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
Friday 13 January 2012
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.
Geoffrey Macnab does not like the comedian's big screen debut
Look beyond the usual shows for the best festive telly
elephant appealThe first 23 lots in our charity auction have now gone. But there are 22 more still up for grabs
The battle for control of Stieg Larsson's £30m legacy
Arts & Ents blogs
Exclusive: Young people ‘want UK to stay in Europe’: Four in 10 adults aged 18 to 24 are ‘firmly in favour’ of membership, poll shows
Tom Daley ‘is gay because his father died’ says UK evangelist
Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
Kiss and yell: Italian protester charged with sexual assault after kissing riot police officer
PM denies two child limit for benefits is part of Tory welfare policy
Anachronistic and iniquitous, grammar schools are a blot on the British education system
- 1 Sun will 'flip upside down' within weeks, says Nasa
- 2 Christmas comes early: Justin Bieber is 'retiring from music'
- 3 Iain Duncan Smith leaves Commons food banks debate early
- 4 Cycle death inquest: Boyfriend hugs driver of 32 tonne tipper truck that killed his girlfriend
- 5 Burglar steals video tapes of child abuse, hands them into police
- < Previous
- Next >