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How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

Kester Brewin

RHow-is-the-Internet.jpgHow Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?
John Brockman
Atlantic, 352pp

Three letters make a world of difference. It wouldn't have been so long ago that a volume like this could have been produced asking the question 'Is the Internet Changing the Way you Think?' That is simply not a question any more. The internet, it is given, has already changed the way you think, even if you have not quite yet realised it. The question has moved on to how -  people's thinking has been changed by this most extraordinary of inventions.

John Brockman, who has edited this volume of 150 or so mini-essays, has described the internet as 'the infinite oscillation of our collective consciousness interacting with itself.' He goes on to add that 'it is not about computers. It's not about what it means to be human - in fact it challenges, renders trite our cherished assumptions on that score. It is about thinking.' These are stirring words, but we should not forget that for perhaps the majority of internet users, it is not so much about thinking as about banal status updates or free porn. Perhaps this is indeed connected to our collective consciousness, and perhaps it actually does then say something about what it means to be human.

This gets to the heart of why this is both a rich compendium, and yet simultaneously something of a voyeuristic look into the opinions of a very bright, and wholly unrepresentative group of contributors. Here are scientists, writers, technology gurus, film makers and philosophers, all of whom have been connected with Brockman's organisation, EDGE, whose motto is 'to arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.' The immediate problem being that the world's most sophisticated minds are, in terms of the list of contributors, 90% male and almost exclusively western. Do women not use the internet too? Has it not changed the way those in the developing world and southern hemisphere think too? It seems to me that this is a real missed opportunity, as the book we are left with, while containing great treasures from some fascinating people, never quite escapes its own bias, and thus fails to speak as broadly - and thus as authoritatively - as it might have done.

That said, there are excellent things to be found from some big names, not all of whom are positive about the changes they see, whether in work patterns, social interactions or at the neurological level. Clay Shirky is pleasingly circumspect, considering it too early to tell exactly how human thinking will change, but convinced that it is the beginnings of a revolution that will exceed the power of the enlightenment. Nicolas Carr, whose book The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains is an excellent corrective to the techno-positivism tells us to throw out our books and gorge on screens, writes in melancholic mood about a top US high school that replaced its library with a suite of computers. Those who are positive about the internet tend to emphasise the advantages of connectivity, and the extraordinary ability researchers now have to harvest and process huge amounts of data, while those who are less positive tend to worry that this enormous web that we have created is actually ensnaring us: it is not that we are surfing it, but it is serfing us. We have less time, and seem to waste the time that we have - although Kevin Kelly suggests that it is in the wasting of time that good things happen:

'This waking dream we call the Internet also blurs the difference between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts - or, to put it more simply, I can no longer tell online when I'm working and when I'm playing.'

This dissolution of discernment between work and play, between the serious and the banally trivial, is a source of concern for some, and a source of excitement for others. And this, perhaps is the serious message we need to take from this entertaining and inspiring, though frustratingly biased collection: the internet will change the way you think, but it is a tool like all other tools, and can thus be used for good or bad. What we must not do is allow it to become a substitute for careful thought. Sam Harris, the neuroscientist and celebrated 'new atheist' admits that 'increasingly I rely on Google to recall my own thoughts.' This has to be of concern. If we farm out the business of remembering and, more importantly, making connections between ideas and thoughts, to an algorithm in a search engine we are very much in danger of allowing our thinking to go the way of our online news consumption: restricted to the five 'most popular' items offered up to us in the side of our web pages.

'Take every thought captive,' Paul advised when he wrote to the Corinthians. 'Don't let your thinking be kidnapped,' might be the thrust of his message if he had been asked to add to this volume.