Being among those who have predicted that humans will be uploading their minds into cybermachines in the not too distant future, one might assume I'm enthusiastic about the Internet. But the thinking of my still primate mind about the new mode of information exchange is more ambiguous.
No doubt the Internet is changing the way I operate and influence the world around me. Type "gregory paul religion and society" into Google and nearly four million hits come up. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it looks impressive. An article in a Brit newspaper on my sociological research garnered over 700 comments. Back in the 20th century I could not imagine my technical research making such an impression on the global sociopolitical scene because the responsible mechanism â€“ publishing in open access online academic journals â€“ was not available. The new communication environment is undoubtedly altering my research and publicity strategy relative to what it would be in a less digital world. Even so, I am not entirely sure how my actions are being modified. The only way to find out would be to run a parallel universe experiment in which everything is the same except for the existence of an Internet type of communications, and see what I do in the alternative situation.
What is disturbing to this human raised on hard copy information transmission is how fast the Internet is destroying a large portion of the former. My city no longer has a truly major newspaper, and the edgy, free City Paper is a pale shadow of its former self in danger of extinction. I have enjoyed living a few blocks from a major university library because I could casually browse through the extensive journal stacks, leafing through assorted periodicals to see what was up in the latest issues. Because the search was semi-random it was often pleasantly and usefully serendipitous. Now that the Hopkins library has severely cut back on paper journals as the switch to online continues it is less fun. It's good to save trees, and looking up a particular article is often easier online, but checking the contents of latest issue of Geology on the library computer is neither as pleasant nor convenient. I suspect that the range of my information intake has narrowed, and that can't be good.
On the positive side, it could be amazingly hard to get basic info before the Web showed up. In my teens I was intrigued by the notorious destruction of the HMS Hood in 1941, but was not able to get a clear impression of the famed vessel's appearance for a couple of years until I saw a friend's model, and I did not see a clear image until well after that. Such extreme data deprivation is thankfully over due to Wikipedia, etc. But even the Internet cannot fill all information gaps. It often remains difficult to search out obscure details of the sort found only in books that can look at subjects in depth. Websites often reference books, but if the Internet limits the production of manuscript length works then the quality of information is going to suffer.
As for the specific question of how the Internet is changing my thinking, online apps facilitate the statistical analyses that are expanding my sociological interests and conclusions further than I ever thought they would go, leading to unanticipated answers to some fundamental questions about popular religion that I am delighted to uncover. Beyond that there are more subtle effects, but exactly what they are I am not sure sans the parallel world experiment. I also fear that the brevity favored by on screen versus page turning reading is shortening my attention span. It is as if one of Dawkins's memes is altering my unwilling mind like a bad science fiction story. But that's a non-quantitative, anecdotal impression; perhaps I just think my thinking has changed. It is possible the new arrangement is not altering my mental exertions further than it is because the old fashioned mind generated by my brain remains geared to the former system.
The new generation growing up immersed in the digital complex may be developing thinking processes more suited for the new paradigm for better or for worse. But as far as I know that's a hypothesis rather than a documented fact. Perhaps human thinking is not as amenable to being modified by external factors as one might expect. And the Internet may be more retro than it first seems. The mass media of the 20th century was truly novel because the analog based technology turned folks from home entertainers and creators (gathering around the piano and singing and inventing songs and the like) to passive consumers of a few major outlets (sitting around the telly and fighting over the remote). People are using hyperfast digital technology to return to self-creativity and entertainment. How all this is affecting young psyches is a matter for sociobehavioral and neuropsychological research to sort out.
But how humans old and young are effected may not matter all that much. In the immediacy of this early 21st century moment the Internet revolution may look more radical than it actually is, it could merely introduce the real revolution. The human domination of digital communications will be a historically transitory event if and when high-level thinking cyberminds start utilizing the system. The ability superintelligences to share and mull over information will dwarf what mere humans can manage. Exactly how will the interconnected uberminds think?
Hell if I know.