How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman
One small keystroke for mankind
Sunday 12 February 2012
Prepare yourself for a hefty dose of future shock as we delve into the inner machinations of the internet and its implications for humankind.
This intriguing but flawed book is a collection of 150 essays answering the title's question. It's edited by John Brockman, the founder of Edge, a group of science and technology intellectuals who ask each other big questions about life, the universe and everything. Each year, Edge poses a question to its masses, and this year it's the internet's turn.
So what's the answer? Well, as you might expect from 150 top thinkers, opinions vary. The "you" in the question is important and deliberate, Brockman explains in the preface, as he sought more personal replies than generalised public pronouncements.
And to an extent he gets them. A considerable number of contributors express opinions along the same lines as the paleontologist Scott D Sampson, who succinctly puts it that "the internet is both the Great Source for information and the Great Distractor".
But does it change how you think? Well, in biological terms, it seems the answer is no, not yet. With respect to pure physiology, our brains are apparently still functioning just as they have done for millions of years, and it'll take rather more exposure to online poker to change that. But the internet is clearly changing what we think about, how we gather and use information and so on.
There's a lot of chat within these covers about a move from deeper thinking to more shallow brain activity, but the point is vociferously contested both ways by different experts. What is generally agreed upon is that this is an epochal time in humanity's development, one with profound implications for society and even identity.
Some of the most interesting pieces in the book are from anthropologists and the like, as opposed to computer scientists; experts who manage to place recent developments in the wider context of human evolution. The advent of the internet is seen by many here to be just as important as the development of primitive tools, speech and writing were in previous millennia. It is a point, for the most part, well argued. But that example also highlights one of the problems of this collection: it is inevitably very repetitive. The same points are made again and again by different writers, so that there is a real case of diminishing returns, the further you read. If I had a quid for every comparison to the Gutenberg press, well, it would keep me in online poker for quite a while.
Ultimately, this is a genuinely thought-provoking collection of writing on a subject the future of which is only very tentatively beginning to be spied through the fog. It is much like its subject matter to read, though: occasionally inspired, often frustrating, repetitive, conflicted, confused, self-important and just a little bit mind-boggling.
If you can drag yourself away from your computer for long enough ... then happy reading.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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