Review: How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?

I have found that I am rather at the mercy of my various anxieties. Often I just let myself stew, annoying friends and family with my – often drunken – anxiety-driven rants about how the microwave is going to fry your insides or how key it is to ingest large amounts of Echinacea.

However, there are times when I’m lucky enough to find something that, while not justifying my ramblings, puts them into context and allows me to reassure myself that I am just south of Crazy town and have not yet crossed into the city itself.

Over the last two years it has become increasingly difficult to focus my attention for longer than perhaps 20 minutes. I first noticed this whilst trying to write a simple essay for an obviously basic English course. Suddenly I found myself on a blue and white screen looking at wedding photos belonging to someone I barely knew. I thought I was transcribing a line from Frankenstein. HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?? Firstly, that woman needs better privacy settings and secondly, HOW DID THIS HAPPEN???

That was the beginning of my conviction that Facebook and Google were not only creating a population who referred to themselves in the third person but also that the world will ultimately turn into one giant cat meme starring the Community cast creating a cat meme starring themselves. You follow? Basically anything that purported to tell me about the ‘Net’s Impact on Our Minds and Future’ was like a lifeline thrown to a drowning fish.

“How Is The Internet Changing the Way you Think?” is a compilation of answers, edited by John Brockman, that attempt to address the question posed to the contributors of Edge.org in 2010. In 1997 Brockman decided that he would appropriate his friend James Lee Bryar’s idea of locking one hundred highly intelligent people in a room and asking them to ask each other the questions they were asking themselves. However, Brockman replaced the room with the Internet. Edge.org was born and since then has facilitated many big idea conversations, like thinking about how the Internet is affecting the way we interact with each other, and the world around us.

The people in this book are big thinkers, people who think big monolithic thoughts about miniscule tiny things, they are evolutionary psychologists, neuroscientists, editors, TED Founders, Ai Wei Weis and, with the exception of one 18 year old Harvard PhD candidate, all of them came to the internet either by helping to create it (like Peter Schwartz, who was one of the first users at the Stanford Research Institute in 1973), or as part of their professional life. It is a relief that these people, incredibly smart high achieving people, also find it disconcerting when lost in a maze of hyperlinks.

So – has the Internet changed the way we think? The responses to this question are incredibly broad. Some interpret the question as asking whether the content of our thoughts have changed, others dismiss the whole idea as a lot of alarmist hooey. However, there is a consensus that is surprisingly comforting; ‘Yes. There is something going on. No, we don’t really know what it is but the last time something like this happened nothing was ever the same again.’

In the 15th century, Johannes Guthenberg invented the printing press and it was this revolution in information technology that profoundly changed the way people received and circulated information. Chris Anderson and June Cohen, both up-there people in TED conferences make the argument that; ‘this has all happened before so why are we freaking out?’ They point to the reawakening of the spoken word, performance and true social media as a return to the rituals of the campfire and the oral traditions that preceded the monopoly of information that Anderson hints was not completely broken by Gutenberg’s fancy machine.

Cohen says that the top-down approach of the media of much of the 20th century was simply a blip in the natural order of things. According to her, people talk to each other, they like talking to each other and whether that is through a 140 characters or through a webcam on that Estonian program that Ashton Kutcher bought into really quickly, it doesn’t matter, revolutions will start, cat memes will be made and one day all the brains will be one brain sending one thought booming across the universe.

Now, as rosy as a picture as this paints, and as great as talking actually is, I have a sneaking suspicion that there is perhaps more to it. If two people pass on a piece of incorrect or misleading information, even if they are staring into each other’s eyeballs, this does not change the nature of the information.

The respondents represented in this book did not all grow up with the Internet in their pockets, and, to be fair, neither did I. However: I did start university the same year that the word ‘Facebook’ became a verb and I can definitely see changes in the way I focus and how I spend time thinking about things.

I’m not about to go on an ‘Internet diet’ as some suggest but one of the most interesting points that comes across is the importance of teaching people the essential filtering and critical thinking skills that you need to get anything done these days, especially if you have grown up with the entire world in your pants, just begging to drag your attention away from anything else you might be doing.

It was with slow dawning irony that I realised I paid $32 for a series of short blog entries that I could have accessed online. To my eternal shame but indicative of my current attention span, I still have not finished said blog entries, but my favourite response, so far, is from Linda Stone. Stone talks about moving between the two worlds with resolve, “…choosing one, then the other – surrendering neither.”

This is maybe what a bound copy of blog entries does nicely, it allows you to experience the best of both worlds. Perhaps this is then a way to counteract anxiety, less time with cats and food and food on cats, and more time with things like edge.org, TED talks, and Arts and Letters Daily. Let’s grow the filter rather than clog it up.

“How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think?”, edited by John Brockman, is out now through Harper Perennials.

Wilna Fourie

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