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

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Physicist, Harvard University; Author, Warped Passages; Knocking On Heaven's Door
"THE PLURAL OF ANECDOTES IS NOT DATA"

The plural of anecdotes is not data — but anecdotes are all I have. We don't yet understand how we think or what it means to change the way we think. Scientists are making inroads and ultimately hope to understand much more. But right now all I and my fellow contributors can do are make observations and generalize.

We don't even know if the Internet changes the way we read. It certainly changes how we read, as it changes how we do many aspects of our work. Maybe it ultimately changes how our brains process written information but we don't yet know. Still, the question of how the Internet changes how we think is an enormous problem, one that anecdotes might help us understand. So I'll tell a couple (if I can focus long enough to do so.)

Someone pointed out to me once that he, like me, never uses a bookmark in a book. I always attributed my negligence to disorganization and laziness — the few times I attempted to use a bookmark I promptly misplaced it. — But what I realized after this was pointed out is that not using — bookmarks was my choice. It doesn't make sense to find a place in a book that you technically have read but that is so far from your memory that you don't remember having read it. By not using a bookmark, I was guaranteed to return to the last continuous section of text that actually made a dent in my brain.

With the Internet we tend to absorb multiple pieces of information about whatever topic we decide we're interested in. Online, we search. In fact Marvin Minsky recently told me that he prefers reading on an electronic device in general because he values the search function. And I certainly often do too. In fact I tend to remember the answer to the pointed pieces of information I ask about on the Internet better than I do when reading a long book. But there is also the danger that something valuable about reading in a linear fashion, absorbing information internally, and processing it as we go along is lost with the Internet or even electronic devices, where it is too easy to cheat by searching.

One aspect of reading a newspaper that I've already lost a lot of is the randomness that comes with reading in print rather than online. Today I read the articles that I know will interest me when I'm staring at a computer screen and have to click to get to the actual article. When I read print papers — something I do less and less-my eyes are sometimes drawn to an interesting piece — or even advertisement — that I would never have chosen to look for. Despite its breadth, and the fact that I can be so readily distracted, I still use the Internet in a targeted fashion.

So why don't I stick to print media? The Internet is great for disorganized people like me who don't want to throw something away for fear of losing something valuable they missed. I love knowing everything is still on line and that I can find it. I hate newspapers piling up. I love not having to be in an office to check books. I can make progress at home, on a train, or on a plane (when there is enough room between rows to open my computer). Of course as a theoretical physicist I could do that before as well — it just meant carrying a lot more weight.

And I do often take advantage of the Internet's breadth, even if it is a little more directed. A friend might send me to a Web site. Or I might just need or want to learn about some new topic. The Internet also allows me to be bolder. I can quickly get up to speed on a topic I previously knew nothing about. I can check facts and I can learn other's points of view on any subject I decide is interesting. I can write about subjects I wouldn't have dared to touch before, since I can quickly find out the context in a way that was previously much more difficult to access.

Which brings me back to the idea of the quote "the plural of anecdotes is not data." I thought I should check who deserves the attribution. It's not entirely clear but it might go back to a pharmacologist named Frank Kotsonis, who was writing about the effects of aspartame. I find this particularly funny because I stopped consuming aspartame due to my personal anecdotal evidence that it made me focus less well. But I digress.

Here's the truly funny aspect of the quote I discovered with my Google search. The original quote from the Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger was exactly the opposite, "The plural of anecdotes is data." I'm guessing this depends on what kind of science you do.

The fact is that the Internet provides a wealth of information. It doesn't yet organize it all or process it or arrange for scientific conclusions. The Internet allows us (as a group) to believe both facts and their opposites; we'll all find supporting evidence or opinions.

But we can attend talks without being physically present and work with people we've never met in person. We have access to all physics papers as they are churned out but we still have to figure out which are interesting and process what they say.

I don't know how differently we think. But we certainly work differently and do so at a different pace. We can learn many anecdotes that aren't yet data.

Though all those distracting emails and Web sites can make it hard to focus!