Atlantic, £19.99, 408pp. £17.99 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
How is The Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited, By John Brockman
Asking 150 contemporary scientists, intellectuals and artists how the internet changes the way they think is a bit like giving the Large Hadron Collider an extra four notches on its speed-dial. You know they're going to use it to the max, smashing up ideas and generating spin-offs, though perhaps picking up a few radiation-burns along the way. Thus it proves with this book on "the net's impact on our minds and future" - regularly illuminating, but sometimes intriguingly conservative, in response to the crisply formulated question.
Edge.org, the site which yearly generates these billowing steam-clouds, is itself worth a critical query or two. Its founder, John Brockman, is a counter-cultural hustler turned literary agent to the science elites. Many of the Edge participants are clients of his, so there's a faint whiff of the performing don to many of these short essays as they tap out routines that will wow the TED crowd or close the literary deal. But this pecuniary tang makes Edge.org a bona-fide marketplace of ideas, and thus a good data-set from which to assess the intellectual climate of the North and the West of the planet.
What's surprising is the significant minority of "Distractionistas" here: those who believe that the internet's compelling, always-on nature is shallowing and hollowing our capacity for reflection, extended argument, even the seat of our consciousness. Brian Knutsen and Thomas Metzinger claim our ability to maintain our attention is the core of selfhood. The way the net pulverises our focus turns us into "Public Dreamers", displaying "dementia, intoxication, infantilisation".
The largest and most impressive group are "scholarly tool-users", with the internet as their instrument for a new renaissance of cross-disciplinary research, continuing the spirit of founders like Tim Berners-Lee and Douglas Englebart. Some tantalising new ideas emerge. Eric Drexler pleads for a web platform that helps us present "factual controversies" as effectively as Wikipedia presents "factual consensus". Gloria Origgi wonders whether social media forces academics to think that their legacy should be "great threaded conversations", rather than academic papers. John Goody reminds us that Gutenberg's "simple drop in the price of books" was the trigger for the conceptual and material revolutions of the modern age: what should we anticipate when digital networks can effect a global commons of knowledge? For those with a taste for Californian techno-ecstasy there are more than enough essays on the digital sublime. Will virtualisation be as powerful as industrialisation, in the way it shapes our sense of space and time? Is the internet a "worldwide supracortex", homologous with the way our brains function? Are we moving from "Enlightenment" to "Entanglement"?
The art crowd - Ai Weiwei, Brian Eno, Hans Ulrich-Obrist - are a welcome input, as much for their cheek in appropriating techno-speak if it'll justify a gig or exhibition. But the other tendency revealed is the ruin of what's passing for evolutionary science at the moment, at least in its pretensions towards explaining human culture. For Timothy Taylor, the global village of the net "returns us to our evolutionary origin... the whole tribe is... making decisions about its shared future". Mark Pagel thinks the internet makes our evolved "narcissism" and egotism worse, while others think it happily amplifies the romantic grooming that builds our families and communities.
Make your minds up, sub-Darwinists. Meanwhile, the Net - in so far as it stays an end-to-end network, surprising us with our ability for common endeavour - persists. Brockman's book is diverse enough to inform you about how to think about it and, more importantly, how to defend it.
A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend
A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three of Pope Francis' relatives die in Argentina car crash, including two young great-nephews
- 2 Michael Brown shooting: Amnesty International sends team within US for first time as National Guard deployed
- 3 Here’s the damning letter Robin Williams wrote to his Mrs Doubtfire co-star's principal after they expelled her
- 4 Ferguson protests: 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein ‘arrested’ by police during St Louis demonstrations
- 5 Cilla Black defends Cliff Richard: 'I am positive that the allegations are without foundation'
JK Rowling releases new Harry Potter story on Pottermore: Introducing Celestina Warbuck, the 'Singing Sorceress'
Best movies on Netflix UK and US: 32 films that will end your endless scrolling
Reading Festival 2014: Tesco branch replaces salad and potatoes for Jagermesiter and vodka
Celebrity Big Brother 2014 contestants: Meet Kellie Maloney, formerly known as Frank Maloney
Kate Bush: Previously unseen photographs reveal new side to comeback star
Isis threat: Cameron wants an alliance with Iran
Crisis? What crisis? A visiting US doctor gives the NHS a rave review
Ukip MEP calls for reintroduction of death penalty on fiftieth anniversary of last deaths
Russell Brand calls for Israel boycott: Comedian urges big businesses that 'facilitate the oppression of people in Gaza' to pull funding
Michael Brown shooting: Chaos erupts on the streets of Ferguson after autopsy shows teenager was shot six times – twice in the head
World peace? These are the only 11 countries in the world that are actually free from conflict