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

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Writer and Television Producer; Author, Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us
"IF YOU HAVE CANCER, DON'T GO TO THE INTERNET"

When the British playwright Harold Pinter developed cancer of the oesophagus, his wife, Lady Antonia Fraser, discovered from the Internet that there was a 92% mortality rate. "If you have cancer, don't go on the Internet," she said in an interview published by The Sunday Times in January 2010.

This set me thinking about my own interactions with the Internet, and how they might differ fundamentally from using any other sources of information.

Lady Antonia could, I suppose, have said, "If you have cancer, don't look at the Merck Manual," or some other medical guide, but there must be more to it than that. It is, first of all, the effortlessness with which it can be used. I used to joke that if I had a query which could be answered by consulting a book in the shelves on the other side of my study or by using the Internet, it would be quicker and less energy-consuming to find the answer on the Internet. It's not even funny any more, because it's obviously the most efficient way to do things. I am one of the few people who seem to trust Wikipedia. Its science entries, in particular, are extremely thorough, reliable and well-sourced. People who trust books (two or more years out of date) rather than Wikipedia are like people who balk at buying on the Internet for security reasons but happily pay with a credit card in restaurants where an unscrupulous waiter could keep the carbon copy of the slip and run up huge bills before they knew it.

Lady Antonia Fraser's remark was really a tribute to the reliability and comprehensiveness of the Internet. It wasn't so much that she came across a pessimistic forecast of Harold's prognosis, more that it was probably a reliable pessimistic forecast, based on up-to-date information. It doesn't of course mean that it was accurate. She may not have consulted all cancer sites, or it may be that no one really knows for sure what the prognosis was for oesophageal cancer. But she assumed — and I assume myself when using the Internet — that with a little skill and judgment you can get more reliable information there than anywhere else.

This, of course, has nothing to do with thinking. It could be that I would think the same if I'd been writing my books with a quill pen and had only the Bible, Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson's Dictionary to consult. But the Internet certainly constrains what I think about. It stops me thinking any more about that great idea for a book that I now find was published a few years ago by a small university press in Montana.

It also reinforces my belief in my own ideas and opinions because it is now much quicker to test them, particularly when they are new opinions. By permitting anyone to publish anything, the Internet allows me to read the whole range of views on a topic, and infer from the language used the reasonableness or otherwise of the views. Of course, I was inclined to disbelieve in Intelligent Design before I had access to the wide range of wacky and hysterical Websites that promote it. But now I have no doubts at all that the theory is tosh. (SLANG CHIEFLY BRIT nonsense; rubbish — The Free Dictionary)

But this is still not to do with thinking. What do I do all day, sitting at my computer? I string words together, reread them, judge them, improve them if necessary and print them out or send them to people. And underlying this process is a judgement about what is interesting, novel or in need of explanation, and the juggling of words in my mind to express these concepts in a clear way. None of that, as far as I am aware, has changed because of the Internet.

But this is to deal with only one aspect of the Internet, its provision of factual content. There is also email and attachments and blogs and software downloads and You Tube and Facebook and Internet shopping and banking and weather forecasts and Googlemaps and and and…. But before all this, I knew there were lots of people in the world, capable of using language and saying clever or stupid things. Now I have access to them in a way I didn't before, but again this is just information provision rather than a change in ways of thinking.

Perhaps the crucial factor is speed. If I was setting out to write a book, I would start with a broad outline and a chapter breakdown, and these would lead me to set a series of research tasks which could take months: look in this library, write to this expert, look for this book, find this document. Now the order of things has changed. While I was doing all the above, which could take weeks or months, my general ideas for the book would be evolving. My objectives might change, and my research tasks with them. I would do more 'broad brush' thinking. Now, when documents can be found and downloaded in seconds, library catalogues consulted from one's desk, experts emailed and a reply received within 24 hours, the idea is set in stone much earlier. But even here there is no significant* difference in thinking. If, in the course of the research, some document reveals a different an — gle, the fact that this happens within hours or days rather than months can only be to the good. The broad brush thinking is now informed rather than uninformed.

I give up. The Internet hasn't changed how I think. It's only a tool. An electric drill wouldn't change how I many holes I make in a piece of wood, it would only make the hole-drilling easier and quicker. A car doesn't change the nature and purpose of a journey I make to the nearest town, it only makes it quicker and leads to me making more journeys, than if I walked.

But what about Lady Antonia Fraser? Is the truth-telling power of the Internet something to avoid? The fact is, the Internet reveals in its full horror the true nature of mankind — its obsessions, the triviality of its interests, its scorn for logic or rationality, its inhumanity, the power of capital, the intolerance of the other. But anyone who says this is news just doesn't get out enough. The Internet magnifies and specifies what we know already about mankind, or if we don't we're rather naïve. The only way my thinking would have been changed by this 'revelation' would have been if I believed along with Dr Pangloss that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. And I don't.