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

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Research Associate & Lecturer, Harvard; Adjunct Associate Professor, Brandeis; Author, Alex & Me
I THINK, THEREFORE I AM — STILL ME

The Internet hasn't changed the way I think; it hasn't altered one whit the way in which I — that is, my brain—processes information…other than maybe by forcing me to figure out how to process a lot more of it. Consciously, I still use the same scientific training that was drummed into me as an undergraduate and graduate student in theoretical chemistry, even when it comes to evaluating aspects of my daily life: Based on a certain preliminary amount of information, I develop a hypothesis and try to refine it so that it differs from any competing equally plausible hypotheses; I test the hypothesis; if it is proven true, I rest my case within the limits of that hypothesis, accepting that I may have solved only one piece of a puzzle; if it is proven false, I revise and repeat the procedure.

Maybe the Internet has given me more things to think about, but that doesn't fundamentally change the way I think. Rather, what has changed, and is still changing, is my relationship with the Internet — from unabashed infatuation to disillusionment to a kind of armed truce. And, no, I'm not sidestepping the question, because until the Internet actually rewires my brain, it won't change my processing abilities. Of course, such rewiring may be in the offing, and quite possibly sooner than we expect, but that's not yet the case.

So, my changing love-hate relationship with the Internet.

First came the honeymoon phase — believing that nothing in the world could ever be as wondrous — an appreciation for all the incredible richness and simplicity that the Internet brought into my life. No longer did I have to trudge through winter's snow or summer's heat to a library at the other end of campus — or even come to campus — to acquire information, or to make connections to friends and colleagues all over the world.

Did I need to set up a symposium for an international congress? Just a few emails and all was complete. Did I need an obscure reference or that last bit of data for the next day's powerpoint presentation while in an airport lounge, whether in Berlin or Beijing, Sydney or Saltzburg? Ditto. Did I need a colleague's input on a tricky problem or to provide the same service myself? Ditto. Even when it came to forgetting a birthday or anniversary and needing to research and send a gift somewhere in the world? Ditto. A close friend and colleague moves to Australia? No problem staying in touch anymore. But did all this change the way I think? No. It may have changed the way I work, because what changed were various limitations on the types of information that were accessible within certain logistical boundaries, but my actual thought processes didn't alter.

Next came the disenchantment phase…the realization that more and faster were not always better. My relationship with the Internet began to feel oppressive, overly demanding of my time and energy. Just because I can be available and can work 24/7, 365 — must I?? The time saved and the efficiencies achieved began to backfire. I no longer had the luxury of recharging my brain by observing nature during that walk to the library, or by reading a novel while at that airport lounge.

Emails that supplanted telephone calls were sometimes misunderstood, because vocal modulations were missing. The number of requests to do X, Y, or Z began to increase exponentially, because, for example, it was far easier to shoot me a question than to spend the time digging up the answers — even on the Internet. The lit search I performed on the supposedly infinitely large data base failed to bring up that reference I needed and knew existed, because I read it a decade ago but didn't save it for my files because I figured I could always bring it up again.

This Internet relationship was supposed to enable all of my needs to be met; how did it instead become the source of endless demands? How did it end up draining away so much time and energy? The Internet seemed to have given me a case of Attention Deficit Disorder, but did it really change the way I think, or just made it more difficult have the time to think? Most likely the latter, because judicious use of the "off" button allowed a return to normalcy.

Which brings me to that armed truce — .an attempt to appreciate the positives and accept the negatives, to set personal boundaries and to refuse to let them be breached. Of course, maybe it is just this dogmatic approach that prevents the Internet from changing the way that I think.