Thinking Internet & Thinking

11May15

I guess I spend too much time on the web – me too. For several years a cute little book called “Is the internet changing the way you think?” has been lingering in my closet, waiting to be picked and read. But I just never managed to grab and read it, until now. Each year the Edge organization asks a group of great thinkers in the world a question. The responses, in the form of short essays are published on the web and in paperback. “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think”, was the edge question of 2010. The book is a marvelous collage of perspectives on the internet and our minds. Although it is not a completely timeless question, if you missed to pick up the book back then, I can still warmly recommend it.  Of course I couldn’t resist a little theme hunting and sharing some of the gems I found, so here we go.

“What kind of dumb question is that” (Andy Clark)

Unsurprisingly, many authors claim internet doesn’t change the way we think at all. The genetic infrastructure of our thinking has been there since we were primates and this will not change by an overnight “revolution” such as the net. But, even if the machinery is the same, our information diets are changing and this can have dramatic effects. Just think of suddenly feeding oranges to a potato cutter. In an earlier post I wrote about how our cognitive biases might be amplified by search. In the book, Mark Pagel and Daniel Haun rise similar concerns: our social brains are fit to reason about small groups and Pagel speculates. Because its connectivity and scale, this small group social reasoning turns into public fear and conspiracy theories on the web. Although these authors are fairly pessimistic about the effect of the web, they do not assume our brains or thinking habits to change because of our information habits. What our brains throw out depends, like with the patatocutter, on what we feed it, but unlike the case of the patatocutter it may actually change its habits cutting habits too. In his brilliant essay “what kind of dumb question is that” Andy Clark claims that the internet changes what we think and as a result also how we think.

“What is important for thought about the internet is not the content, it is the activity of being a searcher, with the worlds store of knowledge and images at your fingertips” (Lee Smolin)

One theme in the book is the symbiosis (or absence of it) between information seeking and thinking. Saying we went from an information scarcity to an information abundance may seem like stating the obvious, but many authors in the book still remember the times in which they had spent weeks to down an article from a remote library, a practice which is now obsolete. The mind loves information, however, and some authors worry about the current profusion of this brain candy. Esther Dyson, for example, who likening the web to food wonders whether there is enough nutrition in all this high calorie information bits. Others like Nicholas Carr complain about the attention scattering effect of this trip in the candy store. But some authors think the information abundance is a positive thing such as Richard Foreman, who sketches a symbiosis of search, information and thinking and Chinese artist Ai Weiwei who summarizes this idea neatly in the title of his essay: When I am on the Web I Start to Think. The internet as instigator of great thinking, or as great distracter; maybe the debate is settled in George Dysons essay who compares the way Kayaks are built to the way canoes are build. Kayaks are built by creating a frame from little pieces of wood found on the beach, and covering it with a waterproof skin while canoes are created by taking a large tree and removing material until only the canoe is left. We were Kayak builders once and need to learn to build canoes

. “The internet hasn’t changed the way I think but it has increased the number of people who’s thoughts are in my head” (Eva Wisten)

The third major theme emerges when edge authors shift from discussing the internet as an information medium to discussing it as a communication medium. Framed this way, the question changes into “what the internet is doing to our collective thinking?”. In many essays the net is praised as “the big leveler”. Through the net is possible to connect with a wider range of people who can contribute to the intellectual enterprise. To put it in the words of Stuart Pimm: “When knowledge is everywhere, so are the thinkers”. While some authors stress the nets ability to support unexpected connections between ideas (internet as the large information collider) others are more skeptical. As we follow the same information highways our collective information intake may become more homogeneous rather than more diverse. We may all have the thoughts of more people in our heads, but much of they are the same lot of thoughts.

So how does the internet change our thinking? One shouldn’t pick up an Edge book for a final answer on the question it is posing. A lot has changed and it is hard to say whether this is generally a good thing. But even if the internet has set about a revolution that changes our individual and collective thought patterns, in my view the result will be remarkably close to what it used to be. At least this is how it appears to play out in economy – I don’t see how our minds would differ. So as a final thought:

 “I notice that everything the Net displaces, reapears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their revords, but since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books, and record stores with staff who know about music, are becoming more common.”(Brian Eno)

Reading more:

Most of the Edge essays can be found online. When I could find them I have linked them in this post. My earlier posts Photo’s Everywhere, Collateral Damage of the Robots Race (on the Web) , Cognitive Bias in the Global Information Subway and Evaluating the Netgen Argument, are thematically related to this one.

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