John Brockman (ed.)
Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

Prepared by Michael Marien, Director


March 2011 


Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?  The Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future.  Edited by John Brockman (NYC;  NY: Harper Perennial, Jan 2011, 408p, $14.99pb.



The February 2011 issue of the GFB Update newsletter offered a “Special Alert” on a rapidly swelling literature on downsides of the Internet.  Thirteen negative books were identified, including The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (W.W. Norton, June 2010; GFB Book of the Month), Virtually You by Stanford psychiatrist Elias Aboujaoude (W.W. Norton, Feb 2011), Alone Together by MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle (Basic Books, Jan 2011), The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov (Public Affairs, Jan 2011), and The Offensive Internet edited by two U of Chicago law profs, Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum (Harvard U Press, Jan 2011).  The listing also includes two books on the decline of serious news due to the Internet, three books on authoritarian controls over the Internet, a book on the evolution of cybercrime, and another on our vulnerability to cyberwar.

Four other new and recent titles deserve to be added to this list: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto by computer expert Jaron Lanier (Knopf, Jan 2010, 224p, $24.95), who worries about the effect of online collectivism; OVERconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet by high-tech industry veteran William H. Davidow (Delphinium Books, Jan 2011, 240p, $27.95), on negative consequences such as the recent financial meltdown; and The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry) by U of Virginia media studies prof Siva Vaidhyanathan (U of California Press, March 2011, 265p, $26.95), who argues that we should not trust Google to do everything.  Somewhat similar is The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser of MoveOn (Penguin, May 2011).  Joining this gathering black cloud is a recent Newsweek Cover Story, “Brain Freeze: How the Deluge of Information Paralyzes Our Ability to Make Good Decisions” by Sharon Begley (7 March 2011, 28-33), concerned about “Twitterization” of our culture, “information fatigue,” and the ways that “infoglut can impair the unconscious system of decision making.”


Enter Brockman

Adding to this mélange is a curious but very useful volume assembled by John Brockman, a widely-known literary agent and editor, flashy promoter of “the third culture” that purportedly bridges C.P. Snow’s two cultures, and creator of the Reality Club in 1981 (rebranded in 1997 as Edge), which seeks to identify frontiers in the sciences by engaging “the most complex and sophisticated minds.”  Edge poses a question every year, and this book’s title was the question for 2010.  The result is 150 responses, largely from one to three pages in length.  Remarkably, there is no analysis, no index, no categories or sub-categories to organize the response, and no apparent order to the responses, such as alphabetizing by author. 

Nevertheless, there is much of interest here.  Selected ideas from 30 respondents (20% of the total) are abstracted below in the order in which they appear, with a (+) or (-) at the end to indicate whether the writer is generally positive or negative about the Internet, or (+)(-) for mixed or ambiguous response. 

- Nicholas Carr (author, The Shallows): a book focuses our attention and isolates us from myriad distractions; a networked computer scatters our attention; “my own reading and thinking habits have shifted dramatically…I have experienced a steady decay in my ability to sustain attention… (overall) what we stand to lose will be at least as great as what we stand to gain.”   (-)

- Clay Shirky (NYU Grad School of Telecoms): we can already see characteristic advantages (dramatically improved access to information, large-scale collaborations) and disadvantages (interruption-driven thought, endless distractions); “surplus is always more dangerous than scarcity…(because) previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out”; it is too soon to tell about changes in thinking: “the deep changes will be manifested only when new cultural norms shape what the technology makes possible.”  (+)(-)

- Richard Dawkins (Oxford U evolutionary biologist): “the main downside of the Internet is that surfing can be addictive and a prodigious time waster, encouraging a habit of butterflying from topic to topic”; perhaps more positive is “the unplanned worldwide unification that the Web is achieving…(that) mirrors the evolution of the nervous system in multicellular animals”; we can hope that the faster, more ubiquitous, and above all cheaper Internet of the future “may hasten the long-awaited downfall of ayatollahs, mullahs, popes, televangelists, and all who wield power through control of gullible minds.”  (+)(-)

- Frank Wilczek (MIT physicist): “by orchestrating the power of billions of tomorrow’s chips, linked through the Internet or its successors, we should be able to construct virtual laboratories of unprecedented flexibility and power.”  (+)

- Kevin Kelly (editor-at-large, Wired): “my knowledge is now more fragile: for every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is, within easy reach, someone who challenges the fact.  Every fact has its antifact…my certainty about anything has decreased…the embrace of uncertainty is one way my thinking has changed”; my thinking has become more liquid and less fixed, my opinions shift more, my interests rise and fall more quickly, I am less interested in Truth and more interested in truths… “I happily swim in this rising ocean of fragments.”  (+)

- Chris Anderson (curator, TED Conferences): “the Web has allowed the reinvention of the spoken word; thanks to an enormous expansion of low-cost bandwidth, the cost of online video distribution has fallen almost to zero.  As a result, recorded talks and lectures are spreading across the Web like wildfire…tapping into something primal and powerful.”  Also, “an underreported effect of the increase in our time online is a growing craving for live experience; you can see it in the music industry, where all the revenue is moving away from album sales toward live performances.”  (+)

- Leo Chalupa (neurobiologist, U of California-Davis): “The Internet is the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of television.  It can devour time in all sorts of frivolous ways, from chat rooms to video games…moreover, the Internet has made interpersonal communication much more circumscribed.”   (-)

- Paul Kedrosky (senior fellow, Kauffman Foundation): I worry that my info-krill-addled brain is no longer capable of big, deep thoughts (BDTs), due to the combination of cheap connections and cheap collisions that reorder thinking; the result is new particles/ideas, some of which are BDTs and many of which are nonsense; the democratization of connections and collisions is unprecedented: we now have “the information equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider for ideas.  And if that doesn’t change the way you think, nothing will.” (+)(-)

- Eric Drexler (nanotechnologist; author, Engines of Creation): “as the Web becomes more comprehensive and searchable, it helps us see what’s missing in the world; the emergence of more effective ways to detect the absence of a piece of knowledge is a subtle and slowly emerging contribution of the Web, yet important to the growth of human knowledge.” (+)

- Martin Rees (prof of astrophysics, U of Cambridge; president Royal Society): “the Internet enables far wider participation in front-line science; it levels the playing field between researchers in major centers and those in relative isolation…more fundamentally, it changes how research is done, what might be discovered, and how students learn, and it allows new styles of research”  (+)

- William Calvin (neurophysiologist, U of Washington): the Internet affords us more variants and search engine speed provides them faster; by expanding quick access to knowledge and ideas, “you can stand on the shoulders of a lot more giants at the same time.”  (+)

- Mark Pagel (prof of evolutionary biology, U of Reading): the Internet is not changing the way anyone thinks because our thinking circuits are hardwired into the brain from millions of years of natural selection, but it “does take advantage of our appetites, and this changes our thoughts, if not the way we think”; the Internet is brain candy to most of us, and also acts on our appetites and distorts our assessment of risks.  (+)(-)

- Robert Shapiro (prof emeritus of chemistry, NYU): the Internet makes it far easier to access the scientific literature, but “has also increased the chances that we will lose part of all of that literature…material stored only on the Internet is far more vulnerable to destruction than the same material in multiple paper copies… (thus) I no longer write with the expectation of immortality in print.”  (+)(-)

- Frank J. Tipler (prof of physics, Tulane U): the Internet causes scientific knowledge to become obsolete faster…print journals were forever and could always be read by later generations, but I can no longer read my own articles stored on the floppy disks of the 1980s because of changed technology…will information stored on the Internet be lost or unreadable to later generations? (-)

- Lee Smolin (physicist, Perimeter Institute): the Internet synchronizes the thinking of global scientific communities and delocalizes communities; it also flattens and broadens communities of thought by putting everyone on the same footing; it hasn’t changed how we think so far, but “it has radically altered the contexts in which we think and work.” (+)(-)

- Nassim N. Taleb (NYU; author, The Black Swan): the problem of information is that “we end up thinking more than we do, which, in economic life, causes foolish risk taking…I am now on an Internet diet, in order to understand the world a bit better…technologies are the greatest things in the world, but they have far too monstrous side effects—and ones rarely seen ahead of time.”  (-)

- Brian Eno (artist and composer): I notice that I correspond with more people but at less depth, that it is possible to engage in complex social projects without meeting your collaborators, that the ideas of “community” and “expert” have changed, that I have become a slave to connectedness, and that “hardly any of us have thought about the chaos that would ensue if the Net collapsed.”  (+)(-)

- Howard Rheingold (author, Smart Mobs): “digital media and networks can empower only the people who learn how to use them—and pose dangers to those who don’t know what they are doing…”; crap detection is an essential literacy; “the health of the online commons will depend on whether more than a tiny minority of Net users become literate Netizens.”  (-)

- Scott Atran (anthropologist, National Center for Scientific Research, Paris): we’re living on the cusp of perhaps the third great tipping point in human history…many are made giddy by globalization and believe that a connected world inexorably shrinks differences and divisions, but “an awful lot of people on this planet respond to global connectivity very differently than does the power elite…economic globalization has steamrolled or left aside large chunks of humankind.”  (-)

- Helen Fisher (anthropologist, Rutgers U): “I don’t think any harder, faster, longer, or more effectively than I did before I bought my first computer in 1985; in fact, the rise of the Internet only reminds me of how little any of us has changed”; we still have the same brain our forebears had, but now, with the Internet we have a much louder megaphone with which to scream who we really are.”  (+)(-)

- Aubrey de Grey (gerontologist, SENS Foundation): I like e-mail a lot because it lets you think before you speak, but “the object of my distaste is the greatest curse of the 21st century, the cell phone”; as it becomes increasingly ubiquitous, I’m under growing pressure to conform, although so far I have resisted.  (-)

- Douglas Rushkoff (author, Life, Inc.):  “the Internet pushes us all toward the immediate…it puts me in the present tense…the nowness of the Internet engenders impulsive, unthinking responses…I am increasingly in a distracted present, where forces on the periphery are magnified…the Internet tells me I am thinking in real time, when what it really does, increasingly, is take away the real and take away the time.”  (-)

- Alun Anderson (former editor-in-chief, New Scientist): the Internet is awash in sex—the greatest sex education machine and pornographer ever; “the flood of utterly uncensored images of sexual pleasure that reaches every corner of the world is certainly shaking the thinking of young men and women in conservative societies.”   (+)(-)

- Evgeny Morosov (author, The New Delusion): what I find particularly worrisome is the rapid and inexorable disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence from our digital lives…the social beast that has taken over our lives has to be constantly fed with the most trivial of ephemera…this hunger for the present is deeply embedded in the very architecture and business models of social networking sites; “one of my greatest fears is that the Internet will widen the gap between the disengaged masses and the overengaged elites…today we are facing the emergence of the cyber lumpen proletariat—people who are being sucked into the digital whirlwind of gossip sites, trashy video games, populist and xenophobic blogs, and endless poking on social networking sites.”  (-)

- Peter Schwartz (futurist; cofounder, Global Business Network): the Internet has become a vast extension of our potential selves… “nearly all useful knowledge is now accessible instantaneously from much of the world; our effective personal memories are now vastly larger—essentially infinite”; the Internet has led to a deep sense of collaboration and awareness; my thought processes are not bound by my brain, locality, or time.”   (+)

- Thomas A. Bass (prof of English, SUNY-Albany): time is speeding up, space is contracting, sentences are getting shorter, thoughts are swifter—dare we say shallower?

- Marshall McLuhan got it right 50 years ago when he announced that “Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information.”  (-)

- Howard Gardner (psychologist, Harvard U): “the lives and minds of young people are far more fragmented than at earlier times.  This multiplicity of connections, networks, avatars, messages, may not bother them but certainly makes for identities that are more fluid and less stable.  Times for reflection, introspection, solitude, are scarce.  Long-standing views of privacy and ownership/authorship are being rapidly undermined.”  (-)

- Jaron Lanier (author, You Are Not a Gadget): up to 2000, the Internet influenced my thinking positively in a multitude of ways; “in the last decade, the Internet has taken on unpleasant qualities and has become gripped by reality-denying ideology.”  (-)

- Max Tegmark (physicist, MIT): as the master of distraction, the Internet “seems to be further reducing our collective attention span from the depths to which television brought it; important issues fade from focus fast, and while many of humanity’s challenges get more complicated, society’s ability to pay attention to complex arguments dwindles; sound bits and attack ads work well when the world has attention deficit disorder”; nevertheless, the ubiquity of information is clearly having a positive effect—“love it or hate it, free information will transform the world.”  (+)(-)

- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (psychologist, Claremont Graduate U): “I am not even sure we have good evidence that the way humans think has been changed by the advent of the printing press”; however, development of cooperative sites makes the thought process more public and interactive, “something similar to what Teilhard de Chardin anticipated over half a century ago as the noosphere, a global consciousness he saw as the next step in human evolution.” (+) 


Clearly a grand buffet of ideas addressing a very important question.   But the rich offering is nevertheless unbalanced, heavy on the hard sciences and the arts (C.P. Snow’s “two cultures,” strictly defined).  By rough estimate, authors of the 150 essays include 25 psychologists, 13 physicists, 12 neuroscientists, 10 artists, 8 computer/media experts, 7 journalists, 5 philosophers, 5 biologists, and 3 anthropologists.  Only 10-15% of essays are by women, and all or nearly all are from North America and Europe.  Conspicuously absent are any political scientists, economists, sociologists such as Sherry Turkle and Manuel Castells, criminologists worried about cybercrime, military/security analysts worried about cyberwar and cyberterror, professionals in law and education, ecologists, or climatologists.  A much more extensive, interactive, and ongoing assessment of Internet impacts is needed.  It’s a huge project, but the Internet is a huge force for good and bad, deserving a far greater effort to enhance our understanding.  The Edge question for 2010, quite imperfectly addressed here, should be seen as a provocative start. 

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