As it might take decades for the Internet to rewire how our brains actually process information, we should expect that most immediate changes would be social rather than biological in nature. Of those, two bother me in particular. One has to do with how the Internet changes what we think about; the other one â€” with who gets to do the thinking.
What I find particularly worrisome with regards to the "what" question is the rapid and inexorable disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence from our digital lives. One of the most significant but overlooked Internet developments of 2009 â€” the arrival of the so-called "real-time Web", whereby all new content is instantly indexed, read, and analyzed â€” is a potent reminder that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts. For most brokers dealing on today's global information exchange, past is a "strong sell".
In a sense, this is hardly surprising: the social beast that has taken over our digital lives has to be constantly fed with the most trivial of ephemera. And so we oblige, treating it to countless status updates and zetabytes of multimedia (almost a thousand photos are uploaded to Facebook every second!). This hunger for the present is deeply embedded in the very architecture and business models of social networking sites. Twitter and Facebook are not interested in what we were doing or thinking about five years ago; it's what we are doing or thinking about right now that they would really like to know.
These sites have good reasons for such a fundamentalist preference for the present, as it it greatly enhances their ability to sell our online lives to advertisers: after all, much of the time we are thinking of little else but satisfying our needs, spiritual or physical, and the sooner our needs can be articulated and matched with our respective demographic group, the more likely it is that we'll be coerced into buying something online.
Our ability to look back and engage with the past is one unfortunate victim of such reification of thinking. Thus, amidst all the recent hysteria about the demise of forgetting in the era of social networking, it's the demise of reminiscence that I find deeply troublesome. The digital age presents us with yet another paradox: while we have nearly infinite space to store our memories as well as all the multi-purpose gadgets to augment them with GPS coordinates and 360-degree panoramas, we have fewer opportunities to look back and engage with those memories.
The bottomless reservoirs of the present have blinded us to the positive and therapeutic aspects of the past. For most of us, "re engaging with the past" today means nothing more than feeling embarrassed over something that we did years ago after it has unexpectedly resurfaced on social networks. But there is much more to reminiscence than the feeling of embarrassment. Studies show that there is an intricate connection between reminiscence (particularly about positive events in our lives) and happiness: the more we do of the former, the more we feel of the latter. Substituting links to our past with links to our Facebook profiles and Twitter updates risks turning us into hyperactive, depressive, and easily irritant creatures who do not know how to appreciate own achievements.
The "who" question â€” i.e. who gets to do the thinking in the digital age â€” is much trickier. The most obvious answer â€” that the Internet has democratized access to knowledge and we are all thinkers now, bowing over our keyboards much like the character of Rodin's famous sculpture â€” is wrong. One of my greatest fears is that the Internet would widen the gap between the disengaged masses and the over engaged elites, thus thwarting our ability to collectively solve global problems â€” climate change and the need for smarter regulation in the financial industry come to mind â€” that require everyone's immediate attention. The Internet may yield more "thinking" about such issues but such "thinking" would not be equally distributed.
The Marxists have been wrong on many issues but they were probably right about the reactionary views espoused by the "lumpenproletariat". Today we are facing the emergence of the "cyber-lumpenprolitariat", of people who are being sucked into the digital whirlwind of gossip sites, trashy video games, populist and xenophobic blogs, and endless poking on social networking sites. The intellectual elites, on the other hand, continue thriving in the new digital environment, exploiting superb online tools for scientific research and collaboration, streaming art house films via Netflix, swapping their favorite books via e-readers, reconnecting with musical treasures of the bygone eras via iTunes, and, above all, perusing materials in the giant online libraries like the one that Google could soon unveil. The real disparities between the two groups become painfully obvious once members of the cyber-lumpenproletariat head to the polls and push for issues of extremely dubious â€” if not outright unethical â€” nature (the recent referendum on minarets in Switzerland is a case in point; the fact that Internet users voted the legalization of marijuana as the most burning issue on Obama's change.gov site is another one).
As an aside, given the growing concerns over copyright and the digitization of national cultural heritage in many parts of the world, there is a growing risk that this intellectual cornucopia would be available only in North America, creating yet another divide. Disconnected from Google's digital library, even the most prestigious universities in Europe or Asia may look less appealing than even middling community colleges in the US. This may seem counterintuitive but it's increasingly likely that the Internet would not diffuse knowledge-production and thinking around the globe but rather further concentrate it in one place.