A subject in a psychology experiment stands in a room with various objects strewn around the floor and two cords hanging from the ceiling. He is tasked with finding ways to tie the two cords together. The only problem is that they are far enough apart that if he grabs onto one, he cannot reach the other. After devising some obvious solutions (such as lengthening one of the cords with an extension cord), the subject is stumped. Then, the experimenter casually bumps into one of the cords, causing it to swing to and fro. The subject suddenly has a new idea! He swings one cord towards the other, thus allowing him to reach both at once.
Here's something interesting about this experiment: Subjects failed to recognize the experimenter's role in leading them to this new idea. They believed that the thought of swinging the cord just "dawned" on them, or that it resulted from systematic analysis, or from consulting physics principles, or from images they conjured of monkeys swinging in trees. As this experiment and others like it (reviewed in a classic article by Richard Nisbett and Timothy Wilson) illustrate, people are unaware of the particular influences that produce their thoughts. We know what we think, but we don't know why we think it. When a friend claims that it is her penchant for socialist ideals that leads her to support the latest healthcare reform bill, it might be wise for you to assume she likes the bill but to doubt her reasons why (and she ought to share your skepticism!).
This brings me to the question of how the Internet has changed the way I think. The problem is this: When it comes to my thoughts, I can honestly tell you what I think (about everything from mint chip ice cream to e-mailâ€¦ I love the former and am ambivalent about the latter), but I can only speculate as to why I think those things (does my love of mint chip ice cream reflect its unique flavor, or fond childhood memories of summer vacations with my pre-divorced parents?).Â How has the Internet changed the way I think? I can't really say, because I have no direct knowledge of what influences my thinking.
The idea that my own mental processes are impenetrable to me is a tough one to swallow. It's hard to accept that, at a very basic level, I don't know what's going on in my own head. At the same time, the idea has a certain obviousness to it â€” of course I can't recount the enormous complexity of biochemical processes and neural firing that gives rise to my thoughts. The typical neuron in my brain has 1000s of synaptic connections to other neurons. Sound familiar?
The Internet's most popular search tool also feeds me thoughts (tangible ideas encoded in words) via a massively-connected system that operates in way that is hidden to me. The obscurity of Google's inner workings (or the Net's more generally) makes its potential impact on my thoughts somewhat unnerving. My thinking may be influenced by unexpected search hits and extraneous words and images that are derived via a process beyond my comprehension and control. So while I have the feeling that it's me driving the machine, perhaps it's more the machine driving me. But wait, hasn't that always been the case? Same process, different machine.