We need a dug-out canoe to navigate the net

[ Tue. Jan. 26. 2010 ]

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.