How is the internet changing the way you think?

Every year John Brockman poses a provocative question to the members of his Edge community, which includes me (he is my literary agent). Past questions have included “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” and “What have you changed your mind about?”. This year’s question is: “How is the internet changing the way you think?”. There were 172 answers from “an array of world-class scientists, artists, and creative thinkers”. Here’s mine.

The internet has not changed the way I think. The old stone-age mental software still seems to be working surprisingly well in the 21st century, despite claims to the contrary. What the internet has done, however, is sharpen my memory.

A quick search with a few well chosen keywords is usually enough to turn a decaying memory of a half-forgotten article, scientific paper or news item into perfect recall of the information in question. Previously, these things at the penumbra of recollection could only be recovered with a great deal of effort or luck. The internet has, in effect, upgraded my memory of such marginal items from haphazard and partial to reliable and total.

This means I can swim freely through the internet’s vast oceans of information, safe in the knowledge that any connections between items that subsequently occur to me can still be made. (My own work as a journalist and author is based on making connections in this way, but the same is true for many other information workers, a category that encompasses a growing fraction of the workforce.)

This is useful now, but I expect it to become much more useful as I get older and my memory starts to become less reliable — moving more of the information that passes through my mind into that penumbral region. Indeed, I am reminded of the impact that eyeglasses had after their development in the late 13th century (though my recollection of the details was sketchy until I, ahem, asked the internet). As Giordano of Pisa noted in 1306, “It is not twenty years since there was discovered the art of making spectacles that help one see well, an art that is one of the best and most necessary in the world.”

Eyeglasses doubled the useful working life of scribes and skilled craftsmen who were otherwise liable to suffer from farsightedness (presbyopia) from the age of around 40. The historian David Landes has suggested that this use of technology to overcome what had previously been regarded as an unavoidable human limitation then spurred further innovations of a similar nature, such as the development of fine optical instruments and precision machine tools. Perhaps the same will be true of the way the internet enhances our mental faculties in the years to come.

Of course, this question is really a response to Nick Carr‘s essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. He has since expanded this into a book, “The Shallows”, which is now sitting on my desk, asking to be reviewed. I’m going to have to read it.

1 comment
  1. An Xiao said:

    I was thinking something along the same lines. I have very few tip-of-the-tongue moments anymore, because it’s easy enough to look up the information I’m partially remembering. And with each round of Googling/Binging/Wiki’ing/etc., the information becomes further reinforced in my memory.

    I have to think that the Internet is allowing for more and more “Renaissance people,” i.e., people with a passion and knowledge for many broad topics. I have no future plans to study epigenetics or Latin graffiti in any deep way, for instance, but the Internet has made it possible for me to have a basic understanding of our current knowledge and to keep it in my memory for much longer than I might have before.

    I need to put The Shallows on my reading list. I can definitely see Carr’s point of view, too–there’s something to be said for more traditional practices of research and sustained reflection. I’m looking forward to your review.

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