Wednesday, January 13, 2010

How Is The Internet Changing The Way I Think?

As you've probably heard already, The Edge Annual Question 2010 "How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?" is making its round in the blogosphere. So let me add my few ascii characters.

I can't say the internet is changing or has changed the way I think. It has however changed the way I post-process what I think in several ways. This has pros and cons.

Pro: The most obvious change is that I share my thoughts with many more people than before. This has frequently resulted in very interesting feedback, opened my eyes to issues I neglected or points of view I wasn't previously aware of. This is one of the prime reasons I'm writing this blog.

Con: On the flipside, while writing down my thoughts I'll typically do some Google searches and come across previous articles on related topics. This likely affects my own opinion, and I'm not sure this is entirely a good thing. And, needless to say, some of the feedback I got has merely taught me that the world is full with ignorant, hostile, and simply crazy people. Knowledge I could I have lived without.

Pro: Clearly, the internet provides a vast amount of easily accessible resources. 15 years ago reading a journal article required going to the library, erring around in search of the right aisle, not finding the ladder, waiting half an hour till the guy with the ladder is done erring around, then realizing that the very volume you're looking for is missing, etc etc. Nowadays, it's a click on a link (unless your acrobat reader has crashed again). If it would take much more than that I probably wouldn't read articles in any other field than physics, so the internet has certainly broadened my horizon.

Con: On the flipside, this is a hard time for perfectionists. If you're trying to read everything available on a topic, you'll never finish anything. So when I'm writing I'm constantly trying to balance the amount of input with the expected benefit of the output, meaning I have to find the right point to stop reading. This typically will leave me with a bad consciousness. All these people, they had something to say too, and lazy me didn't read it.

Generally, the internet has changed what knowledge I regard relevant, and I suspect this is a quite widespread change. Now that you can fast and easily look up a lot of facts, learning them by heart is totally yesterday. Like, who cares if I can't name all presidents of the USA? What's the capital of Qatar again and when was the transistor invented? The problem is though that if you don't have any factual knowledge you won't even know what to look for. So I just hope that modern school education carefully selects what knowledge is really necessary to pipe into children's brains.

Another clearly noticeable change is the obsession with the present that the internet has brought upon us. A week from now, this post will have wandered down the "recent" list and nobody wil recall what I wrote. Maybe it's my European genes that object on the idea that only the Now really exists, but if we don't honor the past we'll just repeat our mistakes. Why does Google return recent entries first? What is it that makes Americans believe what's newer is necessarily better?

Maggie Jackson in her book "Distracted" warns, backed up by research studies, that this "Now-Culture" severely affects the capability of children (meanwhile teenagers) to sustain attention. We're now seeing the first generation grow up that was born with the Internet. If there's any major impact on human cognitive processes caused by the overflow of information we're faced with and the amount of tasks we have to simultaneously deal with then this development can become an obstacle to progress. Something to have an eye on. There's mistakes you only make once.

The other development that I've been writing about (eg in my post "The spirits that we called") is that naive mishandling of information can be a danger for democracy. This point was recently also made very well by Lawrence Krauss in his SciAm essay "War Is Peace: Can Science Fight Media Disinformation?"

"English novelist George Orwell was remarkably prescient about many things, and one of the most disturbing aspects of his masterpiece 1984 involved the blatant perversion of objective reality, using constant repetition of propaganda by a militaristic government in control of all the media.

Centrally coordinated and fully effective reinvention of reality has not yet come about in the U.S. (even though a White House aide in the past administration came chillingly close when he said to a New York Times reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”). I am concerned, however that something equally pernicious, at least to the free exercise of democracy, has."

So, for now my conclusion is that while I doubt the internet has yet actually changed thought processes, it has certainly affected what we think about. And in the long run, the latter is going to affect the former.

26 comments:

Jérôme CHAUVET said...

Bee: Great post! I mean, totally the subject I want to deal with now... Now, now, now!!!.. You may say it is dangerous for our brain development, more surely for the one of our children, but in fact, there seems to be pros and cons in everything... The difference with the Internet is that certainty cannot settle down too long in your mind because of it... Internet is to me the reign of democracy, because pros and cons are constantly available to you at time. The problem is : it is life in the life. You're no longer in the real world.

Zephir said...

The true is, without internet the effective spreading of ideas like AWT would be impossible - which explains, why dense aether idea of Oliver Lodge was ignored by physicists for century. And I'm pretty sure, without internet it would take even much longer time.

Steven Colyer said...

It doesn't change the way I think at all, but I was born in 1956 so I know of pleasures (and ways to communicate) other than the Internet. The kids today? Shrug, I don't know. Let's see.

What I do know is that it wasn't until 1995 that 51% of American homes were on-line, and by on-line I mean dial-up connection, AOL, IM's and "You've Got Mail." How quaint the old days.

I've been on-line since the late 1980's, and find it a vast, wonderful and wooly metaverse. But it doesn't make me think differently. I love it the way it makes knowledge that much more assessable. And the many good friends I would have never otherwise have met if not for the web. And Lubos.

Anonymous said...

The internet/WWW has the potential to play a major role in science. The 17th century analog was the dispersal of new scientific ideas [like Galileo's] in books written in common languages [not Latin].

It is far easier to put a novel scientific idea into the public domain because of the net/www.

Arxiv.org has changed the way science is communicated.

The only fly in the ointment, and there always is one or two or many, is the "Tower of Babel" issue. There are so many new and mutually exclusive ideas being put on the net/www that it is extremely hard to distinguish the very rare diamonds from the mountain of grubby lumps of coal.

Ulrich

Arun said...

a. Infinite loop: ...if we don't honor the past we'll just repeat our mistakes of not honoring the past :)

b. Without the Internet, we'd probably have a lot less attempts at terrorism. The Internet provides the condensation nuclei for even a small dilute population of extremists - now they can find each other.

Uncle Al said...

Factor in delay for transforming opportunty into action. Computer wordprocessing and spreadsheets were everywhere by the 1990s. It required another decade to transform decorations into *novel* toolboxes.

Processor capability - the four-core Intel i7 975 plus 64-bit Wincrap 7 - has finally arrived. 12 GB of DDR3 RAM and more so nothing sloshes onto the hard drive (flash drive) is a sea change. Our greatest challenge is resisting sacrifice to enable the stooopid while flensing the able for the privilege.

We finally have enough to eat. It is time to discard Brussels sprouts and Wonder Bread in favor of grilled ribeye steak. Haiti and East LA will take care of themselves.

Bee said...

Jérôme: Of course there's pros and cons in everything. But it takes more for democracy to work well than pros and cons being available.

First thing you're neglecting is that we have an extreme overabundance of information. To be of any use, it needs to be filtered and ordered. Is the way this filtering and ordering is done today really optimal for our democracy? I doubt it.

Second thing you're neglecting is that even after filtering and sorting, how people judge on information depends on how it is presented and who it is presented by. How this is done is crucial for intelligent decision making, a point that Surowiecki made very well in his book "The Wisdom of Crowds". Needless to say, the way information is today presented to the electorate is pretty much guaranteeing that intelligent decisions are impossible to make.

Best,

B.

Giotis said...

You can say a lot about this but in a nutshell I could mention that the quality and depth of pure thought have been jeopardized mainly for two reasons.

Firstly due the additional burden of information processing and secondly due to the easy access to existing knowledge i.e. Why I should spend time to think deeply about something when I could easily find the answer in the net.

On the other hand we acquire new capabilities on information processing. The speed at which we absorb and piece together vast amount of information has been increased. New cerebral mechanisms have been developed in that respect. Although this is important its value is questionable if it's not combined with deep thought.

Humans think, processors process. There is a difference.

Bee said...

Forgot to add: In her article How has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?, Linda Stone makes the following statement:

"I am confident that I can find out about nearly anything online"

I find this very scary. It's one of the points I commented on in my post The Illusion of Knowledge. The problem is that it's far from clear that all information in the real world will ever make it onto the internet. The reason is simply that the information that makes it onto the internet is those that people are interested in now for whatever reasons (primarily financial, but also academic etc). Once you start believing this information is "nearly" complete you're cutting off the rest and redefine "reality" If it's not on the internet, does it even exist? I'm only half kidding here. If somebody told you about an unpublished early work of [enter name of dead famous scientist here] would you believe it exists if it isn't mentioned anywhere on the internet?

Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Like Steven in being born in a time which would have me receive my primary education without so much as a calculator present it has me look upon the internet as more of an upgrade in tools rather than offering capabilities that just didn’t exist before. So when it comes to studying things more deeply I still prefer that old dead tree format as you would have it called, although I must say I now wish each included a CD version in the sleeve of the cover so I could use it for quick referencing and ease the ability to quote.

Also because of my age I was one of those personal computer pioneers who accessed the internet seriously even before the world wide web and as such see it from more of an evolutionary perspective rather than being revolutionary. They often compare this medias impact with Gutenberg’s printing press which I find as ridiculous since all it actually means is there are more people who have access to knowledge that who were too lazy before to go to a library and have attention spans still too short to read even your excellent posts on this blog. So I don’t find its changed thing much in that respect except it has a lot of people fooled because they have access to knowledge they might actually know more simply because its available.

Personally for me the things I’ve found useful about this media is it has those who are so interested which I find in general are so few, have them able to meet and discover one another. So my way of looking at this being its greatest worth and value in giving such ability to bring people of common interest and aspirations from all over the world to have them comforted inknowing they are not alone after all. What benefit this will eventually have for the greater world in general I have no idea yet I am thankfull for what it has given to me. To put in Plato’s perspective he said the capacity and the hunger to know existed in the soul since conception and what I’ve found is the internet lends no ability to increase the numbers of such souls, only that gives each one of them a better way to find one another.


Best,

Phil

Neil B said...

Yes, the Internet is changing the way just about everyone thinks. Recent research (http://discovermagazine.com/2009/feb/15-how-google-is-making-us-smarter ,) which I just now found at top by typing 'internet making us smarter' into Google! - says, well it's in the URL. The argument there is not straightforward and takes some interesting detours, but supposedly our brains learn to quickly assimilate and compare different kinds of media and information. I know one thing: getting used to typing comments at blogs has greatly increased my ability to compose rather quickly as I type (but sometimes with messy, typo-crippled or snippy results.)

One big controversy is, how much should we be impressed with a high Google search ranking? I am pleased that searching "quantum measurement paradox" (in quotes) ranks post/s of mine in the top 5-10 lately and sometimes in the past. (REM it is hard to rank high w/o specific personal marking tags entered.) Apparently enough links went to things connected to those posts and other comments etc.

I like to brag to my friends and colleagues (BTW no simple answer to what I know or do), with a wink, that I am one of the Internet Gods of the Universe's deepest puzzle. But would or should anyone consider me an expert thereby? I wouldn't want to say so, and I sure don't think e.g. Steven C. around here does! I surely do make people think, and that is worthwhile. (Give my stuff a try - it does challenge you and maybe gets you wanting to argue. Plus, this time I've got a new, genuine experimental proposal and not just "philosophy" to offer.)

Neil B said...

Oh how embarrassing, an Internet God who didn't use HTML coding (I wanted the title showing, but it was cut off.) Here, again:
How Google is Making Us Smarter

William said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William said...

Hi Bee,

That's funny, no one has pointed out that the link leading off the post is incorrect, since it links to the 2009 question, not the 2010 question.

The correct link for the 2010 question is:
http://edge.org/q2010/q10_index.html


I would use my male intellect to penetrate that 2010 question, but my excessive use of texting and twitter has shortened my XY attention span such that it may take a few days. If ever. (I'm still trying to finish my comment in response to your post on limericks back in 2008. O,o )

I speculate that programs like twitter, which force the human mind to think and express in severely dumbed down fashion, if not in a retarded way, may be evidence that The Borg have reached planet Earth and are using texting, twittter and similar programs to collectivize and numb human minds in preparation of their assimilation into the collective .. the hive mind, as it is known.

The Borg can be seen as a metaphor for the Internet's evolution toward collective intelligence, the hive mentality.

"The Borg could also be representative of technology's ability to create a state of unity in which all individuals work for the good of the whole. Like the Internet today, the technology used by the Borg allows them to share their 'mental abilities in the construction of collective intelligence' (Levy 258) so that all Borg drones will benefit from the community's knowledge".
source

But the Internet's aspect of group intelligence and hive mentality can also be used by darker forces to manipulate public opinion and to fill susceptible minds with propaganda, in order to garner support for wars, suppression of human rights, and other malevolent programs. For example, there is evidence that twitter was used in such a way by some combination of the CIA, Mossad and M16 to subvert Iranian elections and to desensitize the US/Western public to terrorist attacks against Iran, which those agencies supported and sponsored.

While on the subject, for an exciting and scientifically imaginative voyage back into the future: Borg Documentary parts one, two, three

Wishes, William

Bee said...

Hi William,

Thanks, I fixed the link. I'm indeed somewhat yesterday it seems ;-) Best,

B.

Bee said...

William: I agree with you that the internet (or the Web 2.0 in particular) can, as every technology, be put to good as well as to evil use. Last year twitter was celebrated as the medium of democracy in many newspaper articles and essays. But it's not. It's just that so far only few people, in this case the more democratically inclined, have used a technological advantage while others are lagging behind. But this sword can easily turn into the other direction once those losing power recognize their omission. Best,

B.

Jérôme CHAUVET said...

I would like to add here the idea that if there ever is one universal shape of the truth, only one idealistic picture of it, which the whole humanity should be able to see for a better world to emerge, then the Internet is probably the way to achieve this. Through using the Internet, our minds are constantly riddled with all kinds of information in a more or less probabilistic manner... It reminds me of the way one renders the shape of an integral function with the Monte-Carlo algorithm... I mean, if the truth is not smooth but has rather a complicated shape, then such a rapid and frenetic contact with everyday's little pictures of it can educate us about what is right and what is wrong better than old legends. We should trust our innate ability to judge things and events properly when an entire picture is shown to our brain.

Best,

Jérôme CHAUVET said...

First thing you're neglecting is that we have an extreme overabundance of information. To be of any use, it needs to be filtered and ordered. Is the way this filtering and ordering is done today really optimal for our democracy? I doubt it.

Bee: To me, it cannot be harmful to our minds. It seems to me that each single one of us now behaves like an adult regarding the information one is contacting through the use of the Internet. When educating your own children, you must sort and filter information for them, in order to protect them. With respect to the latter, my sense is that adults should not depend on what they are told about reality to teach their children what reality is like. In order to seize at best what reality really is, putting all existing information into the same bucket is possibly the only way to get the largest picture of it; now you can filter it, and leave the best for your children. Our neurons learn to filter in a smart way, because learning is the special ability they are endowed with. About my own perception of the problem, I prefer having my judgement exhausted because of a too much of inputs rather than live the easy life thanks to those who retain information and earn from my ignorance.

Best,

Le Mur said...

Krauss's article amounted to:
- "People who disagree with me on philosophical and/or economic balance issues (like nationalized health) are idiots because I'm so smart that my opinions are as good as facts."
- "As a liberal, I agree with the biases of the MSM and the fairly consistent liberal message delivered by lawyers and journalism majors; the internet provides unapproved information which in contradictory."

Now fabrications about “death panels” and oxymoronic claims that ”government needs to keep its hands off of Medicare” flow freely on the Internet,...

That string returned all of 9 (nine) hits from google with "-Krauss" ... and at least two of those were copies of his article without his name. All nine of those claims are "flowing freely" though, I'm sure. Dangerous stuff.

What makes people so susceptible to nonsense in public discourse?

Mistakenly thinking that if it's in SciAm it's trustworthy?

Bee said...

Le Mur: My mentioning of Krauss' article was not an endorsement of his political opinion. I was just saying he's making the same point I made in earlier writings that the internet doesn't only offer benefits but also threats to the functioning of our democracies. Best,

B.

Anonymous said...

It was very interesting for me to read the article. Thanx for it. I like such themes and everything that is connected to them. I definitely want to read more soon.

JRV said...

One negative impact -- I spend too much time searching when nothing obvious comes up. I've spent hours this week looking for a clear explanation of a certain algorithm.

I finally decided I have to sit down and actually understand the problem in terms of definition - conjecture - theorem -proof. Hope this works. In olden times I wouldn't have had the capability to waste so much time looking for what others did.

(Those times were so olden I wrote my ph.d dissertation with fountain pen and notebook before taking it to a typesetter). Well, I'm going to fill my fountain pen and get out my notebook now.

Bee said...

JRV: Is true. I also sometimes feel like I spend more time searching unsuccessfully (thinking: somebody certainly has this in his lecture notes) than it would have taken me to just do a calculation myself. It helped me to realize there's still lots of things not on the internet (I give up searching and start thinking earlier). Best,

B.

Arun said...

"Shut up and calculate" morphing into "Shut up and search".

I think some sci-fi worlds have this problem, though I can't think of titles off the top of my head.

Zephir said...

/*..In olden times I wouldn't have had the capability to waste so much time looking for what others did..*/

In another words, the internet increased the amount of available information important for you, but it increased the number of irrelevant spam, you're required to ignore first. I presume, the similar quantum uncertainty limits the scope of observable Universe. We could see farther with more powerful detectors - but we cannot, because of this omnipresent annoying CMB noise.

Zephir said...

/*..In olden times I wouldn't have had the capability to waste so much time looking for what others did..*/

In another words, the internet increased the amount of available information important for you, but it increased the number of irrelevant spam, you're required to ignore first. I presume, the similar quantum uncertainty limits the scope of observable Universe. We could see farther with more powerful detectors - but we cannot, because of this omnipresent annoying CMB noise.