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

[ print ]

Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute
BENEFACTION & DISTRACTION

I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. With procrastination just a click away, and a seductive Siren song in the form of new-mail pings, I find it challenging to stay focused on a single subject long enough to have real impact. Maintaining the Zen-like focus that is so crucial for doing science was easier back when the newspaper and the mail came only once per day. Indeed, as a part of an abstinence-based rehab program, I now try to disconnect completely from the Internet while thinking, closing my mail program and Web browser for hours,  much to the chagrin of colleagues and friends who expect instant response. To get fresh and original ideas, I typically need to go even further, and completely turn off my computer.

On the other hand, the Internet gives me more time for such Internet-free thinking by eliminating second millennium style visits to libraries and stores. The Internet also lets me focus my thinking on the research frontier rather than on reinventing the wheel. Had the Internet existed in 1922 when Alexander Friedmann discovered the expanding universe model, Georges Lemaître wouldn't have had to rediscover it five years later.

The Internet gives me not only traditionally available information faster (and sometimes faster than I can retrieve it from memory), but also previously unavailable information. With some notable exceptions, I find that "the truth, nothing but the truth, but maybe not the whole truth" provides a useful rule of thumb for news reporting, and I usually find it both easy and amusing to piece together what actually happened by pretending that I just arrived from Mars, and comparing a spectrum of Web sites from Fox News to Al Jazeera.

The Internet also affects my thinking by leaving me thinking about the Internet. What will it do to us? On the flip side, as the master of distraction, it seems to be further reducing our collective attention span from the depths to which television had brought it. Important issues fade from focus fast, and while many of humanity's challenges get more complicated, society's ability to pay attention to complex arguments dwindles. Sound bites and attack ads work well when the world has attention deficit disorder.

On the other hand, the ubiquity of information is clearly having positive impact in areas ranging from science and education to economic development. I think the essence of science is to think for oneself and question authority. I therefore delight in the fact that the Internet makes it harder to restrict information and block the truth. Once the cat is out of the bag and in the cloud, that's it. Today it's hard even for Iran and China to prevent information dissemination. Soviet-style restrictions on copying machines sound quaint today, and the only currently reliable censorship is not to allow the Internet at all, like in North Korea.

Love it or hate it, but free information will transform the world. Oft-discussed examples range from third world education to terrorist technology. As another example, suppose someone discovers and posts online a safe low-tech chemical process for mass-producing all-synthetic cocaine, THC or heroin from cheap and readily available chemicals, much like methamphetamine manufacturing today except safer and cheaper. This would trigger domestic drug production in industrialized countries that no government could stop, in turn slashing prices and potentially devastating both the revenue and the power of Colombian and Mexican drug cartels as well as the Taliban.