IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK?

[ Wed. Jan. 6. 2010 ]

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

Click here for PDF of Portuguese Original

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 

Who decides?

Daniel Hillis

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

Andrian Kreye

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

Visual Artists

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

Kevin Kelly

Editor-At-Large, Wired

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.

Digital sugar 

Esther Dyson

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?

Mind control

Larry Sanger

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

Gerd Gigerenzer

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. 

Thinking better

Stephen Kosslyn

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.

 

Dramatic changes

Kai Kraus

Software Pioneer|

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.

Tactile cyberworld

James O'Donnell

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.

 

Promiscuity

Seth Lloyd

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

Nicholas Christakis

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.

The map

Neri Oxman

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?

Hunter-gatherers

Lee Smolin

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. 

The Matrix

John Markoff

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

Sam Harris

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.

Parallel Lives 

Linda Stone

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 

Joshua Greene

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

Scott Sampson 

Dinosaur paleontologist

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.

Rewired

Haim Harari

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

Terrence Sejnowski

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 

Nigel Goldenfeld

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.

Greatest Detractor 

Leo Chalupa

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

Matt Ridley

Science Writer 

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.

Memory sharpener

Tom Standage 

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

Eva Wisten

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. 

 

Internet natives

Alison Gopnik

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

Daniel Haun

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.

Exaggeration

Steven Pinker

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.

Mental Clock

Stanislas Dehaene

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 

Marc Hauser

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.

Diminished attention

Nicholas Carr

Author

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.

Diet-Internet

Rodney Brooks

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

Paul Bloom

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

Ed Regis 

Science writer 

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.

Ana Gerschenfeld