Publisher & Editor, Edge; Author, By The Late John Brockman, The Third Culture
THE COLLECTIVE CONSCIOUS
"Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." John Brockman speaking —
partly kidding, but conveying the notion that Intermedia Kinetic
Environments are In in the places where the action is — an Experience,
an Event, an Environment, a humming electric world.
— The New York Times
On a Sunday in September 1966, I was sitting on a park bench reading
about myself on the front page of the New York Times Arts & Leisure
section. I was wondering whether the article would get me fired from
my job at the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where I was
producing "expanded cinema" and "intermedia" events. I was twenty-five
New and exciting ideas and forms of expression were in the air. They
came out of happenings, the dance world, underground movies,
avant-garde theater. They came from artists engaged in experiment.
Intermedia consisted more often than not of unscripted, sometimes
spontaneous theatrical events in which the audience was also a
participant. I was lucky enough to have some small part in this
upheaval, having been hired a year earlier by the underground
filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas to manage the Filmmakers'
Cinémathèque and organize and run the Expanded Cinema Festival.
During that wildly interesting period, many of the leading artists
were reading science and bringing scientific ideas to their work. John
Cage gave me a copy of Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics; Bob Rauschenberg
turned me on to James Jeans' The Mysterious Universe. Claes Oldenburg
suggested I read George Gamow's 1,2,3...Infinity. USCO, a group of
artists, engineers, and poets who created intermedia environments; La
Monte Young's Theatre of Eternal Music; Andy Warhol's Factory; Nam
June Paik's video performances; Terry Riley's minimalist music — these
were master classes in the radical epistemology of a set of ideas
involving feedback and information.
Another stroke of good luck was my inclusion in a small group of young
artists invited by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to attend a series of
dinners with John Cage — an ongoing seminar about media,
communications, art, music, and philosophy that focused on the ideas
of Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, and Marshall McLuhan. Cage was
aware of research conducted in the late 1930s and 1940s by Wiener,
Shannon, Vannevar Bush, Warren McCulloch, and John von Neumann, who
were all present at the creation of cybernetic theory. And he had
picked up on McLuhan's idea that by inventing electric technology we
had externalized our central nervous systems — that is, our minds —
and that we now had to presume that "There's only one mind, the one we
all share." We had to go beyond personal mind-sets: "Mind" had become
socialized. "We can't change our minds without changing the world,"
Cage said. Mind as a man-made extension had become our environment,
which he characterized as a "collective consciousness" that we could
tap into by creating "a global utilities network."
Back then, of course, the Internet didn't exist, but the idea was
alive. In 1962, J.C.R Licklider, who had published "Man-Computer
Symbiosis" in 1960 and described the idea of an "Intergalactic
Computer Network" in 1961, was hired as the first director of the new
Information Processing Techniques Office (IPTO) at the Pentagon's
Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency created as a response to
Sputnik. Licklider designed the foundation for a global computer
network. He and his successors at IPTO, including Robert Taylor and
Larry Roberts, provided the ideas that led to the development of the
ARPAnet, the forerunner of the Internet, which itself emerged as an
ARPA-funded research project in the mid-1980s.
Inspired also by architect-designer Buckminster Fuller, futurist John
McHale, and cultural anthropologists Edward T. ("Ned") Hall and Edmund
Carpenter, I began to read avidly in the field of information theory,
cybernetics, and systems theory. McLuhan himself introduced me to The
Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver, which
began: "The word communication will be used here in a very broad sense
to include all of the procedures by which one mind may affect another.
This, of course, involves not only written and oral speech, but also
music, the pictorial arts, the theater, the ballet, and in fact all
Inherent in these ideas is a radical new epistemology. It tears apart
the fabric of our habitual thinking. Subject and object fuse. The
individual self decreates. I wrote a synthesis of these ideas in my
first book, By the Late John Brockman (1969), taking information
theory — the mathematical theory of communications — as a model for
regarding all human experience. I began to develop a theme that has
informed my endeavors ever since: New technologies beget new
perceptions. Reality is a man-made process. Our images of our world
and of ourselves are, in part, models resulting from our perceptions
of the technologies we generate.
We create tools and then we mold ourselves in their image.
Seventeenth-century clockworks inspired mechanistic metaphors ("The
heart is a pump"), just as the self-regulating engineering devices of
the mid-twentieth century inspired the cybernetic image ("The brain is
a computer"). The anthropologist Gregory Bateson has characterized the
post-Newtonian worldview as one of pattern, of order, of resonances in
which the individual mind is a subsystem of a larger order. Mind is
intrinsic to the messages carried by the pathways within the larger
system and intrinsic also in the pathways themselves.
Ned Hall once pointed out to me that the most critical inventions are
not those that resemble inventions but those that appear innate and
natural. Once you become aware of this kind of invention, it is as
though you had always known about it. ("The medium is the message." Of
course, I always knew that).
Hall's candidate for the most important invention was not the capture
of fire, the printing press, the discovery of electricity, or the
discovery of the structure of DNA. The most important invention was
... talking. To illustrate the point, he told a story about a group of
prehistoric cavemen having a conversation.
"Guess what?" the first man said. "We're talking." Silence. The others
looked at him with suspicion.
"What's 'talking'?" a second man asked.
"It's what we're all doing, right now. We're talking!"
"You're crazy," the third man said. "I never heard of such a thing!"
"I'm not crazy," the first man said. "You're crazy. We're talking."
Talking, undoubtedly, was considered innate and natural until the
first man rendered it visible by exclaiming, "We're talking."
A new invention has emerged, a code for the collective conscious,
which requires a new way of thinking. The collective externalized mind
is the mind we all share. The Internet is the infinite oscillation of
our collective conscious interacting with itself. It's not about
computers. It's not about what it means to be human — in fact it
challenges, renders trite, our cherished assumptions on that score.
It's about thinking. "We're talking."
W. DANIEL HILLIS
Physicist, Computer Scientist; Chairman, Applied Minds, Inc.; Author,
The Pattern on the Stone
THE DAWN OF THE ENTANGLEMENT
It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people,
are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. No
one has expressed this misunderstanding more clearly than Tom Wolfe in
I hate to be the one who brings this news to the tribe, to the magic
Digikingdom, but the simple truth is that the Web, the Internet, does
one thing. It speeds up the retrieval and dissemination of
information, partially eliminating such chores as going outdoors to
the mailbox or the adult bookstore, or having to pick up the phone to
get hold of your stock broker or some buddies to shoot the breeze
with. That one thing the Internet does and only that. The rest is
This confusion between the network and the services that it first
enabled is a natural mistake. Most early customers of electricity
believed that they were buying electric lighting. That first
application was so compelling that it blinded them to the bigger
picture of what was possible. A few dreamers speculated that
electricity would change the world, but one can imagine a
nineteenth-century curmudgeon attempting to dampen their enthusiasm:
"Electricity is a convenient means to light a room. That one thing the
electricity does and only that. The rest is Electrobabble."
The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and
dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe's trivialization,
is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web.
I would like to discuss some of the less apparent ways that it will
change us. By the Internet, I mean the global network of
interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I
would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human
communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet
that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.
Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet
when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely
to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the
telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some
travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for
example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an
Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just
another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on
trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how
the Internet is changing the way we think.
I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical
ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to
keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone
conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the
Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or
a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother
asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.
Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made
by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and
these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing
the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by
allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has
changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual
humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and
To understand how the Internet encourages this interweaving of complex
systems, you need to appreciate how it has changed the nature of
computer programming. Back in the twentieth century, a programmer had
the opportunity to exercise absolute control within a bounded world
with precisely defined rules. They were able to tell their computers
exactly what to do. Today, programming usually involves linking
together complex systems developed by others, without understanding
exactly how they work. In fact, depending upon the methods of other
systems is considered poor programming practice, because it is
expected that they will change.
Consider as a simple example, a program that needs to know the time of
day. In the unconnected world, computers often asked the operator to
type in the time when they were powered on. They then kept track of
passing time by counting ticks of an internal clock. Programmers often
had to write their own program to do this, but in any case, they
understood exactly how it worked. Once computers became connected
through the Internet, it made more sense for computers to find out the
time by asking one another, so something called Network Time Protocol
was invented. Most programmers are aware that it exists but few
understand it in detail. Instead, they call a library routine, which
asks the operating system, which automatically invokes the Network
Time Protocol when it is required.
It would take a long time to explain Network Time Protocol, how it
corrects for variable network delays and how it takes advantage of a
partially-layered hierarchy of network-connected clocks to find the
time. Suffice it to say that it is complicated. Besides, I would be
describing version 3 of the protocol, and your operating system is
probably already using version 4. It really does not make sense for
you, even if you are a programmer, to bother to understand how it
Now consider a program that is directing delivery trucks to restock
stores. It needs to know not just the time of day, but also the
locations of the trucks in the fleet, the maps of the streets, the
coordinates of its warehouses, the current traffic patterns, and the
inventories of its stores. Fortunately it can keep track of all of
this changing information by connecting to other computers through the
Internet. It can also offer services to other systems that need to
track the location of packages, pay drivers, and schedule maintenance
of the trucks. All of these systems will depend upon one another to
provide information, without depending on exactly how the information
is computed. All of these communicating systems are being constantly
improved and extended, evolving in time.
Now multiply this picture by a million fold, to include not just the
one fleet of trucks, but all the airplanes, gas pipelines, hospitals,
factories, oil refineries, mines and power plants not to mention the
salesmen, advertisers, media distributors, insurance companies,
regulators, financiers and stock traders. You will begin to perceive
the entangled system that makes so many of our day-to-day decisions.
Although we created it, we did not exactly design it. It evolved. Our
relationship to it is similar to our relationship to our biological
ecosystem. We are co-dependent, and not entirely in control.
We have embodied our rationality within our machines and delegated to
them many of our choices, and in this process we have created a world
that is beyond our own understanding. Our century began on a note of
uncertainty, as we worried how our machines would handle the
transition to the new millennium. Now we are attending to a financial
crisis caused by the banking system miscomputing risks, and a debate
on global warming in which experts argue not so much about the data,
but about what the computers predict from the data. We have linked our
destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our
technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our
own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and
machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global
Business Network; Author, Whole Earth Discipline
I couldn't function without them, and I suspect the same is true for
nearly all effective people. By "them" I mean my closest intellectual
collaborators. They are the major players in my social extended mind.
How I think is shaped to a large degree by how they think.
Our association is looser than a team but closer than a cohort, and
it's not a club or a workgroup or an elite. I'll call it a guild.
Everyone in my guild runs their own operation, and none of us report
to each other. All we do is keep close track of what each other is
thinking and doing. Often we collaborate directly, but most of the
time we don't. Everyone in my guild has their own guild---each of
theirs largely different from mine. I'm probably not considered a
member of some of them.
(My guild these years consists of Danny Hillis, Brian Eno, Peter
Schwartz, Kevin Kelly, John Brockman, Alexander Rose, and Ryan Phelan.
Occasionally we intersect institutionally via The Long Now Foundation,
Global Business Network, or Edge.org.)
One's guild is a conversation extending over years and decades. I
hearken to my gang because we have overlapping interests, and they
keep surprising me. Familiar as I am with them, I can't finish their
sentences. Their constant creativity feeds my creativity, and I try to
do the same for them. Often the way I ponder something is to channel
my guild members: "Would Danny consider this a waste of time?" "How
would Brian find something exciting here?" "Is this idea something
Kevin or Brockman might run with, and where would they run with it?"
I seldom see my guild members in person (except the one I'm married
to). We seldom talk on the phone. Yet we interact weekly through the
crude old Internet tools of email and links. (That no doubt reflects
our age---younger guilds presumably use Facebook or Twitter or
whatever's next in that lineage.)
Thanks to my guild's Internet-mediated conversation, my neuronal
thinking is enhanced immeasurably by our digital thinking.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST
Curator, Serpentine Gallery, London; Editor: A Brief History of
Curating; Formulas for Now
EDGE A TO Z (PARS PRO TOTO)
A is for And And
The Internet made me think more BOTH AND instead of EITHER OR instead
of NOR NOR.
B is for Beginnings
In terms of my curatorial thinking, my 'Eureka moments' occurred
pre-Internet, when I met visionary Swiss artists Fischli/Weiss in
1985. These conversations freed me up — freed my thoughts as to what
curating could be and how curating can produce reality. The arrival of
the Internet was a trigger for me to think more in the form of
Oulipian lists — practical-poetical, evolutive and often nonlinear,
lists. This A to Z is an incomplete list ….Umberto Eco calls the World
Wide Web the 'mother of all lists': infinite by definition and in
C is for Curating the World
The Internet made me think towards a more expanded notion of curating.
Stemming from the Latin word 'curare', the word 'curating' originally
meant 'to take care of objects in museums'. Curation has long since
evolved. Just as art is no longer limited to traditional genres,
curating is no longer confined to the gallery or museum but has
expanded across all boundaries. The rather obscure and very
specialized notion of curating has become much more publicly used
since one talks about curating of Websites and and this marks a very
good moment to rediscover the pioneering history of art curating as a
toolbox for 21st century society at large.
D is for Delinking
In the years before being online, I remember that there were many
interruptions by phone and fax day and night. The reality of being
permanently linked to the triggered my increasing awareness of the
importance of moments of concentration — moments without interruption
that require me to be completely unreachable. I no longer answer the
phone at home and I only answer my mobile phone in the case of fixed
telephone appointments. To link is beautiful. To delink is sublime.
D is for Disrupted narrative continuity
Forms of film montage , as the disruption of narrative and the
disruption of spatial and temporal continuity, have been a staple
tactic of the avant-garde from Cubism and Eisenstein, through Brecht
to Kluge or Godard. For avant-gardism as a whole, it was essential
that these tactics were recognized (experienced) as a disruption. The
Internet has made disruption and montage the operative bases of
everyday experience. Today, these forms of disruption can be harnessed
and poeticized. They can foster new connections, new relationships,
new productions of reality: reality as life-montage / life as
reality-disruption? Not one story but many stories………
D is for Doubt
A certain unreliability of technical and material information on the
Internet brings us to the notion of doubt. I feel that doubt has
become more pervasive. The artist Carsten Höller has invented the
Laboratory of Doubt, which is opposed to mere representation. As he
has told me, 'Doubt and perplexity ... are unsightly states of mind
we'd rather keep under lock and key because we associate them with
uneasiness, with a failure of values'. Höller's credo is not to do;
not to intervene. To exist is to do and not to do is a way of doing.
'Doubt is alive; it paralyzes certainty.' (Carsten Höller)
E is for Evolutive exhibitions
The Internet makes me think more about non-final exhibitions and
exhibitions in a state of becoming. When conceiving exhibitions, I
sometimes like to think of randomized algorithms, access,
transmission, mutation, infiltration and circulation (the list goes
on). The Internet makes me think less of exhibitions as top down
masterplans but bottom up processes of self organisation like do it or
Cities on the Move
F is for Forgetting
The ever growing ever pervasive records that the Internet produces
make me think sometimes about the virtues of forgetting. Is a limited
life space of certain information and data becoming more urgent?
H is for Handwriting (and Drawing ever Drawing)
The Internet has made me aware of the importance of handwriting and
drawing. Personally, I typed all my early texts, but the more the
Internet has become all-encompassing , the more I have felt that
something went missing. Hence the idea to reintroduce handwriting.I do
more and more of my correspondence as handwritten letters scanned and
sent by email. On a professional note, I observe, as a curator, the
importance of drawing in current art production. One can also see it
in art schools: a moment when drawing is an incredibly fertile zone.
I is for Identity
"Identity is shifty, identity is a choice". (Etel Adnan)
I is for Inactual considerations
The future is always built out of fragments of the past. The Internet
has brought thinking more into the present tense, raising questions of
what it means to be contemporary.
Recently, Giorgio Agamben revisited Nietzsche's 'Inactual
Considerations', arguing that the one who belongs to his or her own
time is the one who does not coincide perfectly with it. It is because
of this shift, this anachronism, that he or she is more apt than
others to perceive and to catch his or her time. Agamben follows this
observation with his second definition of contemporaneity: the
contemporary is the one who is able to perceive obscurity, who is not
blinded by the lights of his or her time or century.
This leads us, interestingly enough, to the importance of astrophysics
in explaining the relevance of obscurity for contemporaneity. The
seeming obscurity in the sky is the light that travels to us at full
speed but which can't reach us because the galaxies from which it
originates are ceaselessly moving away from us at a speed superior to
that of light. The Internet and a certain resistance to its present
tense have made me increasingly aware that there is an urgent call to
be contemporary. To be contemporary means to perpetually come back to
a present where we have never yet been. To be contemporary means to
resist the homogenization of time, through ruptures and
M is for Maps
The Internet increased the presence of maps in my thinking. It's
become easier to make maps, to change them, and also to work on them
collaboratively and collectively and share them (e.g. Google Maps and
Google Earth). After the focus on social networks of the last couple
of years, I have come to see the focus on location as a key dimension.
N is for New geographies
The Internet has fuelled (and been fuelled by) a relentless economic
and cultural globalization, with all its positive and negative
aspects. On the one hand, there is the danger of homogenizing forces,
which is also at stake in the world of the arts. On the other hand,
there are unprecedented possibilities for difference enhancing global
dialogues. In the long duration there have been seismic shifts, like
that in the 16th century when the paradigm shifted from the
Mediterranean to the Atlantic. We are living through a period in which
the center of gravity is transferring to new centres. . The early 21st
century is seeing the growth of a polyphony of art centers in the East
and West in the North and South.
N is for Non-mediated experiences N is for the New Live
I feel an increased desire for non-mediated experiences Depending on
one's point of view, the virtual may be a new and liberating
prosthesis of the body or it may threaten the body. Many visual
artists today negotiate and mediate between these two staging
encounters of non mediated intersubjectivity. In the music fields the
crisis of the record industry goes hand in hand with an increased
importance of live concerts.
P is for Parallel realities
The Internet creates and fosters new constituencies; new
micro-communities. As a system that infinitely breeds new realities,
it is predisposed to reproduce itself in a proliferating series of
ever more functionally differentiated subsystems. As such, it makes my
thinking go towards the production of parallel realities, bearing
witness to the multiverse, as the physicist David Deutsch might say
and for better or worse, the Internet allows that which is already
latent in the fabric of reality to unravel itself and expand in all
P is for Protest against forgetting
Over the last years I feel an increasing urgency to more and more
interviews, to make an effort to preserve traces of intelligence from
the last decades. One particularly urgent part of this are the
testimonies of the 20th century pioneers who are in their 80s or 90s
or older and whom I regularly interview, testimonies of a century from
those who are not online and who very often fall into oblivion. This
protest might, as Rem Koolhaas has told me, act as 'a hedge against
the systematic forgetting that hides at the core of the information
age and which may in fact be its secret agenda'?
S is for Salon of the 21st century
The Internet has made me think more about whom I would like to
introduce to whom; to cyberintroduce people as a daily practice or to
introduce people in person through actual salons for the 21st century
(see the Brutally Early Club).
Last but not least a the response of David Weiss who answers this
years Edge question with a new question asking if our thinking can
influence the Internet.
Social & Technology Network Topology Researcher; Adjunct Professor,
NYU Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP);
Author, Here Comes Everybody
THE SHOCK OF INCLUSION
The Internet has been in majority use in the developed world for less
than a decade, but we can already see some characteristic advantages
(dramatically improved access to information, very large scale
collaborations) and disadvantages (interrupt-driven thought, endless
distractions.) It's tempting to try to adjudicate the relative value
of the network on the way we think by deciding whether access to
Wikipedia outweighs access to tentacle porn or the other way around.
Unfortunately for us, though, the intellectual fate of our historical
generation is unlikely to matter much in the long haul. It is our
misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive
capability in the history of the human race, a misfortune because
surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means
valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to
integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable
things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.
To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the
written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to
read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent
century had the curious property of making literacy both more
essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same
time as the scribes lost their jobs.
The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the
mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a
printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable
importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things
public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in
the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global
publishers of video. The mere fact of being able to publish to a
global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely
available that you can't make any money with the basic capability any
This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to
participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this
year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when
anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that
happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing
models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the
beginning of another Dark Ages.
So it falls to us to make sure that isn't all that happens.
To the question "How is Internet is changing the way we think?", the
right answer is "Too soon to tell." This isn't because we can't see
some of the obvious effects already, but because the deep changes will
be manifested only when new cultural norms shape what the technology
To return to the press analogy, printing was a necessary but not
sufficient input to the scientific revolution. The Invisible College,
the group of natural philosophers who drove the original revolution in
chemistry in the mid-1600s, were strongly critical of the alchemists,
their intellectual forebears, who for centuries had made only fitful
progress. By contrast, the Invisible College put chemistry on a sound
scientific footing in a matter of a couple of decades, one of the most
important intellectual transitions in the history of science. In the
1600s, though, a chemist and an alchemist used the same tools and had
access to the same background. What did the Invisible College have
that the alchemists didn't?
They had a culture of sharing. The problem with the alchemists had
wasn't that they failed to turn lead into gold; the problem was that
they failed uninformatively. Alchemists were obscurantists, recording
their work by hand and rarely showing it to anyone but disciples. In
contrast, members of the Invisible College shared their work,
describing and disputing their methods and conclusions so that they
all might benefit from both successes and failures, and build on each
The chemists were, to use Richard Foreman's phrase, "pancake people".
They abandoned the spiritual depths of alchemy for a continual and
continually incomplete grappling with what was real, a task so
daunting that no one person could take it on alone. Though as
schoolchildren, the history of science we learn is often marked by the
trope of the lone genius, science has always been a networked
In this we can see a precursor to what's possible for us today. Just
as the Invisible College didn't just use the printing press as raw
capability, but created a culture that used the press to support the
transparency and argumentation science relies on, we have the same
As we know from arXiv.org, the 20th century model of publishing is
inadequate to the kind of sharing possible today. As we know from
Wikipedia, post-hoc peer review can support astonishing creations of
shared value. As we know from the search for Mersenne Primes, whole
branches of mathematical exploration are now best taken on by groups.
As we know from Open Source efforts like Linux, collaboration between
loosely joined parties can work at scales and over timeframes
previously unimagined. As we know from NASA clickworkers, groups of
amateurs can sometimes replace single experts. As we know from
Patients Like Me, patient involvement accelerates medical research.
And so on.
The beneficiaries of the system where making things public was a
privileged activity, whether academics or politicians, reporters or
doctors, will complain about the way the new abundance of public
thought upends the old order, but those complaints are like keening at
a wake; the change they fear is already in the past. The real action
The Internet's primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself
when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior
of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live
to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not
live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is
cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of 'comes from everyone'
and 'goes everywhere.') We are, however, the people who are setting
the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won't matter much, but
the norms we set will.
Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible
High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of
narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an
Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and
civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It
will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation,
fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.
ERIC FISCHL & APRIL GORNIK
REPLACING EXPERIENCE WITH FACSIMILE
As visual artists, we might rephrase the question as something like:
How has the Internet changed the way we see?
For the visual artist, seeing is essential to thought. It organizes
information and how we develop thoughts and feelings. It's how we
So how has the Internet changed us visually? The changes are subtle
yet profound. They did not start with the computer. The changes began
with the camera and other film-based media, and the Internet has had
an exponential effect on that change.
The result is a leveling of visual information, whereby it all assumes
the same characteristics. One loss is a sense of scale. Another is a
loss of differentiation between materials, and the process of making.
All visual information "looks" the same, with film/photography being
the common denominator.
Art objects contain a dynamism based on scale and physicality that
produces a somatic response in the viewer. The powerful visual
experience of art locates the viewer very precisely as an integrated
self within the artist's vision. With the flattening of visual
information and the randomness of size inherent in reproduction, the
significance of scale is eroded. Visual information becomes based on
image alone. Experience is replaced with facsimile.
As admittedly useful as the Internet is, easy access to images of
everything and anything creates a false illusion of knowledge and
experience. The world pictured as pictures does not deliver the
experience of art seen and experienced physically. It is possible for
an art-experienced person to "translate" what is seen online, but the
experience is necessarily remote.
As John Berger pointed out, the nature of photography is a memory
device that allows us to forget. Perhaps something similar can be said
about the Internet. In terms of art, the Internet expands the network
of reproduction that replaces the way we "know" something. It replaces
experience with facsimile.
Evolutionary Biologist; Emeritus Professor of the Public Understanding
of Science, Oxford; Author, The Greatest Show on Earth
If, forty years ago, the Edge Question had been "What do you
anticipate will most radically change the way you think during the
next forty years?" my mind would have flown instantly to a then recent
article in Scientific American (September 1966) about 'Project MAC'.
Nothing to do with the Apple Mac, which it long pre-dated, Project MAC
was an MIT-based cooperative enterprise in pioneering computer
science. It included the circle of AI innovators surrounding Marvin
Minsky but, oddly, that was not the part that captured my imagination.
What really excited me, as a user of the large mainframe computers
that were all you could get in those days, was something that nowadays
would seem utterly commonplace: the then astonishing fact that up to
30 people simultaneously, from all around the MIT campus and even from
their homes, could simultaneously log in to the same computer:
simultaneously communicate with it and with each other. mirabile
dictum, the co-authors of a paper could work on it simultaneously,
drawing upon a shared database in the computer, even though they might
be miles apart. In principle, they could be on opposite sides of the
Today that sounds absurdly modest. It's hard to recapture how
futuristic it was at the time. The post-Berners-Lee world of 2009, if
we could have imagined it forty years ago, would have seemed
shattering. Anybody with a cheap laptop computer, and an averagely
fast WiFi connection, can enjoy the illusion of bouncing dizzily
around the world in full colour, from a beach Webcam in Portugal to a
chess match in Vladivostok, and Google Earth actually lets you fly the
full length of the intervening landscape as if on a magic carpet. You
can drop in for a chat at a virtual pub, in a virtual town whose
geographical location is so irrelevant as to be literally non-existent
(and the content of whose LOL-punctuated conversation, alas, is likely
to be of a drivelling fatuity that insults the technology that
'Pearls before swine' over-estimates the average chat-room
conversation, but it is the pearls of hardware and software that
inspire me: the Internet itself and the World Wide Web, succinctly
defined by Wikipedia as "a system of interlinked hypertext documents
contained on the Internet." The Web is a work of genius, one of the
highest achievements of the human species, whose most remarkable
quality is that it was not constructed by one individual genius like
Tim Berners-Lee or Steve Wozniak or Alan Kay, nor by a top-down
company like Sony or IBM, but by an anarchistic confederation of
largely anonymous units located (irrelevantly) all over the world. It
is Project MAC writ large. Suprahumanly large. Moreover, there is not
one massive central computer with lots of satellites, as in Project
MAC, but a distributed network of computers of different sizes, speeds
and manufacturers, a network that nobody, literally nobody, ever
designed or put together, but which grew, haphazardly, organically, in
a way that is not just biological but specifically ecological.
Of course there are negative aspects, but they are easily forgiven.
I've already referred to the lamentable content of many chat room
conversations without editorial control. The tendency to flaming
rudeness is fostered by the convention — whose sociological provenance
we might discuss one day — of anonymity. Insults and obscenities, to
which you would not dream of signing your real name, flow gleefully
from the keyboard when you are masquerading online as 'TinkyWinky' or
'FlubPoodle' or 'ArchWeasel'.
And then there is the perennial problem of sorting out true
information from false. Fast search engines tempt us to see the entire
Web as a gigantic encyclopaedia, while forgetting that traditional
encyclopaedias were rigorously edited and their entries authored by
chosen experts. Having said that, I am repeatedly astounded by how
good Wikipedia can be. I calibrate Wikipedia by looking up the few
things I really do know about (and may indeed have written the entry
for in traditional encyclopaedias) say 'Evolution' or 'Natural
Selection'. I am so impressed by these calibratory forays that I go,
with some confidence, to other entries where I lack first-hand
knowledge (which was why I felt able to quote Wikipedia's definition
of the Web, above). No doubt mistakes creep in, or are even
maliciously inserted, but the half-life of a mistake, before the
natural correction mechanism kills it, is encouragingly short.
Nevertheless, the fact that the Wiki concept works, even if only in
some areas such as science, flies so flagrantly in the face of all my
prior pessimism, that I am tempted to see it as a metaphor for all
that deserves optimism about the World Wide Web.
Optimistic we may be, but there is a lot of rubbish on the Web, more
than in printed books, perhaps because they cost more to produce (and,
alas, there's plenty of rubbish there too). But the speed and ubiquity
of the Internet actually helps us to be on our critical guard. If a
report on one site sounds implausible (or too plausible to be true)
you can quickly check it on several more. Urban legends and other
viral memes are helpfully catalogued on various sites. When we receive
one of those panicky warnings (often attributed to Microsoft or
Symantec) about a dangerous computer virus, we do not spam it to our
entire address book but instead Google a key phrase from the warning
itself. It usually turns out to be, say, "Hoax Number 76", its history
and geography meticulously tracked.
Perhaps the main downside of the Internet is that surfing can be
addictive and a prodigious timewaster, encouraging a habit of
butterflying from topic to topic, rather than attending to one thing
at a time. But I want to leave negativity and nay saying and end with
some speculative — perhaps more positive — observations. The unplanned
worldwide unification that the Web is achieving (a science-fiction
enthusiast might discern the embryonic stirrings of a new life form)
mirrors the evolution of the nervous system in multicellular animals.
A certain school of psychologists might see it as mirroring the
development of each individual's personality, as a fusion among split
and distributed beginnings in infancy.
I am reminded of an insight that comes from Fred Hoyle's science
fiction novel, The Black Cloud. The cloud is a superhuman interstellar
traveller, whose 'nervous system' consists of units that communicate
with each other by radio — orders of magnitude faster than our
puttering nerve impulses. But in what sense is the cloud to be seen as
a single individual rather than a society? The answer is that
interconnectedness that is sufficiently fast blurs the distinction. A
human society would effectively become one individual if we could read
each other's thoughts through direct, high speed, brain-to-brain radio
transmission. Something like that may eventually meld the various
units that constitute the Internet.
This futuristic speculation recalls the beginning of my essay. What if
we look forty years into the future? Moore's Law will probably
continue for at least part of that time, enough to wreak some
astonishing magic (as it would seem to our puny imaginations if we
could be granted a sneak preview today). Retrieval from the communal
exosomatic memory will become dramatically faster, and we shall rely
less on the memory in our skulls. At present we still need biological
brains to provide the cross-referencing and association, but more
sophisticated software and faster hardware will increasingly usurp
even that function.
The high-resolution colour rendering of virtual reality will improve
to the point where the distinction from the real world becomes
unnervingly hard to notice. Large-scale communal games such as Second
Life will become disconcertingly addictive to many ordinary people who
understand little of what goes on in the engine room. And let's not be
snobbish about that. For many people around the world, 'first life'
reality has few charms and, even for those more fortunate, active
participation in a virtual world is more intellectually stimulating
than the life of a couch potato slumped in idle thrall to 'Big
Brother'. To intellectuals, Second Life and its souped-up successors
will become laboratories of sociology, experimental psychology and
their successor disciplines, yet to be invented and named. Whole
economies, ecologies, and perhaps personalities will exist nowhere
other than in virtual space.
Finally, there may be political implications. Apartheid South Africa
tried to suppress opposition by banning television, and eventually had
to give up. It will be more difficult to ban the Internet. Theocratic
or otherwise malign regimes, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia today, may
find it increasingly hard to bamboozle their citizens with their evil
nonsense. Whether, on balance, the Internet benefits the oppressed
more than the oppressor is controversial, and at present may vary from
region to region (see, for example, the exchange between Evgeny
Morozov and Clay Shirky in Prospect, Nov-Dec 2009).
It is said that Twitter is playing an important part in the current
unrest in Iran, and latest news from that faith-pit encourages the
view that the trend will be towards a net positive effect of the
Internet on political liberty. We can at least 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 the control (whether
cynical or sincere) of gullible minds. Perhaps Tim Berners-Lee will
one day earn the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Senior Platform Manager; Facebook; Internet Entrepreneur; Co-Inventor,
Facebook Platform and Facebook Connect
CONTEXT IS KING
My generation is the first generation that has lived their entire
lives with the Internet. The Internet is how we think. We have
developed a way of thinking that depends on being connected to an ever
changing graph of all the world’s people and ideas. The Internet helps
to define, evolve, and grow us. The Internet is social. The Internet
is a way of life. The Internet provides context.
Because I have lived most of my life with the Internet, it has been
the increasing the addition of new contexts which has been the thing
which has most changed the way I think. In the beginning, the Internet
was a giant mess of unstructured, unorganized, identity-free data
spread across un-connected computers all over the world.
Then things started to change. Organizations and companies began to
structure and provide context to the documents and data housed in this
expanding network of the world’s computers.
Opening, connecting, and organizing the information on the world’s
computers has enabled us to search for the answers to our most
important questions and to provide more context to the information in
Once the world’s information was put into context, we looked beyond
the keyboard, and collectively shifted to people. We focused on social
context by asking questions like: Who are you? How are we connected?
What is on your mind? What matters to you?
Making the Internet more social enabled people to share their real
name, likeness, voice, and the things that they are connected to. Now
we always have an understanding of who is talking, who and what they
are connected to, what they are saying, and to whom; through
understanding identity and social context we have achieved greater
openness as a society.
In the future, the challenge will be continuing to add new contexts
and improve existing ones in order to help people live better,
happier, lives. So that no matter where you are, what you are doing,
who you are with, or what you are thinking, it is always in context.
NASSIM N. TALEB
Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering, NYU-Poly; Principal,
Universa Investments; Author, The Black Swan
THE DEGRADATION OF PREDICTABILITY — AND KNOWLEDGE
I used to think that the problem of information is that it turns homo
sapiens into fools — we gain disproportionately in confidence,
particularly in domains where information is wrapped in a high degree
of noise (say, epidemiology, genetics, economics, etc.). So we end up
thinking that we know more than we do, which, in economic life, causes
foolish risk taking. When I started trading, I went on a news diet and
I saw things with more clarity. I also saw how people built too many
theories based on sterile news, the fooled by randomness effect. But
things are a lot worse. Now I think that, in addition, the supply and
spread of information turns the world into Extremistan (a world I
describe as one in which random variables are dominated by extremes,
with Black Swans playing a large role in them). The Internet, by
spreading information, causes an increase in interdependence, the
exacerbation of fads (bestsellers like Harry Potter and runs on the
banks become planetary). Such world is more "complex", more moody,
much less predictable.
So consider the explosive situation: more information (particularly
thanks to the Internet) causes more confidence and illusions of
knowledge while degrading predictability.
Look at this current economic crisis that started in 2008: there are
about a million persons on the planet who identify themselves in the
field of economics. Yet just a handful realized the possibility and
depth of what could have taken place and protected themselves from the
consequences. At no time in the history of mankind have we lived under
so much ignorance (easily measured in terms of forecast errors)
coupled with so much intellectual hubris. At no point have we had
central bankers missing elementary risk metrics, like debt levels,
that even the Babylonians understood well.
I recently talked to a scholar of rare wisdom and erudition, Jon
Elster, who upon exploring themes from social science, integrates
insights from all authors in the corpus of the past 2500 years, from
Cicero and Seneca, to Montaigne and Proust. He showed me how Seneca
had a very sophisticated understanding of loss aversion. I felt guilty
for the time I spent on the Internet. Upon getting home I found in my
mail a volume of posthumous essays by bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet called
Huetiana, put together by his admirers c. 1722. It is so saddening to
realize that, being born close to four centuries after Huet, and
having done most of my reading with material written after his death,
I am not much more advanced in wisdom than he was — moderns at the
upper end are no wiser than their equivalent among the ancients; if
anything, much less refined.
So I am now on an Internet diet, in order to understand the world a
bit better — and make another bet on horrendous mistakes by economic
policy makers. I am not entirely deprived of the Internet; this is
just a severe diet, with strict rationing. True, technologies are the
greatest things in the world, but they have way too monstrous side
effects — and ones rarely seen ahead of time. And since spending time
in the silence of my library, with little informational pollution, I
can feel harmony with my genes; I feel I am growing again.
Film-Maker, Critic; Co-founder, Film-Makers' Cooperative, Filmmaker’s
Cinematheque, Anthology Film Archives
I AM NOT EXACTLY A THINKING PERSON — I AM A POET
I am a farmer boy. When I grew up, there was only one radio in our
entire village of twenty families. And, of course, no TV, no telephone
and no electricity. I saw my first movie when I was fourteen.
In New York, in 1949, I fell in love with cinema. In 1989 I switched
to video. In 2003 I embraced computer/Internet technologies.
I am telling you this to indicate that my thinking is now only
entering the Internet Nation. It's still in its infancy, I am not
really thinking yet Internet way — I am only babbling.
But I can tell you that it has already affected the content, form and
the working procedures of everything that I do. It's entering my mind
In 2007 I did a project, 365 Day Project. I put on Internet one short
film every day. In cinema, when I was making my films, it was very
abstract. I could not think about the audience. I knew the film will
be placed in a film distribution center and eventually someone will
look at it. Now, in my 365 Day Project I knew that later, same day, I
will put it on Internet and within minutes it will be seen by all my
friends, and strangers too, all over the world. So that I felt like I
was conversing with them. It's intimate. It's poetic. I am not
thinking anymore about problems of distribution. I am just exchanging
my work with some friends. Like being part of a family. I like that.
It makes for a different state of mind. If a state of mind has
anything or nothing to do with thinking, that's unimportant to me. I
am not exactly a thinking person. I am a poet.
I would like to add one more note to what the Internet has done to me.
And that is, I began paying more attention to everything that the
Internet seems to be eliminating.Books especially. But also nature. In
short: the more it all expands into the virtual reality the more I
feel a need to love and protect the actual reality. Not because of
sentimental reasons, no. I do that from a very real, practical ,
almost a survival need: from my knowledge that I would lose a very
essential part of myself by losing the actual reality, both cultural
Editor-At-Large, Wired; Author, New Rules for the New Economy
AN INTERMEDIA WITH 2 BILLION SCREENS PEERING INTO IT
We already know that our use of technology changes how our brains
work. Reading and writing are cognitive tools that, once acquired,
change the way in which the brain processes information. When
psychologists use neuroimaging technology, like MRI, to compare the
brains of literates and illiterates working on a task, they find many
differences, and not just when the subjects are reading.
Researcher Alexandre Castro-Caldas discovered that processing between
the hemispheres of the brain was different between those who could
read and those who could not. A key part of the corpus callosum was
thicker in literates, and "the occipital lobe processed information
more slowly in individuals who learned to read as adults compared to
those who learned at the usual age." Psychologists Ostrosky-Solis,
Garcia and Perez tested literates and illiterates with a battery of
cognitive tests while measuring their brain waves and concluded that
"the acquisition of reading and writing skills has changed the brain
organization of cognitive activity in general is not only in language
but also in visual perception, logical reasoning, remembering
strategies, and formal operational thinking."
If alphabetic literacy can change how we think, imagine how Internet
literacy and 10 hours per day in front of one kind of screen or
another is changing our brains. The first generation to grow up screen
literate is just reaching adulthood so we don't have any scientific
studies of the full consequence of ubiquitous connectivity, but I have
a few hunches based on my own behavior.
When I do long division or even multiplication I don't try to remember
the intermediate numbers. Long ago I learned to write them down.
Because of paper and pencil I am "smarter" in arithmetic. In a
similar manner I now no longer to try remember facts, or even where I
found the facts. I have learned to summon them on the Internet.
Because the Internet is my new pencil and paper, I am "smarter" in
But 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 anti-fact. The Internet's extreme
hyperlinking highlights those anti-facts as brightly as the facts.
Some anti-facts are silly, some borderline, and some valid. You can't
rely on experts to sort them out because for every expert there is an
equal and countervailing anti-expert. Thus anything I learn is subject
to erosion by these ubiquitous anti-factors.
My certainty about anything has decreased. Rather than importing
authority, I am reduced to creating my own certainty — not just about
things I care about — but about anything I touch, including areas
about which I can't possibly have any direct knowledge . That means
that in general I assume more and more that what I know is wrong. We
might consider this state perfect for science but it also means that I
am more likely to have my mind changed for incorrect reasons.
Nonetheless, the embrace of uncertainty is one way my thinking has
Uncertainty is a kind of liquidity. I think my thinking has become
more liquid. It is less fixed, as text in a book might be, and more
fluid, as say text in Wikipedia might be. My opinions shift more. My
interests rise and fall more quickly. I am less interested in Truth,
with a capital T, and more interested in truths, plural. I feel the
subjective has an important role in assembling the objective from many
data points. The incremental plodding progress of imperfect science
seems the only way to know anything.
While hooked into the network of networks I feel like I am a network
myself, trying to achieve reliability from unreliable parts. And in my
quest to assemble truths from half-truths, non-truths, and some other
truths scattered in the flux (this creation of the known is now our
job and not the job of authorities), I find my mind attracted to fluid
ways of thinking (scenarios, provisional belief) and fluid media like
mashups, twitter, and search. But as I flow through this slippery Web
of ideas, it often feels like a waking dream.
We don't really know what dreams are for, only that they satisfy some
fundamental need. Someone watching me surf the Web, as I jump from one
suggested link to another, would see a day-dream. Today, I was in a
crowd of people who watched a barefoot man eat dirt, then the face of
a boy who was singing began to melt, then Santa burned a Christmas
tree, then I was floating inside mud house on the very tippy top of
the world, then Celtic knots untied themselves, then a guy told me the
formula for making clear glass, then I was watching myself, back in
high school, riding a bicycle. And that was just the first few minutes
of my day on the Web this morning. The trance-like state we fall into
while following the undirected path of links may be a terrible waste
of time, or like dreams, it might be a productive waste of time.
Perhaps we are tapping into our collective unconscious in a way
watching the directed stream of TV, radio and newspapers could not.
Maybe click-dreaming is a way for all of us to have the same dream,
independent of what we click on.
This waking dream we call the Internet also blurs the difference
between my serious thoughts and my playful thoughts, or to put it more
simply: I no longer can tell when I am working and when I am playing
online. For some people the disintegration between these two realms
marks all that is wrong with the Internet: It is the high-priced
waster of time. It breeds trifles. On the contrary, I cherish a good
wasting of time as a necessary precondition for creativity, but more
importantly I believe the conflation of play and work, of thinking
hard and thinking playfully, is one the greatest things the Internet
In fact the propensity of the Internet to diminish our attention is
overrated. I do find that smaller and smaller bits of information can
command the full attention of my over-educated mind. And not just me;
everyone reports succumbing to the lure of fast, tiny, interruptions
of information. In response to this incessant barrage of bits, the
culture of the Internet has been busy unbundling larger works into
minor snippets for sale. Music albums are chopped up and sold as
songs; movies become trailers, or even smaller video snips. (I find
that many trailers really are better than their movie.) Newspapers
become twitter posts. Scientific papers are served up in snippets on
Google. I happily swim in this rising ocean of fragments.
While I rush into the Net to hunt for these tidbits, or to surf on its
lucid dream, I've noticed a different approach to my thinking. My
thinking is more active, less contemplative. Rather than begin a
question or hunch by ruminating aimlessly in my mind, nourished only
by my ignorance, I start doing things. I immediately, instantly go.
I go looking, searching, asking, questioning, reacting to data,
leaping in, constructing notes, bookmarks, a trail, a start of making
something mine. I don't wait. Don't have to wait. I act on ideas first
now instead of thinking on them. For some folks, this is the worst
of the Net — the loss of contemplation. Others feel that all this
frothy activity is simply stupid busy work, or spinning of wheels, or
illusionary action. I think to myself, compared to what?
Compared to the passive consumption of TV or sucking up bully
newspapers, or of merely sitting at home going in circles musing about
stuff in my head without any new inputs, I find myself much more
productive by acting first. The emergence of blogs and Wikipedia are
expressions of this same impulse, to act (write) first and think
(filter) later. I have a picture of the hundreds of millions people
online at this very minute. To my eye they are not wasting time with
silly associative links, but are engaged in a more productive way of
thinking then the equivalent hundred of millions people were 50 years
This approach does encourage tiny bits, but surprisingly at the very
same time, it also allows us to give more attention to works that are
far more complex, bigger, and more complicated than ever before. These
new creations contain more data, require more attention over longer
periods; and these works are more successful as the Internet expands.
This parallel trend is less visible at first because of a common short
sightedness that equates the Internet with text.
To a first approximation the Internet is words on a screen — Google,
papers, blogs. But this first glance ignores the vastly larger
underbelly of the Internet — moving images on a screen. People (and
not just young kids) no longer go to books and text first. If people
have a question they (myself included) head first for YouTube. For fun
we go to online massive games, or catch streaming movies, including
factual videos (documentaries are in a renaissance). New visual media
are stampeding onto the Nets. This is where the Internet's center of
attention lies, not in text alone. Because of online fans, and
streaming on demand, and rewinding at will, and all the other liquid
abilities of the Internet, directors started creating movies that were
more than 100 hours long.
These vast epics like Lost and The Wire had multiple interweaving plot
lines, multiple protagonists, an incredible depth of characters and
demanded sustained attention that was not only beyond previous TV and
90-minute movies, but would have shocked Dickens and other novelists
of yore. They would marvel: "You mean they could follow all that, and
then want more? Over how many years?" I would never have believed
myself capable of enjoying such complicated stories, or caring about
them to put in the time. My attention has grown. In a similar way the
depth, complexity and demands of games can equal these marathon
movies, or any great book.
But the most important way the Internet has changed the direction of
my attention, and thus my thinking, is that it has become one thing.
It may look like I am spending endless nano-seconds on a series of
tweets, and endless microseconds surfing between Web pages, or
wandering between channels, and hovering only mere minutes on one book
snippet after another; but in reality I am spending 10 hours a day
paying attention to the Internet. I return to it after a few minutes,
day after day, with essentially my full-time attention. As do you.
We are developing an intense, sustained conversation with this large
thing. The fact that it is made up of a million loosely connected
pieces is distracting us. The producers of Websites, and the hordes of
commenters online, and the movie moguls reluctantly letting us stream
their movies, don't believe they are mere pixels in a big global show,
but they are. It is one thing now, an intermedia with 2 billion
screens peering into it. The whole ball of connections — including all
its books, all its pages, all its tweets, all its movies, all its
games, all its posts, all its streams — is like one vast global book
(or movie, etc.), and we are only beginning to learn how to read it.
Knowing that this large thing is there, and that I am in constant
communication with it, has changed how I think.
Science Historian; Author, Darwin Among the Machines
KAYAKS vs CANOES
In the North Pacific ocean, there were two approaches to boatbuilding.
The Aleuts (and their kayak-building relatives) lived on barren,
treeless islands and built their vessels by piecing together skeletal
frameworks from fragments of beach-combed wood. The Tlingit (and their
dugout canoe-building relatives) built their vessels by selecting
entire trees out of the rainforest and removing wood until there was
nothing left but a canoe.
The Aleut and the Tlingit achieved similar results — maximum boat /
minimum material — by opposite means. The flood of information
unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split. We
used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of
information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we
have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unneccessary
information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.
I was a hardened kayak builder, trained to collect every available
stick. I resent having to learn the new skills. But those who don't
will be left paddling logs, not canoes.
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Cold Play, Talking Heads,
Paul Simon; Recording Artist
THE 'AUTHENTIC' HAS REPLACED THE REPRODUCIBLE
I notice that some radical social experiments which would have seemed
Utopian to even the most idealistic anarchist 50 years ago are now
working smoothly and without much fuss. Among these are open source
development, shareware and freeware, Wikipedia, MoveOn, and UK
Citizens Online Democracy.
I notice that the Net didn't free the world in quite the way we
expected — repressive regimes can shut it down, and liberal ones can
use it as a propaganda tool. On the upside, I notice that the variable
trustworthiness of the Net has made people more sceptical about the
information they get from all other media.
I notice that I now digest my knowledge as a patchwork drawn from a
wider range of sources than I used to. I notice too that I am less
inclined to look for joined-up finished narratives and more inclined
to make my own collage from what I can find. I notice that I read
books more cursorily — scanning them in the same way that I scan the
Net — 'bookmarking' them.
I notice that the turn-of-the-century dream of Professor Darryl Macer
to make a map of all the world's concepts is coming true autonomously
— in the form of the Net.
I notice that I correspond with more people but at less depth. I
notice that it is possible to have intimate relationships that exist
only on the Net — that have little or no physical component. I notice
that it is even possible to engage in complex social projects — such
as making music — without ever meeting your collaborators. I am
unconvinced of the value of these.
I notice that the idea of 'community' has changed — whereas that term
used to connote some sort of physical and geographical connectedness
between people, it can now mean 'the exercise of any shared interest'.
I notice that I now belong to hundreds of communities — the community
of people interested in active democracy, the community of people
interested in synthesizers, in climate change, in Tommy Cooper jokes,
in copyright law, in acapella singing, in loudspeakers, in pragmatist
philosophy, in evolution theory, and so on.
I notice that the desire for community is sufficiently strong for
millions of people to belong to entirely fictional communities such as
Second Life and World of Warcraft. I worry that this may be at the
expense of First Life.
I notice that more of my time is spent in words and language — because
that is the currency of the Net — than it was before. My notebooks
take longer to fill. I notice that I mourn the passing of the fax
machine, a more personal communication tool than email because it
allowed the use of drawing and handwriting. I notice that my mind has
reset to being primarily linguistic rather than, for example, visual.
I notice that the idea of 'expert' has changed. An expert used to be
'somebody with access to special information'. Now, since so much
information is equally available to everyone, the idea of 'expert'
becomes 'somebody with a better way of interpreting'. Judgement has
I notice that I have become a slave to connectedness — that I check my
email several times a day, that I worry about the heap of unsolicited
and unanswered mail in my inbox. I notice that I find it hard to get a
whole morning of uninterrupted thinking. I notice that I am expected
to answer emails immediately, and that it is difficult not to. I
notice that as a result I am more impulsive.
I notice that I more often give money in response to appeals made on
the Net. I notice that 'memes' can now spread like virulent infections
through the vector of the Net, and that this isn't always good.
I notice that I sometimes sign petitions about things I don't really
understand because it is easy. I assume that this kind of
irresponsibility is widespread.
I notice that everything the Net displaces reappears somewhere else in
a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their
records, but, since records stopped making much money due to illegal
downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores
with staff who know about books and record stores with staff who know
about music are becoming more common.
I notice that, as the Net provides free or cheap versions of things,
'the authentic experience' — the singular experience enjoyed without
mediation — becomes more valuable. I notice that more attention is
given by creators to the aspects of their work that can't be
duplicated. The 'authentic' has replaced the reproducible.
I notice that almost all of us haven't thought about the chaos that
would ensue if the Net collapsed.
I notice that my daily life has been changed more by my mobile phone
than by the Internet.
Vice President, Search Products & User Experience, Google
IT'S NOT WHAT YOU KNOW, IT'S WHAT YOU CAN FIND OUT
It's not what you know, it's what you can find out. The Internet has
put at the forefront resourcefulness and critical-thinking and
relegated memorization of rote facts to mental exercise or enjoyment.
Because of the abundance of information and this new emphasis on
resourcefulness, the Internet creates a sense that anything is
knowable or findable — as long as you can construct the right search,
find the right tool, or connect to the right people. The Internet
empowers better decision-making and a more efficient use of time.
Simultaneously, it also leads to a sense of frustration when the
information doesn't exist online. What do you mean that the store
hours aren't anywhere? Why can't I see a particular page of this book?
And, if not verbatim, no one has quoted it even in part? What do you
mean that page isn't available? Page not found?
The Internet can facilitate an incredible persistence and availability
of information, but given the Internet's adolescence, all of the
information simply isn't there yet. I find that in some ways my mind
has evolved to this new way of the thinking, relying on the
information's existence and availability, so much so that it's almost
impossible to conclude that the information isn't findable because it
just isn't online.
The Web has also enabled amazing dynamic visualizations, where an
ideal presentation of information is constructed — a table of
comparisons or a data-enhanced map, for example. These visualizations
— be it news from around the world displayed on a globe or a sortable
table of airfares — can greatly enhance our understanding of the world
or our sense of opportunity. We can understand in an instant what
would have taken months to create just a few short years ago. Yet, the
Internet's lack of structure means that it is not possible to
construct these types of visualizations over any or all data. To
achieve true automated, general understanding and visualization, we
will need much better machine learning, entity extraction, and
semantics capable of operating at vast scale.
On that note — and in terms of future Internet innovation, the
important question may not be how the Internet is changing how we
think but instead how the Internet is teaching itself to think.
President, The Royal Society; Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics;
Master, Trinity College, University of Cambridge; Author, Our Final
Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity's Survival
A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
In 2002, three Indian mathematicians (Manindra Agrewal, and his two
students Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena) invented a faster algorithm
for factoring large numbers — an advance that could be crucial for
code-breaking. They posted their results on the Web. Such was the
interest that within just a day, 20000 people had downloaded the work,
which became the topic of hastily-convened discussions in many centres
of mathematical research around the world.
This episode — offering instant global recognition to two young Indian
students — offers a stark contrast with the struggles of a young
Indian genius a hundred years ago. Srinivasa Ramanujan, a clerk in
Bombay, mailed long screeds of of mathematical formulae to G H Hardy,
a professor at Trinity College, Cambridge. Fortunately, Hardy had the
percipience to recognise that Ramanujan was not the typical green-ink
scribbler who finds numerical patterns in the bible or the pyramids,
but that his writings betrayed preternatural insight. Hardy arranged
for Ramanujan to come to Cambridge, and did all he could to foster his
genius — sadly, however, culture shock and poor health led him to an
The Internet enables far wider participation in front-line science; it
levels the playing field between researchers in major centres and
those in relative isolation, hitherto handicapped by inefficient
communication. It has transformed the way science is communicated and
debated. More fundamentally, it changes how research is done, what
might be discovered, and how students learn.
And it allows new styles of research. For example, in the old days,
astronomical information, even if in principle publicly available, was
stored on delicate photographic plates: these were not easily
accessible, and tiresome to analyse. Now, such data (and, likewise,
large datasets in genetics or particle physics) can be accessed and
downloaded anywhere. Experiments, and natural events such as tropical
storms or the impact of a comet on Jupiter, can be followed in real
time by anyone who is interested. And the power of huge computing
networks can be deployed on large data sets.
Indeed, scientific discoveries will increasingly be made by 'brute
force' rather than by insight. IBM's 'Deep Blue' beat Kasparov not by
thinking like him, but by exploiting its speed to explore a huge
variety of options. There are some high-priority scientific quests —
for instance, the recipe for a room-temperature superconductor, or the
identification of key steps in the origin of life — which may yield
most readily neither to insight nor to experiment, but to exhaustive
Paul Ginsparg's arXiv.org archive transformed the literature of
physics, establishing a new model for communication over the whole of
science. Far fewer people today read traditional journals. These have
so far survived as guarantors of quality. But even this role may soon
be trumped by a more informal system of quality control, signaled by
the approbation of discerning readers (by analogy with the grading of
restaurants by gastronomic critics), by blogs, or by Amazon-style
Clustering of experts in actual institutions will continue, for the
same reason that high-tech expertise congregates in Silicon Valley
and elsewhere. But the actual progress of science will be driven by
ever more immersive technology where propinquity is irrelevant.
Traditional universities will survive insofar as they offer mentoring
and personal contact to their students. But it's less clear that there
will be a future for the 'mass university' where the students are
offered little more than a passive role in lectures (generally of
mediocre quality) with minimal feedback. Instead, the Internet will
offer access to outstanding lectures — and in return will offer the
star lecturers (and perhaps the best classroom teachers too) a
potentially global reach.
And it's not just students, but those at the end of their career,
whose lives the IInternet can transformatively enhance. We oldies, as
we become less mobile, will be able to immerse ourselves — right up to
until the final switch-off, or until we lose our wits completely — in
an ever more sophisticated cyber-world allowing virtual travel and
continuing engagement with the world.
Editor, The Feuilleton (Arts and Essays), of the German Daily
Newspaper, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich
THE GREATEST OF ALL TRAITS: THE INTERNET HAS BECOME INHERENTLY BORING
I think faster now. The Internet has somewhat freed me — of some of
20th century's burdens. The burden of commuting. The burden of
coordinating communication. The burden of traditional literacy. I
don't think the Internet would be of much use, if hadn't carried those
burdens to excess all through my life. If speeding up thinking
continually constitutes changing the way I think though, the Internet
has done a marvelous job.
I wasn't an early adaptor, but the process started early. I didn't
quite understand yet what would come upon us, when Marvin Minsky told
me one afternoon in 1989 at MIT's Media Lab the most important trait
of a computer wouldn't be it's power, but what it would be connected
to. A couple of years later I stumbled upon the cyberpunk scene in San
Francisco. People were popping smart drugs (which didn't do anything),
Timothy Leary declared virtual reality the next psychedelics (which
never panned out), Todd Rundgren warned of a coming overabundance of
creative work without a parallel rise in great ideas (which is now
reflected in the laments about the rise of the amateur). It was still
the old underground running the new emerging culture. This new culture
was driven by thought rather than art though. It's also where I met
Cliff Figallo who ran a virtual community called The Well. He
introduced me to John Perry Barlow who had just started a foundation
called the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The name said it all. There
was a new frontier.
It would still take me a few more years to grasp. One stifling evening
in a rented apartment in downtown Dakar my photographer and me
disassembled a phone line and a modem to circumvent some incompatible
jacks and to get our laptop to dial up some node in Paris. It probably
saved us a good week of research in the field. Now my thinking started
to take on the speed I had sensed in Boston and San Francisco.
Continually freeing me of the aforementioned burdens, it has allowed
me to focus even more on the tasks expected of me as a journalist —
find context, meaning and a way to communicate complex topics in the
simplest of ways.
One important development that has allowed this to happen is that the
possibly greatest of all traits the Internet has developed over the
past few years is that it has become inherently boring. Gone are the
adventurous days of using a pocket knife to log onto Paris from
Africa. Even in remote place of this planet logging onto the Net means
merely turning on your machine. This paradigm reigns all through the
Web. Twitter is one of the simplest Internet applications ever
developed. Still it has sped up my thinking in ever more ways.
Facebook in itself is dull, but it has created new networks not
possible before. Integrating all media into a blog has become so easy,
grammar school kids can do it, so that freeform forum has become a
great place to test out new possibilities. I don't think about the
Internet anymore. I just use it.
All this might not constitute a change in thinking though. I haven't
changed my mind or my convictions because of the Internet. I haven't
had any epiphanies while sitting in front of a screen. The Internet so
far has not given me no memorable experiences, although it might have
helped to usher some along. It has always been people, places and
experiences that have changed the way I think and provided me with a
wide variety of memorable experiences.
Editor-in Chief, Nature
For better or worse, the Internet is changing when I think —
night-time ideas can be instantly acted on. But much more importantly,
the Internet has immeasurably supported my breadth of consideration
and enhanced my speed of access to relevant stuff. Frustrations arise,
above all, where these are constrained — and there's a rub.
We are in sight of technologies that can truly supersede paper,
retaining the portability, convenience and format variety of that
medium. Instant payment for added-value content will become easier
and, indeed, will be taken for granted in many contexts.
But finding the stuff will remain a challenge. Brands, both
publishers' and others', if deployed in a user-friendly way, will by
their nature assist those seeking particular types of content. But
content within established brands is far from an adequate
representation of what matters, and that's why robust and inclusive
indexing systems are so important.
I remain uneasy that biologists worldwide are so dependent on a
literature-indexing system wholly funded by US tax-payers: PubMed.
Nevertheless, it's extraordinarily valuable, and works in the
interests not only of researchers but also publishers by making their
work accessible without undermining their business models.
I emphasise that last point with good reason. One of the worst (ie
self-defeatingly short-sighted) acts of 'my' industry occurred in the
early 2000s. Congress, lobbied by publishers, and seemingly ignorant
of the proven virtues of PubMed, rejected support for an equivalent
search infrastructure PubSCIENCE, established by the US Department of
Energy as an index for physical sciences and energy research. The
lobbyists argued, wrong-headedly, that it competed with private sector
databases. It was abandoned in 2002. Publishers have lost
opportunities as a result, as has everyone else. Energy research,
after all, has never been more urgent nor more in the US's and world's
PubMed imposes overly conservative restrictions on what it will index,
but is a beacon nevertheless. Anyone in the natural sciences who, like
me, has taken an active interest in the social sciences knows how
hopelessly unfindable by comparison is that literature, distributed as
it is amongst books, reports and unindexed journals. Google Scholar is
in some ways valuable, providing access also to some "grey"
literatures, but its algorithms are a law unto themselves and, in my
experience, miss some of the literature. And so often the books and
reports are themselves difficult to obtain.
There are foundations and other funders potentially more enlightened
than Congress when it comes to supporting literature digitization and
indexing. And universities are developing online repositories of their
outputs, though with limited success.
Whatever works! Those wishing to promote the visibility and, dare one
say, usefulness of their own work and of their disciplines should
hotly pursue online availability of all types of substantive texts
and, crucially, inclusive indexing.
Communications Expert; Author, Smart Mobs
ATTENTION IS THE FUNDAMENTAL LITERACY
Digital media and networks can only empower the people who learn how
to use them — and pose dangers to those who don't know what they are
doing. Yes, it's easy to drift into distraction, fall for
misinformation, allow attention to fragment rather than focus, but
those mental temptations pose dangers only for the untrained mind.
Learning the mental discipline to use thinking tools without losing
focus is one of the prices I am glad to pay to gain what the Web has
Those people who do not gain fundamental literacies of attention, crap
detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness are in
danger of all the pitfalls critics point out — shallowness, credulity,
distraction, alienation, addiction. I worry about the billions of
people who are gaining access to the Net without the slightest clue
about how to find knowledge and verify it for accuracy, how to
advocate and participate rather than passively consume, how to
discipline and deploy attention in an always-on milieu, how and why to
use those privacy protections that remain available in an increasingly
I have concluded that the realities of my own life as a professional
writer — if the words didn't go out, the money didn't come in — drove
me to evolve a set of methods and disciplines. I know that others have
mastered far beyond my own practice the mental habits that I've
stumbled upon, and I suspect that learning these skills is less
difficult than learning long division. I urge researchers and
educators to look more systematically where I'm pointing.
When I started out as a freelance writer in the 1970s, my most
important tools were a library card, a typewriter, a notebook, and a
telephone. In the early 1980s, I became interested in the people at
Xerox Palo Alto Research Center who were using computers to edit text
without physically cutting, pasting, and retyping pages.
Through PARC I discovered Douglas Engelbart, who had spent the first
decade of his career trying to convince somebody, anybody, that using
computers to augment human intellect was not a crazy idea. Engelbart
set out in the early 1960s to demonstrate that computers could be used
to automate low-level cognitive support tasks like cutting, pasting,
revising text, and also to enable intellectual tools like the
hyperlink that weren't possible with Gutenberg-era technology.
He was convinced that this new way to use computers could lead to
"increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem
situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to
derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is
taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension,
better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of
comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier
solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions
to problems that before seemed insoluble." Important caveats and
unpredicted side-effects notwithstanding, Engelbart's forecasts have
come to pass in ways that surprised him. What did not surprise him was
the importance of both the know-how and how-to-know that unlock the
opportunities afforded by augmentation technology.
From the beginning, Engelbart emphasized that the hardware and
software created at his Stanford Research Institute laboratory, from
the mouse to the hyperlink to the word processor, were part of a
system that included "humans, language, artifacts, methodology and
training." Long before the Web came along, Engelbart was frustrated
that so much progress had been made in the capabilities of the
artifacts, but so little study had been devoted to advancing the
language, methodology and training — the literacies that necessarily
accompany the technical capabilities
Attention is the fundamental literacy. Every second I spend online, I
make decisions about where to spend my attention. Should I devote any
mindshare at all to this comment or that headline? — a question I need
to answer each time an attractive link catches my eye. Simply becoming
aware of the fact that life online requires this kind of
decision-making was my first step in learning to tune a fundamental
filter on what I allow into my head — a filter that is under my
control only if I practice controlling it. The second level of
decision-making is whether I want to open a tab on my browser because
I decided that this item will be worth my time tomorrow. The third
decision: do I bookmark this site because I am interested in the
subject and might want to reference it at some unspecified future
time? Online attention-taming begins with what meditators call
"mindfulness" — the simple, self-influencing awareness of how
Life online is not solitary. It's social. When I tag and bookmark a
Website, a video, an image, I make my decisions visible to others. I
take advantage of similar knowledge curation undertaken by others when
I start learning a topic by exploring bookmarks, find an image to
communicate an idea by searching for a tag. Knowledge sharing and
collective action involve collaborative literacies.
Crap detection — Hemingway's name for what digital librarians call
credibility assessment — is another essential literacy. If all
schoolchildren could learn one skill before they go online for the
first time, I think it should be the ability to find the answer to any
question and the skills necessary to determine whether the answer is
accurate or not.
Network awareness, from the strength of weak ties and the nature of
small-world networks to the power of publics and the how and why of
changing Facebook privacy settings, would be the next literacy I would
teach, after crap detection. Networks aren't magic, and knowing the
principles by which they operate confers power on the knowledgeable.
How could people NOT use the Internet in muddled, frazzled, fractured
ways when hardly anybody instructs anybody else about how to use the
Net salubriously? It is inevitable that people will use the Net in
ways that influence how they think and what they think.
It is not inevitable that these influences will be destructive. The
health of the online commons will depend on whether more than a tiny
minority of Net users become literate Netizens.
Catalyst, Information Technology Startups, EDventure Holdings; Former
Chariman,Electronic Frontier Foundation and ICANN; Author: Release 2.1
I love the Internet. It's a great tool precisely because it is so
content — and value-free. Anyone can use it for his own purposes, good
or bad, big or small, trivial or important. It impartially transmits
all kinds of content, one-way or two-way or broadcast, public or
private, text or video or sound or data.
But it does have one overwhelming feature: immediacy. (And when the
immediacy is ruptured, its users gnash their teeth.) That immediacy is
seductive: You can get instant answers, instant responses. If you're
lonely, you can go online and find someone to chat with. If you want
business, you can send out an e-mail blast and get at least a few
responses — a .002 response rate means 200 messages back (including
some hate mail) for a small list. If you want to do good, there are
thousands of good causes competing for your attention at the click of
But sometimes I think much of what we get on the Internet is empty
calories. It's sugar — short videos, pokes from friends, blog posts,
Twitter posts (even blogs seem longwinded now), pop-ups and
visualizations…Sugar is so much easier to digest, so enticing…and
ultimately, it leaves us hungrier than before.
Worse than that, over a long period, many of us are genetically
disposed to lose our capability to digest sugar if we consume too much
of it. It makes us sick long-term, as well as giving us indigestion
and hypoglycemic fits. Could that be true of information sugar as
well? Will we become allergic to it even as we crave it? And what will
serve as information insulin?
In the spirit of brevity if not immediacy, I leave it to the reader to
ponder these questions.
Co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium
THE UN-FOCUSING, DE-LIBERATING EFFECTS OF JOINING THE HIVE MIND
The instant availability of an ocean of information has been an
epoch-making boon to humanity. But has the resulting information
overload also deeply changed how we think? Has it changed the nature
of the self? Has it even — as some have suggested — radically altered
the relationship of the individual and society? These are important
philosophical questions, but vague and slippery, and I hope to clarify
The Internet is changing how we think, it is suggested. But how is it,
precisely? One central feature of the "new mind" is that it is spread
too thin. But what does that mean?
In functional terms, being spread too thin means we have too many
Websites to visit, we get too many messages, and too much is
"happening" online and in other media that we feel compelled take on
board. Many of us lack effective strategies for organizing our time in
the face of this onslaught. This makes us constantly distracted and
unfocused, and less able to perform heavy intellectual tasks. Among
other things, or so some have confessed, we cannot focus long enough
to read whole books. We feel unmoored and we flow along helplessly
wherever the fast-moving digital flood carries us.
We do? Well — some of us do, evidently.
Some observers speak of "where we are going," or of how "our minds"
are being changed by information overload, apparently despite
ourselves. Their discussions make erstwhile free agents mere subjects
of powerful new forces, and the only question is where those forces
are taking us. I don't share the assumption here. When I read the
title of Nick Carr's essay, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" I
immediately thought, "Speak for yourself." It seems to me that in
discussions like Carr's, it is assumed that intellectual control has
already been ceded — but that strikes me as being a cause, not a
symptom, of the problem Carr bemoans. After all, the exercise of
freedom requires focus and attention, and the ur-event of the will is
precisely focus itself. Carr unwittingly confessed for too many of us
a moral failing, a vice; the old name for it is intemperance. (In the
older, broader sense, contrasted with sophrosyne, moderation or
self-control.) And, as with so much of vice, we want to blame it on
anything but ourselves.
Is it really true that we no longer have any choice but to be
intemperate in how we spend our time, in the face of the temptations
and shrill demands of networked digital media? New media are not that
powerful. We still retain free will, which is the ability to focus,
deliberate, and act on the results of our own deliberations. If we
want to spend hours reading books, we still possess that freedom. Only
philosophical argument could establish that information overload has
deprived us of our agency. The claim at root is philosophical, not
My interlocutors might cleverly reply that we now, in the age of
Facebook and Wikipedia, do still deliberate, but collectively. In
other words, for example, we vote stuff up or down on Digg,
del.icio.us, and Slashdot, and then we might feel ourselves obligated
— if we're participating as true believers — to pay special attention
to the top-voted items. Similarly, we attempt to reach "consensus" on
Wikipedia, and — again, if participating as true believers — endorse
the end result as credible. To the extent that our time is thus
directed by social networks, engaged in collective deliberation, then
we are subjugated to a "collective will," something like Rousseau's
notion of a general will. To the extent that we plug in, we become
merely another part of the network. That, anyway, is how I would
reconstruct the collectivist-determinist position that is opposed to
my own individualist-libertarian one.
But we obviously have the freedom not to participate in such networks.
And we have the freedom to consume the output of such networks
selectively, and holding our noses — to participate, we needn't be
true believers. So it is very hard for me to take the "woe is us,
we're growing stupid and collectivized like sheep" narrative
seriously. If you feel yourself growing ovine, bleat for yourself.
I get the sense that many writers on these issues aren't much bothered
by the un-focusing, de-liberating effects of joining the Hive Mind.
Don Tapscott has suggested that the instant availability of
information means we don't have to "memorize" anything anymore — just
consult Google and Wikipedia, the brains of the Hive Mind. Clay Shirky
seems to believe that in the future we will be enculturated not by
reading dusty old books but in something like online fora, plugged
into the ephemera of a group mind, as it were. But surely, if we were
to act as either of these college teachers recommend, we'd become a
bunch of ignoramuses. Indeed, perhaps that's what social networks are
turning too many kids into, as Mark Bauerlein argues cogently in The
Dumbest Generation. (For the record, I've started homeschooling my own
The issues here are much older than the Internet. They echo the debate
between progressivism and traditionalism found in philosophy of
education: should children be educated primarily so as fit in well in
society, or should the focus be on training minds for critical
thinking and filling them with knowledge? For many decades before the
advent of the Internet, educational progressivists have insisted that,
in our rapidly changing world, knowing mere facts is not what is
important, because knowledge quickly becomes outdated; rather, being
able to collaborate and solve problems together is what is important.
Social networks have reinforced this ideology, by seeming to make
knowledge and judgment collective functions. But the progressivist
position on the importance of learning facts and training individual
judgment withers under scrutiny, and, pace Tapscott and Shirky, events
of the last decade have not made it more durable.
In sum, there are two basic issues here. Do we have any choice about
ceding control of the self to an increasingly compelling "Hive Mind"?
Yes. And should we cede such control, or instead strive, temperately,
to develop our own minds very well and direct our own attention
carefully? The answer, I think, is obvious.
Professor, Harvard University, Director, Personal Genome Project.
SORRY, JOHN, NO TIME TO THINK ABOUT THE EDGE QUESTION
If time did permit, I'd begin with the "How" of "How is Internet
changing the way that we think?" Not "how much?" or "in what manner?",
but "for what purpose?" "To be, that is the question."
Does the Internet pose an existential risk to all known intelligence
in the universe or a path to survival? Yes; we see sea change from