The Edge’s 2010 World Question survey is out today. The question, and answers:
How is the Internet changing the way you think?
I’m about to get on the road for the long drive back to Texas, so I don’t have time to give this question the thought it deserves before answering — but I decided to answer it anyway when I realized that to answer it in this way illuminates one way the Internet has changed my thinking. And it’s this: I’m much more likely to publicly state a half-formed opinion, simply because I count on the answer to the question being arrived at collaboratively. For example, in last night’s post about Caitlin Flanagan’s critique of school gardens, I wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about Flanagan’s point before I posted. My post reflects my ambiguity. In the past, I would have thought the essay through more completely before writing something about it, and would have offered firmer, clearer conclusions (something I would still do if I were writing a newspaper column). But on the Internet, I find it more satisfying to post something incomplete, in hopes of drawing intelligent commentary from readers that can lead me to a conclusion.
The down side of this is a certain intellectual laziness, which is obvious, but also a tendency to indulge in attention deficit disorder. I mean, I notice in myself a restlessness to put down a topic and pick up the next shiny topic before I’ve examined the first one sufficiently. I think I have this tendency within myself naturally, but it’s greatly exacerbated by the Web. The other day in Philly my GPS system wasn’t working quite right, and I ended up driving around the outer city for about an hour, trying to find my way to the hotel. I reflected that if I hadn’t had the GPS to rely on, I would have studied the map and oriented myself to the area. But having the GPS, I just jumped into the rental car, punched in my destination, and hit the road, trusting that the technology would get me where I needed to go. Now, this is not quite the same thing as the intellectual laziness I’m talking about here, but it’s related, in that the Internet trains me to have more faith in the epistemic system (if that’s the phrase) than in my own resources.
One possible up side, though, is that I’ve learned to be more tentative in my conclusions, because I’m exposed to far more counterarguments, or at least differing takes on questions, thanks to the Internet than I was before. If you want to find out what others are thinking and saying about the same topic, it’s very easy to do so. Of course many people use the Internet to gather more opinions that agree with their own, but in my case, learning to think with the Internet has made me more open-minded — though I regret that it has not made me more tough-minded.
Along those lines, Nassim Nicholas Taleb answers The Edge’s question by pointing out that accumulating information is not the same thing as acquiring wisdom — and that the Internet accustoms us to mistaking the former for the latter. W. Daniel Hillis also gives a thoughtful response, explaining that if you see the Internet merely as an information exchange and dissemination technology, you’re missing its transformative effect in how we think, and how we relate to our thoughts collectively. Excerpt:
We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world that is beyond our own understanding. Our century began on a note of uncertainty, as we worried how our machines would handle the transition to the new millennium. Now we are attending to a financial crisis caused by the banking system miscomputing risks, and a debate on global warming in which experts argue not so much about the data, but about what the computers predict from the data. We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.
There are many, many more answers to the Edge’s question — I’ve only been able to dip my toes into them this morning. I’m going to leave now, but you read as many of them as you can, and share your views.
Here’s one more thought before I go. In 1982, I was a lonely and alienated high school sophomore who was deeply curious in life abroad. I wrote to a pen pal agency and got several high schoolers around the world to correspond with. I lived for those letters coming in from all over the planet, with their strange and beautiful stamps, and text written in alien styles of script. I became particularly good friends with a Dutch girl, and later with her circle of friends and acquaintances, including her sister, B. We all stayed in touch, visiting each other many times over the years. In 1998, Julie and I went to B.’s wedding to P., a Frenchman, in the Loire Valley. Well, yesterday I installed Skype on my computer, and learned that P. has an account. I “phoned” him on Skype’s video phone, and moments later, there he was, live, a face on my computer, sitting in his home office in the south of Holland. We talked for about 20 minutes, and I think we were both a little overwhelmed at the thought that we were able to do this.
Our children, P.’s and mine, will grow up thinking this is normal. And mostly, I think that’s great. But our children will almost certainly not know the pleasure of anticipating those beautiful handwritten letters from abroad, and of opening them, and taking in their aesthetic pleasures. I wouldn’t go back to the old way … but then again, I have a written record of that time of my life, and the people who were in it. My conversation with P. disappeared as soon as we both hung up. Tech giveth, and tech taketh away.