Three friends have told me recently that during their just-completed holidays they unplugged from the Internet and had big, deep thoughts. This worries me. First, three data points means it's a trend, so maybe I should be doing it. Second, I wonder if I could disconnect from the Internet long enough to have big, deep thoughts. Third, like most people I know, I worry that even if I disconnect long enough, my info-krill-addled brain is no longer capable of big, deep thoughts (which I will henceforth calls BDTs).
Could I quit? At some level it seems a silly question, like asking how I feel about taking a breathing hiatus, or if on Tuesdays I would give up gravity. The Internet no longer feels involuntary when it comes to thinking. Instead, it feels more like the sort of thing that when you make a conscious effort to stop doing it bad things happen. As a kid I once swore off gravity and jumped from a barn hay mow, resulting in a sprained ankle. Similarly, a good friend of mine sometimes asks fellow golfers before a swing whether they breathe in or they breathe out. The next swing is inevitably horrible as the golfer sends a ball screaming into receptive underbrush.
Could I quit the Internet if it meant I would have more BDTs? Sure, I suppose I could, but I'm not convinced it would happen. First, the Internet is, for me, a kind of internal cognition combustion engine, something that vastly accelerates my ability to travel vast landscapes. Without it it would be much more difficult to compare, say, theories about complexity, cell phones and bee colony collapse disorder rather than writing an overdue paper, or to count hotel room in default in California versus Washington state. (In case you're curious, there are roughly two-times as many defaulted hotel rooms in California as there total hotel rooms in Seattle.)
In saying I could quit, but not quitting (even if quitting meant more BDTs), I could be accused of cynicism. I get to tell myself I could quit and have BDTs, without actually testing if or when I did quit whether I had said thoughts. That has a great deal of appeal, not least because I get the frisson of contemplating BDTs without actually going to the trouble of a) giving up the Internet, and b) seeing if I actually have the aforementioned thoughts.
Because like most people I know, I worry noisily and loudly that the Internet has made me incapable of having BDTs. I feel sure that I used to have such things, but for some reason I no longer do. Maybe the Internet has damaged me â€” I've informed myself to death! â€” to the point that I don't know what big, deep thoughts are, or that the brain chemicals formerly responsible for their emergence are now doing something else. Then again, this smacks of historical romanticism, like remembering the skies as always being blue and summers as eternal when you were eight years old.
So, as much as I kind of want to believe people who say they have big, deep thoughts when they disconnect from the web, I don't trust them. It reminds me of a doctor declaring herself/himself Amish for the day, and then heading from New York to Boston by horse & carriage with a hemorrhaging patient. Granted, you could do it, and some patients might even survive, but it isn't prudent or necessary. It seems instead a kind of public exercise in macho symbolism, like Iggy Pop carving something in his chest, a way of bloodily demonstrating that you're different, or even a sign of outright crankishness. Look at me! I'm thinking! No Internet!
If we know anything about knowledge, about innovation, and therefore about coming up with BDTs, it is that it is cumulative, an accretive process of happening upon, connecting, and assembling, like an infinite erector set, not just a few pretty I-beams strewn about on a concrete floor. But if BDTs were just about connecting things then the Internet would only be mildly interesting in changing the way I think. Libraries connect things, people connect things, and connections can even happen, yes, while sitting disconnected from the Internet under an apple tree somewhere. Here is the difference: The difference is that the Internet increases the speed and frequency of these connections & collisions, while dropping the cost of both to near zero.
It is that combination â€” cheap connections plus cheap collisions â€” that has done violence to the way I think. It is like having a private particle accelerator on my desktop, a way of throwing things into violent juxtaposition, and then the resulting collisions reordering my thinking. The result is new particles â€” ideas! â€” some of which are BDTs, and many of which are nonsense. But the democratization of connections, collisions and therefore thinking is historically unprecedented. We are the first generation to have the information equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider for ideas. And if that doesn't change the way you think, nothing will.