2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Director, the Research Group for Comparative Cognitive Anthropology, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
REPETITION, NOT TRUTH

I am born in 1977, or 15 b.I. if you like. That is if you take the 1992 version of the Internet to be the real thing. Anyway, I don't really remember being without it. When I first looked up, emerging out of the dark, quickly forgotten days of a sinister puberty, it was already there. Waiting for me. So it seems to me, it hasn't changed the way I think. Not in a before-after fashion anyway. But even if you are reading these lines through grey, long, uncontrollable eyebrow hair, let me reassure you, it hasn't changed the way you think either. Of course it changed the content of your thinking. Not just through the formidable availability of information you seek, but most importantly through the information you don't. But from what little I understand about human thought, I don't think the Internet has changed the way you think. It's architecture has not changed yours.

Let me try and give you an example of the way people think. The way you think. I have already told you three times that the Internet hasn't changed the way you think (4 and counting) and every time you are reading it, my statement becomes more believable to you. Psychologists have reported the human tendency to mistake repetition for truth for more than sixty years. This is called the "illusion of truth effect". You believe to be true what you hear often. The same applies to whatever comes to mind first or most easily.

People, including you, believe the examples they can think of right away to be most representative and therefore indicative of the truth. This is called the "availability heuristic". Let me give you a famous example. In English, what's the relative proportion of words that start with the letter K versus words that have the letter K in 3rd position? The reason most people believe the former to be more common than the latter is that they can easily remember a lot of words that start with a K, but few that have a K in the 3rd position. The truth in fact is that there are three times more words with K in third than in first position. Now if you don't believe people really do this, maybe because you don't, you just proved my point. Availability creates the illusion of truth. Repetition creates the illusion of truth. I would repeat that, but you get my point.

Let's reconsider the Internet. How do you find the truth on the Internet? You use a search engine. Search engines evidently have very complicated ways to determine which pages will be most relevant to your personal quest for the truth. But in a nutshell, a page's relevance is determined by how many other relevant pages link to it. Repetition, not truth. Your search engine will then present a set of ranked pages to you, determining availability. Repetition determines availability, and both together the illusion of truth. Hence, the Internet does just what you would do. It isn't changing the structure of your thinking, because it resembles it. It isn't changing the structure of your thinking, because it resembles it.