fusion of the human mind and the internet. This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.
Edge (www.edge.org), a website dedicated to ideas and technology, recently asked scores of philosophers, scientists and scholars a simple but fundamental question: "How is the internet changing the way you think?” The responses were astonishingly varied, yet most agreed that the web had profoundly affected the way we gather our thoughts, if not the way we deploy that information.
If there's something that fascinates me about the digital age, it's the evolution of the human psyche as it adjusts to the rapid expansion of informational reach and acceleration of informational flow.
The Edge Foundation, Inc. poses one question a year to be batted around by deep thinkers, this year: How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think? One contribution that's bound to infuriate those of us of an older persuasion (I'll raise my hand) came from Marissa Mayer, the V.P. for Search Products & User Experience at Google.
The Internet, she posits, has vanquished the once seemingly interminable search for knowledge.
"The Internet has put at the forefront resourcefulness and critical-thinking," writes Mayer, "and relegated memorization of rote facts to mental exercise or enjoyment." She says that we now understand things in an instant, concepts that pre-Web would have taken us months to figure out.
So, basically, you don't have to memorize the The Gettysburg Address anymore, you just have to Google it or link to it. But here's my question: If you can Google it, does that mean you really understand it?
A favorite writer of mine, Nicholas Carr, who deals with all matters digital, cultural and technological has a good answer to that question. In his reply to Marissa Mayer, Carr offers a potent analysis of the difference between knowing and meaning.
He uses (brace yourself) a critical exploration of Robert Frost's poetry by Richard Poirier —Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing— to challenge what I might call the Google mentality.
"It's not what you can find out," he wrote. "Frost and (William) James and Poirier told us, it's what you know."
Gathering facts is not the same as gathering knowledge.
a cura di Clara Caverzasio Tanzi e Gaetano Prisciantelli
Today’s idea: Filtering, not remembering, is the most important mental skill in the digital age, an essay says.
But this discipline will prove no mean feat, since mental focus must take place amid the unlimited
distractions of the Internet.
Internet | Edge, the high-minded ideas and tech site, has posed its annual question for 2010 — "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" — and gotten some interesting responses from a slew of smart people. They range from the technology analyst Nicholas Carr, who wonders if the Web made it impossible for us to read long pieces of writing; to Clay Shirky, social software guru, who sees the Web poised uncertainly between immature "Invisible High School" and more laudable "Invisible College." David Dalrymple, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks human memory will no longer be the key repository of knowledge, and focus will supersede erudition. Quote:
Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.
Edge is an organization of deep, visionary thinkers on science and culture. Each year the group poses a question, this year collecting 168 essay responses to the question, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?"
In answer, academics, scientists and philosophers responded with musings on the Internet enabling telecommunication, or functioning as a sort of prosthesis, or robbing us of our old, linear" mode of thinking. ActorAlan Alda described the Web as "speed plus mobs." Responses alternate between the quirky and the profound ("In this future, knowledge will be fully outside the individual, focus will be fully inside, and everybody's selves will truly be spread everywhere.")
Since it takes a while to read the entire collection--and the Atlantic Wire should know, as we tried--here are some of the more piquant answers. Visit the Edge website for the full experience. For a smart, funny answer in video form, see here.
We Haven't Changed, declares Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis. Our brains "likely evolved ... in response to the demands of social (rather than environmental) complexity," and would likely only continue to evolve as our social framework changes. Our social framework has not changed: from our family units to our military units, he points out, our social structures remain fairly similar to what they were over 1000 years ago. "The Internet itself is not changing the fundamental reality of my thinking any more than it is changing our fundamental proclivity to violence or our innate capacity for love."
- Bordering on Mental Illness Barry C. Smith of the University of London writes of the new importance of "well-packaged information." He says he is personally "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."
This year, Brockman asked his crew of intellectual heavy-hitters, "How is the internet changing the way you think?"
The answers range from "It's not" to "Everything's going to hell" to "The internet is making us smarter, more social and more evolved" to "Who the hell knows?", with a dose of everything in between.
As I read through the responses, I found myself convinced more than once by conflicting arguments--a classic internet experience, I think. And despite the loudly bemoaned internet-induced ADD epidemic, one can easily spend hours reading through these intriguing responses. Brockman himself sets the tone with the idea that the internet has formed a sort of collective consciousness and with the conviction that "new technologies beget new perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of our world and ourselves are, in part, models resulting form our perceptions of the technologies we generate."
Is the internet a cognitive prosthesis, or merely a mirror of old-fashioned human nature? Have we outsourced our memories and faculties of judgment to the virtual universe and the hive mind? What have we sacrificed? What have we gained?
For computer scientist Daniel Hillis, the internet has changed the way we make decisions, as we farm individual choices out to the collective web. "If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence," he writes, "our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the Entanglement."
But for those who are overly concerned that such entanglement has usurped individual thought, Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, has some advice: "If you feel yourself growing ovine, bleat for yourself." Nassim Taleb, who has placed himself on a strict internet diet, is worried that "more information causes more confidence and illusions of knowledge while degrading predictability." For royal astronomer Martin Rees, "the internet enables far wider participation in front-line science", though Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, believes this might have happened more readily had Congress not rejected funding for a digitized indexing search infrastructure called PubSCIENCE.
Writer Howard Rheingold reminds us that "attention is the fundamental literacy", advocatingmindfulness of how our attention wanders about the internet as we surf. It makes you wonder whether kids growing up in the internet age ought to be taught in school, as a matter of standard practice, Rheingold's basic elements of internet literacy: attention mindfulness, crap detection, participation, collaboration and network awareness.
I think Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster at Stanford University, might agree. Saffo paraphrases Samuel Johnson, who said that there are two kinds of knowledge: that which you know and that which you know where to get. Now, Saffo says, we don't have to know where to get information--the internet does that for us. But perhaps there is now a third kind of knowledge: the knowledge of what matters.
I was intrigued by the comparisons between the internet and multicellularity in biological organisms discussed by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and cognitive biologist W. Tecumseh Fitch. But my favorite responses were geneticist George Church's cleverly hyperlinked piece, "Sorry, John, no time to think about the Edge question", architect Neri Oxman's comparisons to Borges and her suggestion that in the light of the internet "models become the very reality that we are asked to model", and David Eagleman's "Six ways the internet may save civilization".
Another favorite of mine was the piece by neuro-philosopher Thomas Metzinger, who serves upthis fascinating food for thought:
Here is something we are just beginning to understand -- that the Internet affects our sense of selfhood, and on a deep functional level.
Consciousness is the space of attentional agency: Conscious information is exactly that information in your brain to which you can deliberately direct your attention. As an attentional agent, you can initiate a shift in attention and, as it were, direct your inner flashlight at certain targets: a perceptual object, say, or a specific feeling. In many situations, people lose the property of attentional agency, and consequently their sense of self is weakened. Infants cannot control their visual attention; their gaze seems to wander aimlessly from one object to another, because this part of their Ego is not yet consolidated. Another example of consciousness without attentional control is the non-lucid dream state. In other cases, too, such as severe drunkenness or senile dementia, you may lose the ability to direct your attention -- and, correspondingly, feel that your "self" is falling apart.
If it is true that the experience of controlling and sustaining your focus of attention is one of the deeper layers of phenomenal selfhood, then what we are currently witnessing is not only an organized attack on the space of consciousness per se but a mild form of depersonalization. New medial environments may therefore create a new form of waking consciousness that resembles weakly subjective states -- a mixture of dreaming, dementia, intoxication, and infantilization. Now we all do this together, every day. I call it Public Dreaming.
So go celebrate the New Year with the brains at the Edge and remember, without the internet, you wouldn't have this awesome concentration of intellectual power. Then again, as software pioneer Kai Krause points out, these answers will soon end up in the form of a good old-fashioned book.
The online magazine Edge asked scientists, writers and artists, such as the Internet has changed their thinking. The answers are remarkable. ...
Two billion people worldwide use the Internet. The debates about the new technology, however, are not the same everywhere. In Germany, for example, the discourse is limited on the subject of the net, as it is especially focused on media and copyright debates.
The publication of the book "Payback", co-editor Frank Schirrmacher, co-editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung presents the German debate, giving the topic the the depth it deserves.
Prior to the publication Schirrmacher 's book, the American literary agent John Brockman, interviewed him for Edge.org, the online science and culture magazine.
Schirrmacher, in his book, also asked the question — Has the Internet changed thinking? Brockman has now taken up this issue, and formulated it as his fundamental question, which he asks at the end of each year of the scientists and authors who discuss and publish on Edge.
The answers have now been published on Edge.org. The authors are 131 influential scientists, authors and artists.
IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK?
Do you think the Internet has altered you mind at the neuronal, cognitive, processing, emotional levels? Yes, no, maybe, reply philosophers, scientists, writers, journalists to the Edge annual question 2010, in dozens of texts that are published online today Ana Gerschenfeld
In the summer of 2008, American writer Nicholas Carr published in the Atlantic Monthly an article under the titleIs Google making us stupid?: What the Internet is doing to our brains, in which highly criticized the Internet’s effects on our intellectual capabilities. The article had a high impact, both in the media and the blogosphere.
Edge.org – the intellectual online salon – has now expanded and deepened the debate through its traditional annual challenge to dozens of the world’s leading thinkers of science, technology, thought, arts, journalism. The 2010 question is: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?"
They reply that the Internet has made them (us) smarter, shallower, faster, less attentive, more accelerated, less creative, more tactile, less visual, more altruistic, less arrogant. That it has dramatically expanded our memory but at the same time made us the hostages of the present tense. The global web is compared to an ecosystem, a collective brain, a universal memory, a global conscience, a total map of geography and history.
One thing is certain: be they fans or critics, they all use it and they all admit that the Internet leaves no one untouched. No one can remain impervious to things such a Wikipedia or Google, no one can resist the attraction of instant, global, communication and knowledge.
More than 120 scientists, physicians, engineers, authors, artists, journalists met the challenge. Here, we present the gist some of their answers, including Nicholas Carr’s, who is also part of this online think tank founded by New-York literary agent John Brockman. If you have more time and think your attention span is up to it, we recommend you enjoy the whole scope of their length and diversity by visiting edge.org
Physicist, Computer Scientist
The real impact of the Internet is that it has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines. Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. Our relationship to it is similar to our relationship to our biological ecosystem. We are co-dependent, and not entirely in control.
Speed of thinking
Editor, Sueddeutsche Zeitung
If speeding up thinking continually constitutes changing the way I think, the Internet has done a marvelous job. All this might not constitute a change in thinking though. I haven't changed my mind or my convictions because of the Internet. I haven't had any epiphanies while sitting in front of a screen. The Internet so far has not given me no memorable experiences, although it might have helped to usher some along. It has always been people, places and experiences that have changed the way I think.
Facsimile of experience
Eric Fischl and April Gornik
For the visual artist, seeing is essential to thought. So how has the Internet changed us visually? The changes are subtle yet profound. One loss is a sense of scale. Another is a loss of differentiation between materials. Visual information becomes based on image alone. Experience is replaced with facsimile.
Work and play
I am "smarter" in factuality, but my knowledge is now more fragile. Anything I learn is subject to erosion. My certainty about anything has decreased. That means that in general I assume more and more that what I know is wrong. The Internet also blurs the difference between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts. I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking hard and thinking playfully, is one the greatest things the Internet has done.
Former Chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation
I love the Internet. But sometimes I think much of what we get on the Internet is empty calories. It's sugar – short videos, pokes from friends, blog posts, Twitter posts, pop-ups and visualizations… Over a long period, many of us are genetically disposed to lose our capability to digest sugar if we consume too much of it. Could that be true of information sugar as well? Will we become allergic to it even as we crave it? And what will serve as information insulin?
Co-founder of Wikipedia
Some observers speak of how our minds are being changed by information overload, apparently despite ourselves. Former free agents are mere subjects of powerful new forces. I don't share the assumption. Do we have any choice about ceding control of the self to an increasingly compelling "Hive Mind"? Yes. And should we cede such control, or instead strive, temperately, to develop our own minds very well and direct our own attention carefully? The answer, I think, is obvious.
Outsourcing the mind
Psychologist, Max Planck Institute
We are in the process of outsourcing information storage and retrieval from mind to computer, just as many of us have already outsourced the ability of doing mental arithmetic to the pocket calculator. We may loose some skills in this process, but the Internet is also teaching us new skills for accessing information. The Internet is a kind of collective memory, to which our minds will adapt until a new technology eventually replaces it. Then we will begin outsourcing other cognitive abilities, and hopefully, learn new ones.
Psychologist, Harvard University
The Internet has extended my memory, perception, and judgment. These effects have become even more striking since I've used a smart phone. I now regularly pull out my phone to check a fact, to watch a video, and to read blogs. The downside is that when I used to have dead periods, I often would let my thoughts drift, and sometimes would have an unexpected insight or idea. Those opportunities are now fewer and farther between. But I think it's a small price to pay. I am a better thinker now than I was before I integrated the Internet into my mental and emotional processing.
The Internet dramatically changed my own thinking. Not at the neuron level, but more abstractly: it completely redefined how we perceive the world and ourselves in it. But it is a double-edged sword, a yin-yang yoyo of the good, the bad and the ugly. The Net will not reach its true potential in my little lifetime. But it surely has influenced the thinking in my lifetime like nothing else ever has.
Classicist, Georgetown University
My fingers have become part of my brain. Just for myself, just for now, it's my fingers I notice. Ask me a good question today, and if I am away from my desk, I pull out my Blackberry – it's a physical reaction, a gut feeling that I need to start manipulating the information at my fingertips. At my desktop, it's the same pattern: the sign of thinking is that I reach for the mouse and start "shaking it loose". My eyes and hands have already learned to work together in new ways with my brain in a process that really is a new way of thinking for me. The information world is more tactile than ever before.
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT
I think less. When I do think, I am lazier. For hundreds of millions of years, sex was the most efficient method for propagating information of dubious provenance: the origins of all those snippets of junk DNA are lost in the sands of reproductive history. The world-wide Web has usurped that role. A single illegal download can propagate more parasitic bits of information than a host of mating Tse Tse flies. For the moment, however, the ability of the Internet to propagate information promiscuously is largely a blessing. What will happen later? Don't ask me. By then, I hope not to be thinking at all.
Same old brain
Physician and Social Scientist, Harvard University
The Internet is no different than previous (equally monumental) brain-enhancing technologies such as books or telephony, and I doubt whether books and telephony have changed the way I think, in the sense of actually changing the way my brain works. In fact, I would say that it is much more correct to say that our thinking gave rise to the Internet than that the Internet gave rise to our thinking. There is no new self. There are no new others. And so there is no new brain, and no new way of thinking. We are the same species after the Internet as before.
Architect, Researcher, MIT
The Internet has become a map of the world, both literally and symbolically, as it traces in an almost 1:1 ratio every event that has ever taken place. As we are fed with information, thus withers the very power of perception, and the ability to engage in abstract and critical thought atrophies. Where are we heading in the age of the Internet? Are we being victimized by our own inventions?
Physicist, Perimeter Institute
The Internet hasn't, so far, changed how we think. But it has radically altered the contexts in which we think and work. We used to cultivate thought, now we have become hunter-gatherers of images and information. Perhaps when the Internet has been soldered into our glasses or teeth, with the screen replaced by a laser making images directly on our retinas, there will be deeper changes.
Journalist, The New York Times
Not only have I been transformed into an Internet pessimist, but recently the Net has begun to feel downright spooky. Doesn't the Net seem to have a mind of its own? Will we all be assimilated, or have we been already? Wait! Stop me! That was The Matrix wasn't it?
The upload has begun
Neuroscientist, The Reason Project
It is now a staple of scientific fantasy, or nightmare, to envision that human minds will one day be uploaded onto a vast computer network like the Internet. I notice that the prophesied upload is slowly occurring in my own case. This migration to the Internet now includes my emotional life. Increasingly, I develop relationships with other scientists and writers that exist entirely online. Almost every sentence we have ever exchanged exists in my Sent Folder. Our entire relationship is, therefore, searchable. I have many other friends and mentors who exist for me in this way, primarily as email correspondents.
Former Executive at Apple and Microsoft
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 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 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.
The Dumb Butler
Cognitive Neuroscientist and Philosopher, Harvard University
The Internet hasn't changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food. The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what we do with it once it's made it into our heads. This is because the Internet doesn't (yet) know how to think. We still have to do it for ourselves, and we do it the old-fashioned way. Until then, the Internet will continue to be nothing more, and nothing less, than a very useful, and very dumb, butler.
The end of experience
What I want to know how the Internet changes the way the children of the Internet age think. It seems likely that a lifetime of daily conditioning dictated by the rapid flow of information across glowing screens will generate substantial changes in brains, and thus thinking. But I have a larger fear, one rarely mentioned – the extinction of experience, the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Any positive outcome will involve us turning off the screens and spending significant time outside interacting with the real world, in particular the nonhuman world.
Physicist, former President, Weizmann Institute of Science
There are three clear changes that are palpable. The first is the increasing brevity of messages. The second is the diminishing role of factual knowledge, in the thinking process. The third is in the entire process of teaching and learning: it may take another decade or two, but education will never be the same. An interesting follow-up issue, to this last comment, is the question whether the minds and brains of children will be physically "wired" differently than those of earlier generations. I tend to speculate in the affirmative.
The Price of omniscience
Computational Neuroscientist, Salk Institute
Experiences have long-term effects on the brain's structure and function. Are the changes occurring in your brain as you interact with the Internet good or bad for you? Gaining knowledge and skills should benefit survival, but not if you spend all of your time immersed in the Internet. The intermittent rewards can become addictive. The Internet, however, has not been around long enough, and is changing too rapidly, to know what the long-term effects will be on brain function. What is the ultimate price for omniscience?
Thinking like the Internet
Physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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 those days, the Internet was linear, predictable, and boring. It never talked back. But I'm starting to think like the Internet. My thinking is better, faster, cheaper and more evolvable because of the Internet. And so is yours. You just don't know it yet.
Neurobiologist, University of California, Davis
The Internet is the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of television. Moreover, while the Internet provides a means for rapidly communicating with colleagues globally, the sophisticated user will rarely reveal true thoughts and feelings in such messages. Serious thinking requires honest and open communication and that is simply untenable on the Internet by those that value their professional reputation.
The Collective Brain
Cultural and intellectual evolution depends on sex just as much as biological evolution does. Sex allows creatures to draw upon mutations that happen anywhere in their species. The Internet allows people to draw upon ideas that occur to anybody in the world. This has changed the way I think about human intelligence. The Internet is the latest and best expression of the collective nature of human intelligence.
Editor, The Economist
The Internet has not changed the way I think. 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 item into perfect recall of the information in question. 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. Perhaps the same will be true of the way the Internet enhances our mental faculties in the years to come.
People in my head
Journalist, SEED Media Group
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 than I have realized.
Psychologist, UC, Berkeley
The Internet has made my experience more fragmented, splintered and discontinuous. But I'd argue that's because I have mastered the Internet as an adult. So children who grow up with the Web will master it in a way that will feel as whole and natural as reading feels to us. But that doesn't mean that their experience and attention won't be changed by the Internet.
Repetition versus truth
Cognitive Anthropologist, Max Planck Institute
There is a human tendency to mistake repetition for truth. How do you find the truth on the Internet? You use a search engine, which determines a page's relevance by how many other relevant pages link to it. Repetition, not truth. Hence, the Internet does just what you would do. It isn't changing the structure of your thinking, because it resembles it.
Cognitive Psychologist, Harvard University
I'm skeptical of the claim that the Internet is changing the way we think. To be sure, many aspects of the life of the mind have been affected by the Internet. Our physical folders, mailboxes, bookshelves, spreadsheets, documents, media players, and so on have been replaced by software equivalents, which has altered our time budgets in countless ways. But to call it an alternation of "how we think" is, I think, an exaggeration.
Neuroscientist, Collège de France
Few people pay attention to a fundamental aspect of the Internet revolution: the shift in our notion of time. Human life used to be a quiet routine that has become radically disrupted, for better or for worse. Do we aim for ever faster intellectual collaboration? Or for ever faster exploitation that will allow us to get good night's sleep while others do the dirty work? Our basic political options remain essentially unchanged.
Connecting is disconnecting
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University
Our capacity to connect through the Internet may be breeding a generation of social degenerates. I do not have Webophobia, greatly profit from the Internet as a consummate informavore, and am a passionate one-click Amazonian. But our capacity to connect is causing a disconnect. Perhaps Web 3.0 will enable a function to virtually hold hands with our Twitter friends.
My own reading and thinking habits have shifted dramatically since I first logged onto the Web fifteen or so years ago. I now do the bulk of my reading and researching online. And my brain has changed as a result. Even as I've become more adept at navigating the rapids of the Net, I have experienced a steady decay in my ability to sustain my attention. My own experience leads me to believe that what we stand to lose will be at least as great as what we stand to gain.
Computer Scientist, MIT
The Internet is stealing our attention. Unfortunately, a lot of what it offers is merely good sugar-filled carbonated sodas for our mind. We, or at least I, need tools that will provide us with the Diet-Internet, the version that gives us the intellectual caffeine that lets us achieve what we aspire, but which doesn't turn us into hyper-active intellectual junkies.
People Can Be Nice
Psychologist, Yale University
The proffering of information on the Internet is the extension of this everyday altruism. It illustrates the extent of human generosity in our everyday lives and also shows how technology can enhance and expand this positive human trait, with real beneficial results. People have long said that the Web makes us smarter; it might make us nicer as well.
A miracle and a curse
The Internet is not changing the way I think (nor the way anyone else thinks, either). I continue to think the same way I always thought: by using my brain, my senses, and by considering the relevant information. I mean, how else can you think? What it has changed for me is my use of time. The Internet is simultaneously the world's greatest time-saver and the greatest time-waster in history.
Shortened attention span. Less interest in reflection and introspection. Inability to engage in in-depth thought. Fragmented, distracted thinking.
The ways the Internet supposedly affects thought are as apocalyptic as they are speculative, since all the above are supported by anecdote, not empirical data. So it is refreshing to hear how 109 philosophers, neurobiologists, and other scholars answered, "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" That is the "annual question" at the online salon edge.org, where every year science impresario, author, and literary agent John Brockman poses a puzzler for his flock of scientists and other thinkers.
Although a number of contributors drivel on about, say, how much time they waste on e-mail, the most striking thing about the 50-plus answers is that scholars who study the mind and the brain, and who therefore seem best equipped to figure out how the Internet alters thought, shoot down the very idea. "The Internet hasn't changed the way we think," argues neuroscientist Joshua Greene of Harvard. It "has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what [our brains] do with it." Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard is also skeptical. "Electronic media aren't going to revamp the brain's mechanisms of information processing," he writes. "Texters, surfers, and twitterers" have not trained their brains "to process multiple streams of novel information in parallel," as is commonly asserted but refuted by research, and claims to the contrary "are propelled by ... the pressure on pundits to announce that this or that 'changes everything.' "
These changes in what people think are accompanied by true changes in the process of thinking—little of it beneficial. The ubiquity of information makes us "less likely to pursue new lines of thought before turning to the Internet," writes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University. "Result: less sustained thought?" And since online information "is often decontextualized," he adds, it "satisfies immediate needs at the expense of deeper understanding (result: more superficial thought?)." Because facts are a click away, writes physicist Haim Harari, "the Internet allows us to know fewer facts ... reducing their importance as a component" of thought. That increases the importance of other components, he says, such as correlating facts, "distinguishing between important and secondary matters, knowing when to prefer pure logic and when to let common sense dominate." By flooding us with information, the Internet also "causes more confidence and illusions of knowledge" (Nassim Taleb of MIT, author of The Black Swan), but makes our knowledge seem "more fragile," since "for every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is within easy reach someone who challenges the fact" (Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired).And yet. Many scholars do believe the Internet alters thinking, and offer provocative examples of how—many of them surprisingly dystopian. Communications scholar Howard Rheingold believes the Internet fosters "shallowness, credulity, distraction," with the result that our minds struggle "to discipline and deploy attention in an always-on milieu." (Though having to make a decision every time a link appears—to click or not to click?—may train the mind's decision-making networks.) The Internet is also causing the "disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence," argues Evgeny Morozov, an expert on the Internet and politics. "Our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts ... Our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim." Cue the Santayana quote.
Even more intriguing are the (few) positive changes in thinking the Internet has caused. The hyperlinked Web helps us establish "connections between ideas, facts, etc.," suggests Csikszentmihalyi. "Result: more integrated thought?" For Kelly, the uncertainty resulting from the ubiquity of facts and "antifacts" fosters "a kind of liquidity" in thinking, making it "more active, less contemplative." Science historian George Dyson believes the Internet's flood of information has altered the process of creativity: what once required "collecting all available fragments of information to assemble a framework of knowledge" now requires "removing or ignoring unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within." Creativity by destruction rather than assembly.
Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK's science editor and author of The Plastic Mind: New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves andTrain Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.
Every year, ideas impresario John Brockman asks one hundred super-bright minds one big question, and shares their answers with the world.
This time out, the question was about science and what big development in our lifetimes will change the world. What will change everything?
The answers — from Craig Venter, Richard Dawkins, Lisa Randall, Irene Pepperberg, and many more — range from mind-reading to space elevators to cross-species breeding. Yikes.
This hour, On Point: “This will change everything…”
John Brockman joins us from New York. He’s the founder of the Edge Foundation, which runs the science and technology websiteEdge.org. Every year, Edge asks scientists and thinkers a “big question,” and publishes the answers in a book, which Brockman edits. The latest, just out, is “This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future.” It’s based on the 2009 question: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” The 2010 question, “How is the internet changing the way you think?,” has just been posted.
From Cambridge, Mass., we’re joined by Frank Wilczek, Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist and professor of physics at MIT. His response to the 2009 Edge question discusses coming technological advances resulting from deeper understanding of quantum physics. He’s the author of several books on physics for the lay reader, most recently “The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces.”
And from Berkeley, Calif., we’re joined by Alison Gopnik, professor of psychology and affiliate professor of philosophy at UC-Berkeley and an expert on cognitive and language development. Herresponse to the 2009 Edge question discusses the extension of human childhood. Her latest book is “The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life.”
I flunked a physics test so badly as a college freshman that the only reason I scored any points was I spelled my name right.
Such ignorance, along with studied avoidance of physics and math since college, didn’t lessen my enjoyment of This Will Change Everything, a provocative, demanding clutch of essays covering everything from gene splicing to global warming to intelligence, both artificial and human, to immortality.
Edited by John Brockman, a literary agent who founded the Edge Foundation, this is the kind of book into which one can dip at will. Approaching it in a linear fashion might be frustrating because it is so wide-ranging. ...
...Overall, this will appeal primarily to scientists and academicians. But the way Brockman interlaces essays about research on the frontiers of science with ones on artistic vision, education, psychology and economics is sure to buzz any brain.
Stewart Brand, the father of the Whole Earth Catalog, a kind of hippie precursor of hypertext and intermedia (the last term is a Brockman coinage), calls Brockman "one of the great intellectual enzymes of our time” atwww.edge.org, Brockman’s Web site. Brockman clearly is an agent provocateur of ideas. Getting the best of them to politicians who can use them to execute positive change is the next step.
As each new year approaches, John Brockman, founder of Edge, an online publication, consults with three of the original members of Edge—Stewart Brand, founder and editor of Whole Earth Catalog; Kevin Kelly, who helped to launch Wired in 1993 and wrote “What Technology Wants,” a book to be published in October (Viking Penguin); and George Dyson, a science historian who is the author of several books including “Darwin Among the Machines.” Together they create the Edge Annual Question—which Brockman then sends out to the Edge list to invite responses. He receives these commentaries by e-mail, which are then edited. Edge is a read-only site. There is no direct posting nor is Edge open for comments.
Brockman has been asking an Edge Annual Question for the past 13 years. In this essay, he explains what makes a question a good one to ask and shares some responses to this year’s question: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?”
Read the responses in their entirety »
It’s not easy coming up with a question. As the artist James Lee Byars used to say: “I can answer the question, but am I bright enough to ask it?” Edge is a conversation. We are looking for questions that inspire answers we can’t possibly predict. Surprise me with an answer I never could have guessed. My goal is to provoke people into thinking thoughts that they normally might not have.
The art of a good question is to find a balance between abstraction and the personal, to ask a question that has many answers, or at least one for which you don’t know the answer. It’s a question distant enough to encourage abstractions and not so specific that it’s about breakfast. A good question encourages answers that are grounded in experience but bigger than that experience alone.
Before we arrived at the 2010 question, we went through several months of considering other questions. Eventually I came up with the idea of asking how the Internet is affecting the scientific work, lives, minds and reality of the contributors. Kevin Kelly responded:
John, you pioneered the idea of asking smart folks what question they are asking themselves. Well I’ve noticed in the past few years there is one question everyone on your list is asking themselves these days and that is, is the Internet making me smarter or stupid? Nick Carr tackled the question on his terms, but did not answer it for everyone. In fact, I would love to hear the Edge list tell me their version: Is the Internet improving them or improving their work, and how is it changing how they think? I am less interested in the general “us” and more interested in the specific “you”—how it is affecting each one personally. Nearly every discussion I have with someone these days will arrive at this question sooner or later. Why not tackle it head on?
And so we did.
Yet, we still had work to do in framing our question. When people respond to “we” questions, their words tend to resemble expert papers, public pronouncements, or talks delivered from a stage. “You” leads us to share specifics of our lived experience. The challenge then is to not let responses slip into life’s more banal details.
For us, discussion revolved around whether we’d ask “Is the Internet changing the way we think?” or probe this topic with a “you” focused question. Steven Pinker, Harvard research psychologist, author of “The Language Instinct” and “The Blank Slate,” and one of several distinguished scientists I consult, advised heading in the direction of “us.”
I very much like the idea of the Edge Question, but would suggest one important change—that it be about “us,” not “me.” The “me” question is too easy—if people really thought that some bit of technology was making their minds or their lives worse, they could always go back to the typewriter, or the Britannica, or the US Postal Service. The tough question is “us’”if every individual makes a choice that makes him or her better off, could there be knock-on effects that make the culture as a whole worse off (what the economists call “externalities”)?
Ultimately it’s my call so I decided to go with the “you” question in the hope that it would attract a wider range of individualistic responses. In my editorial marching orders to contributors, I asked them to think about the Internet—a much bigger subject than the Web, recalling that in 1996 computer scientist and visionary W. Daniel Hillis presciently observed the difference:
Many people sense this, but don’t want to think about it because the change is too profound. Today, on the Internet the main event is the Web. A lot of people think that the Web is the Internet, and they’re missing something. The Internet is a brand-new fertile ground where things can grow, and the Web is the first thing that grew there. But the stuff growing there is in a very primitive form. The Web is the old media incorporated into the new medium. It both adds something to the Internet and takes something away.
Framing the question and setting a high bar for responses is critical. Before launching the question to the entire Edge list, I invited a dozen or so people who I believed would have something interesting to say; their responses would seed the site and encourage the wider group to think in surprising ways. Here are some of these early responses:
Playwright Richard Foreman asks about the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the instantly available. Is it a new self? Are we becoming Pancake People—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button?
Technology analyst Nicholas Carr, who wrote The Atlantic cover story, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” asks whether the use of the Web made it impossible for us to read long pieces of writing.
Social software guru Clay Shirky says the answer is “ ‘too soon to tell.’ This isn’t because we can’t see some of the obvious effects already, but because the deep changes will be manifested only when new cultural norms shape what the technology makes possible. ... The Internet’s primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users.”
Web 2.0 pioneer Tim O’Reilly ponders if ideas themselves are the ultimate social software. Do they evolve via the conversations we have with each other, the artifacts we create, and the stories we tell to explain them?
Stewart Brand, founder of Whole Earth Catalog, cannot function without the major players in his social extended mind—his guild. “How I think is shaped to a large degree by how they think,” he writes. “Thanks to my guild’s Internet-mediated conversation, my neuronal thinking is enhanced immeasurably by our digital thinking.”
Hillis goes a step further by asking if the Internet will, in the long run, arrive at a much richer infrastructure in which ideas can potentially evolve outside of human minds. In other words, can we change the way the Internet thinks?
The 2010 question elicited, in all, 172 essays that comprised a 132,000-word manuscript published online by Edge in January. Kelly speaks about a new type of mind, amplified by the Internet, evolving, and able to start a new phase of evolution outside of the body. In “Net Gain,” evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins looks 40 years into the future when “retrieval from the communal exosomatic memory will become dramatically faster, and we shall rely less on the memory in our skulls.” Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan,” writes about “The Degradation of Predictability—and Knowledge” as he asks us to “consider the explosive situation: More information (particularly thanks to the Internet) causes more confidence and illusions of knowledge while degrading predictability.” Nick Bilton, lead writer of The New York Times’s Bits blog, notes that “[the] Internet is not changing how we think. Instead, we are changing how the Internet thinks.” Actor Alan Alda worries about “[speed] plus mobs. A scary combination.” He wonders, “Is there an algorithm perking somewhere in someone’s head right now that can act as a check against this growing hastiness and mobbiness?” New York Times columnist Virginia Heffernanwrites that “we must keep on reading and not mistake new texts for new worlds, or new forms for new brains.” Numerous artists responded in enlightening ways, as their evocative headlines suggest:
I enjoyed the juxtaposition of responses by psychologist Steven Pinker, “Not At All,” and Chinese artist and cultural activist Ai Weiwei, “I Only Think on the Internet.” The response I most admired is George Dyson’s “Kayaks vs. Canoes.” It is a gem:
In the North Pacific Ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding. The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren, treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was nothing left but a canoe.
The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results—maximum boat/minimum material—by opposite means. The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.
I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don’t will be left paddling logs, not canoes.
What do you think?