Have you ever read a great book from before the mid 1990s and thought to yourself, "My Goodness! These ideas are so primitive! So… pre-Internet!" Me neither. The Internet hasn't changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food. The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what we do with it once it's made it into our heads. This is because the Internet doesn't (yet) know how to think. We still have to do it for ourselves, and we do it the old-fashioned way.

One of the Internet's early disappointments was the now defunct Website "Ask Jeeves." (It was succeeded by, which dropped Jeeves in 2006) Jeeves appeared as a highly competent infobutler who can understand and answer questions posed in natural language. ("How was the East Asian economy affected by the Latin American debt crisis?" "Why do fools fall in love?") Anyone who spent more than a few minutes querying Jeeves quickly learned that Jeeves himself didn't understand squat. Jeeves was just a search engine like the rest, mindlessly matching the words contained in your question to words found on the Internet. The best Jeeves could do with your profound question—the best any search engine can do today—is direct you to the thoughts of another human being who has already attempted to answer a question related to yours. This is not to say that cultural artifacts can't change the way we think.

Jim Flynn has documented massive gains in IQ over the 20th Century (the "Flynn Effect"), which he attributes to our enhanced capacity for abstract thought, which he in turn attributes to the cognitive demands of the modern marketplace. Why hasn't the Internet had a comparable effect? The answer, I think, is that the roles of master and servant are reversed. We place demands on the Internet, but the Internet hasn't placed any fundamentally new demands on us. In this sense, the Internet really is like a butler. It gives us the things that we want faster and with less effort, but it doesn't give us anything that we couldn't otherwise get for ourselves and doesn't require us to do anything more than give comprehensible orders.

Someday we'll have a nuts-and-bolts understanding of complex abstract thought, which will enable us to build machines that can do it for us, and perhaps do it better than we do, and perhaps teach us a thing or two about it. But until then, the Internet will continue to be nothing more, and nothing less, than a very useful, and very dumb, butler.