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

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Archaeologist, Professor of the Prehistory of Humanity, University of Vienna; Author, The Artificial Ape
THE INTERNET IS NOT CHANGING THE WAY I THINK, BUT IT HAS CHANGED WHAT I THINK

The first bit is wholly unsurprising: the Internet was designed for people like me, by people like me, most of them English speakers. Fundamentally reflecting western, rationalist, objective, data-organizing drives, the Internet simply enhances my ability to think in familiar ways, letting me work longer, more often, with better focus, free from the social tyranny of the library and the uncertainty of postmen. The Internet has changed what I think, however — most notably about where the human race is now headed. From a prehistorian's perspective, I judge that we have been returned to a point last occupied at the time of our evolutionary origin. This is what I mean:

When the first stone tool was chipped, over two millon years ago, it signalled a new way of being. The ancestral community learned to make flint axes, and those first artificial objects, in turn, critically framed a shared, reflective consciousness that began to express itself in language. An axe could be both made and said, used and asked for. The invention of technology brought the earliest unitary template for human thought into being. It can even be argued that it essentially created us as characteristically human.

What happened next is well known: technology accelerated adaptation. The original ancestral human culture spread out across continents and morphed into cultures, plural — myriad ways of being. While isolated groups drifted into ever greater idiosyncracy, those who found themselves in competition for the same resources consciously strove to differentiate themselves from their neighbours. This ever deepening cultural specificity facilited the dehumanization of enemies that successful warfare, driven by jealously guarded technological innovation, required.

Then reunification began, starting five thousand years ago, with the development of writing — a technology that allowed the transcription of difference. War was not over, but alien thoughts did begin to be translated, at first very approximately, across the boundaries of local incomprehension. The mature Internet marks the completion of this process, and thus the reemergence of a fully contiguous human cultural landscape. We now have the same capacity for being united under a common language and shared technology that our earliest human ancestors had.

So, in a crucial sense, we are back at the beginning, returned into the presence of a shared template for human thought. From now on, there are vanishingly few excuses for remaining ignorant of objective scientific facts, and ever thinner grounds for cultivating hatred through willful failure to recognize our shared humanity. Respecting difference has its limits, however: the fact of our knowing that there is a humanity to share means we must increasingly work towards agreeing common moral standards. The Internet means that there is nowhere to hide and no way to shirk responsibility when the whole tribe makes informed decisions (as it now must) about its shared future.