I cannot use the Internet without thinking about the primitive research conditions I labored under during the late 1970s and early 1980s in the Brazilian Amazon, when I spent months at a time in complete isolation with the PirahÃ£ people. My only connection with the wider world was a large and clunky Philips short-wave radio I bought in SÃ£o Paulo. In the darkness of many Amazonian nights, I turned the volume low and listened, when all the PirahÃ£s and my family were asleep, to music shows like 'Rock Salad', to individual artists such as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and to news events like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the election of Ronald Reagan. As much as I enjoyed my radio, though, I wanted to do more than just listen passively. I wanted to talk! I would lie awake after discovering some difficult grammatical or cultural fact and feel lost at times. I could barely wait to ask people questions about the data I was collecting in the village and my ideas about them. I couldn't, though. Too isolated. So I put thoughts of collaboration and consultation out of my head. Now this wasn't a completely horrible outcome. Isolation taught me to think independently. But there were times when I would have liked to have had a helping hand.
All that changed in 1999. I purchased a satellite phone with Internet capability. I could email from the Amazon! (And the US taxpayer would even foot the bill â€” I added the costs of connection time to my National Science Foundation budgets.)
Now I could read an article or a book in the PirahÃ£ village and immediately contact the author. I learned that if you begin your email with, "Hi, I am writing to you from the banks of the Maici river in the Amazon jungle" you almost always get a response. I would send out half-baked ideas to colleagues and people I didn't even know around the world and get responses back quickly â€” sometimes while I was floating down the Maici river in my boat, drinking a beer, and relaxing from the demands of being the main entertainment for a village of practical-joking PirahÃ£s. After reading these responses I would discard some of my ideas, further develop others, and, most importantly, get brand new ones. I could not have telephoned all of my interlocutors. Most were too busy to take random phone calls from conversation-hungry Amazonianists. And I didn't know most of them all that well. Sending a regular letter was not possible from the PirahÃ£ village. My thinking about language and culture were altered profoundly by access to fresh intellectual energy.
In the city from where I now do most of my work, the Internet has become an extension of my memory â€” it combats the occasional "senior moment", helping me to find names, facts, and places instantly (or so it seems). It gives me a second, bigger brain. The Internet has allowed me to learn from people I have never met. It placed me in a university that profoundly affected my career, my research, and my worldview.
I rarely connect to the Internet from the Amazon these days. I am not there as long or as frequently as in the past and so most of the time, I simply want to enjoy being with the people I am visiting. I have learned that the Internet is just a tool. It doesn't fit every job. I avoid using the Internet for tasks that require a more personal connection, such as administering my university department or talking to my children. But if it is just a tool, it is a wondrous tool. It changed my thinking (and my approach to thinking) like the first chainsaw must have affected loggers. The Internet gave me access to as much information (for good or ill) as any researcher in the world, even from the rain forest.