How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?

The Edge's big question for 2010 is "How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?" In a quest for thoroughness it has enlisted 170 brains who have collectively produced 132,000 words.

Quite a number of neuroscientists and psychologists took to sabotaging the question.

"How has the Internet changed the way I think? I can't really say, because I have no direct knowledge of what influences my thinking." says Emily Pronin, Associate Professor of Psychology, Princeton.

"The idea that my own mental processes are impenetrable to me is a tough one to swallow. It's hard to accept that, at a very basic level, I don't know what's going on in my own head. At the same time, the idea has a certain obviousness to it — of course I can't recount the enormous complexity of biochemical processes and neural firing that gives rise to my thoughts. The typical neuron in my brain has 1000s of synaptic connections to other neurons. Sound familiar?
[...]
My thinking may be influenced by unexpected search hits and extraneous words and images that are derived via a process beyond my comprehension and control. So while I have the feeling that it's me driving the machine, perhaps it's more the machine driving me. But wait, hasn't that always been the case? Same process, different machine." Well, that pulled the rug from under all those peddlers of motivational courses.

Back on message, Tor Norretranders (science writer) supplies us with a social web mantra,"The more you give, the more you get. The more you share, the more they care. The more you dare, the more is there for you. Dare, care and share."

But Marc D. Hauser (psychologist and biologist at Harvard) makes the point that for all the connections and social interactions one still can't hold hands in a chatroom. Touching is important in many cultures and Hauser thinks we may be in danger of losing something crucial in human interactions. For all those who like to accumulate online friends perhaps renaming them 'ipals' might give a better perspective on how many of them are true friends.

June Cohen (Director of Media at TED) is less worried about this and sees this mass of communications as the essentially human trait for storytelling - and that one-way mass media was an anomaly. Gone is the campfire and gone is the need to pick fleas off each other but the eternal gossip mill keeps turning.

Coming back to thinking rather than socializing, Michael Shermer's contribution is the kind of thing every blogger and struggling writer wants to hear. The internet saved him from the hard shoulder of academia and gave him the means through which to forge his own intellectual career as the founder of the Skeptics Society and Skeptic magazine.

"Starting with no money, no backers, and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite." Shermer closes with,"This is real power, and I feel that power as never before."

What many have commented upon is that their own skills have moved away from acquiring knowledge, as that has become relatively easy to find, to manipulating knowledge. There is no longer the need to remember facts but rather to find previously unexpected connections between them. There may be a future of smart agents to make such connections but for the moment that's a very human skill.

For real insights or flashes of inspiration it has always been necessary to switch off for a while, relax and let the still somewhat obscure algorithms of our own unconscious do the searching. If thinking is about making connections then the wetware between our ears is our very own intranet. However, those connections haven't changed and the internet hasn't changed them either.

Indeed, a rare bit of insight comes from Daniel Haun (of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology). Humans believe what is repeated to them. This is the primary method of advertsing, be it in the name of consumer choice or political propaganda, repetition works. But most search engine algorithms include a weighting connected to the number of incoming links a particular webpage or website has - this is but codified repetition. The internet won't change the way you think because it is programmed to resemble it.

In contrast, physicist Nigel Goldenfeld feels that the sheer speed of using the internet to collaborate has increased the pace of new insights. "I'm starting to think like the Internet, starting to think like biology. My thinking is better, faster, cheaper and more evolvable because of the Internet. And so is yours. You just don't know it yet."

Many themes, however, seem to crop up with the annoying frequency of a viral retweet.

The internet is great.
The internet is full of stuff.
The internet is full of crap too.
Knowing what's crap and what's useful requires yogic mind training.
The internet has nothing on yogic mind training.
Go read a book, even an ebook.
Long live the internet!

You can read the whole thing at The Edge. Let me finish with the funniest quip I could find.

"Some people say the Internet has made us more efficient. I waste many hours each day being efficient." Emanuel Derman (financial engineer).

How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?
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