Is Internet Changing the Way You Think?

What is your answer to this question? Please add your comment.

I am reading a book that asks this question to 150 people in various fields. See here. I will be posting brief summaries of the most interesting themes that emerge from the book along with commentary in this post.

1. I was astonished to see one common theme quickly emerge from the couple of dozen answers I have read so far. Many of this people see the Internet as a trade-off: while they appreciate the dramatic expansion of information accessible to them at dramatically faster speeds, they bemoan a loss of the ability to sustain uninterrupted deep thought on deep issues over a long period of time. Do you experience any such trade-off?

2. Richard Dawkins points out that the unplanned integration the world wide web is achieving resembles the evolution of the nervous system of multi-cellular organisms. Nassim Taleb argues that by spreading information fast and increasing interdependence the internet exacerbates the phenomena of fads, turning the world into “Extremistan” with large unpredictable swings.

3. Peter Diamandis points out that the internet world of “Ask and you shall receive” puts high premium on asking better and compelling questions. Gregory Paul suggests that we should be looking at the generation that grew up immersed in the world wide web to see if the way they think is different from the generations before them.

4. Lee Smolin thinks we are being transformed from cultivators of thoughts to hunter-gatherers of information. Frank Tipler raises the question of whether the internet is a great leveler reducing the diversity of thought or it increases diversity of thought by creating isolated groups on the internet.

5. Paul Kadrosky says internet is like having a super-collider of ideas on your desk, a private particle accelerator that throws things into violent juxtaposition with great speed with resulting collisions producing new particles–new ideas.

6. June Cohen argues that the increased ability to connect to other people is returning us back to the more intensely social animals we always were, and that twentieth century mass-media with its centralization of information flow was an aberration in human history.

7. Chris Anderson argues that speech was the primary means of communication throughout human history before Gutenberg. Printing press gave the written word an insuperable transmission advantage, and civilization became dominated by the that mode of communication. With the Internet now speech has acquired the same universal transmission ability as the written word, and because it is more natural to human beings, it will replace written word as the dominant mode of communication. Do you agree or disagree? Why?

8. In the most insightful answer so far, Clay Shirky points out that whenever a radically new medium of communication comes along that men need to discover new standards of cooperation that make an entirely new level of interaction possible. He talks about the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry brought about by a group of chemists who formed the “invisible college“, a precursor to the Royal Society. As opposed to the alchemists who were obscurantists, keeping all their discoveries (and fantasies mixed in with them) secret, the members of the invisible college shared their work, describing and disputing their observations, conclusions and methods, thereby learning from both successes and failures, and building upon each others’ works–thereby launching the scientific revolution. He notes that the bulk of internet seems to be stuck in the “invisible high school” with a modicum of information floating in an ocean of age old social obsessions. He points out that the internet now makes possible a level of collaboration many orders of magnitude higher and that there already are some examples of people developing new standards of interaction and building somethings that were unthinkable before: Wikipedia,, NASA clickworkers, Linux etc. What will the new invisible college look like?

9. One of the people, whose name I don’t readily recall, made a fascinating point about memory. When you can look up anything you need at any time, what you need to keep in memory to operate effectively changes. You can outsource most of the things you used memory for in the past to computers and websites–your own or those of others. To use an analogy, you can move from being an infantryman weighed down by his heavy gear to a nimble modern special ops operative able to call in massive firepower on any target at will from miles away.

10. In the comments below, Aneel observes that for him “Access to vast stores of data AND the ability to interact with the same idea as expressed from a multiplicity of contexts increases the [potential] velocity at which integrations can be made.” Andrew Layman points out that “This raises the relative value of what the internet cannot supply: wisdom. That requires both experience and an organized mental filing system. So I find that I spend less time on research and more on evaluating and organizing.” John Skiff observes “what I notice the most is that the internet doesn’t encourage open discussion and the sharing of ideas. It is creating a neo-Tribalism of online cliques. People frequent sites that have messages that they already agree with and they haunt and harrass sites where they disagree with the message.” Please read their full comments below. I will keep highlighting comments in this post that make a point of the same order of magnitude as the best answers in the book. So please keep the comments coming.

11. Thanks Chris for your detailed thoughts. I particularly like your observation about how the internet on one hand diminishes and on the other hand deepens division of labor. You are right in questioning the question–in fact the question to start with, which most of the people in the book actually address is: “How is the internet changing your life?” I am not too concerned about the possibility of seductive power of simulated reality reducing the focus of reality. We have always had that problem in spades throughout history–most systems of religion and philosophy have been much much worse simulations of reality than any games and have used a much deeper level of psychological and political sophistication to support the illusion than a game developer could hope for. While transmission speed of fads of all kinds has increased, their half-life has shrunk.

12. Geoffrey Miller says that the most revolutionary change is in his judgement and decision making–the way he evaluates and chooses among options. The online peer ratings and reviews in sites like Amazon and Tripadvisor provide an incredibly efficient means of exploring and navigating through choices.

More updates coming soon; check back here.

What is YOUR answer to this question? Please add your comment.

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30 Responses to Is Internet Changing the Way You Think?

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  19. Chris Nielsen says:

    I think there is a big difference between religion or a bad idea system and a flawed virtual environment.

    All a bad idea system can do is tell you that the world is different than it is. It can’t make the world actualy function a different way.

    A flawed virtual world actualy creates an environment that really does function differently than the real world.

    A rational person probably wouldn’t spend more time trying to achieve goals in a virtual world than they spent in real life. But there are people that do. And if they spend more time trying to achieve goals in the virtual environment won’t their decision making process and behavior be shaped to optimize achievement in that environment?

    The question was how does the internet change the way you think. If you think of a virtual world as a really complicated and possibly messed up skinner box, and if you spent more time acheiving goals there than in the real world, wouldn’t that effect “the way you think” on a different level than just having faster access to more information?

    I just thought of a completly different way of explaining this.

    Most of the answers about how the internet changes the way we think had to do with information, speed, efficiency, quantity, etc… All this, including my division of labor point are examples of the internet changing the way we think in the same sort of way non-fiction information content influences us.

    I think my point about virtual worlds is along the lines that they can change the way we think in a manner that is more like how art effects your thinking. A virtual world paints a picture of the world so complicated that you can interact with it. In a story the author tells you the character’s actions and then tells you their consequences. In a virtual world you choose the actions and then directly experience the consequences as implimented by the game designers.

    So in the way bad art can influence how you think by showing you a distorted world and showing you bad decision making process, I think a flawed virtual environment can do the same by creating a distorted world and thereby getting the player actualy practice what would be a bad decision making process in the real world.

    Does that make more sense?

  20. Mindy Newton says:

    I agree with Catledge that misinformation, misstatements and every variant of error and inaccuracy is too freely mixed with legitimate sources of dependable information, creating a monumental problem for using the internet for research and education.
    When it comes to opinion, the blind are leading the blind down blind alleys of infinite length. People will be learning the hard way to consider the source, if they learn at all.
    The up side of it is that different points of view, life choices, personal creations, and everyday improvements are displayed for the use and enjoyment of all. The historical effect of creating a cosmopolitan attitude in centers of trade will be repeated through this aspect of internet-sharing and people-watching. I believe it will tend strongly to make users more cosmopolitan in attitudes and beliefs, which is a very great good.
    To the person already conscientious about thinking things through, the internet can supply information that speeds and eases that process, makes it more thorough, etc. But to the average, think-when-you’re-forced-to joe, the internet will work, I expect, as an apparent short-cut, leading to less actual thought. I expect there will soon be a new sort of mental abdication of intellectual responsibility–instead of “How should I know?” we’ll be getting, “But that’s what it said on the internet.”
    All in all, the internet is what we make it. It is an interesting mirror of the thinking and opinions of scads of strangers.
    Some wise one once said, “A man is finally defined by what he does with his attention.” With the internet, this becomes a monumental truth.

  21. One effect of the internet is its role as a huge library. I can look up any fact, opinion, or essay, so I can research things quickly and at low cost. This raises the relative value of what the internet cannot supply: wisdom. That requires both experience and an organized mental filing system. So I find that I spend less time on research and more on evaluating and organizing.

    The internet’s is also a networked conversation. Here, all the above applies with bells on.

  22. Chris Nielsen says:

    In the question being asked, I see two possible interpritations of “the way we think.”

    If you mean does the internet change the mechanism by which we think, then the answer is clearly that it does not. The internet does not alter the process itself of perception, concept formation, recognition and decision making.

    If you mean does the internet effect or change our mental contents and thereby alter our decisions, the answer is clearly yes. Any thing new you percieve does this. It’s not unique to the internet. The internet just provides a vast set of losely organized new things.

    Having made that distinction, the real question is probably something more like do the unique characteristics of information on the internet create any broad new trends in mental content and decisiton making. How does the shere amount of information, the speed of access, the loose organization, the vast number of anonymous sournces effect us?

    There are probably a number of major and minor effects that can be rationaly predicted or empericly discovered by looking. For example, I saw mention of the speed and extent of fads. I can think of two other large broad effects that I have experienced.

    (1) The major benifits of society include accumulation of knowledge and division of labor. It is more obvious to think about the effect of the internet in terms of its impact on the accumultion of knowledge. But stop for a moment and think about its impact on division of labor.

    With information from the internet I have repared multiple things that otherwise would have required a specialist to figure out what was wrong with them and how to fix them. The internet has also been a source of parts, tools, and supplies that only specialists would have easy access to in the past.

    This effect on the division of labor could be characterized a couple different ways. In some sense the division of labor seems diminished because I’m now doing things that I would have paid an expert to do. In another sense it makes the expert more productive and the division of labor more powerful. A single expert can post how to do something on the internet and solve a problem for hundereds of people. That is a productivity gain. It also frees up experts in that field to focus on more advanced work. That is a deepening of the division of labor.

    (2) The creation of false realities. What I am concerned about here is internet based environments that are designed to appear to simulate something real but don’t. And the way fail can be very subtle and damaging.

    One of the main false assumptions that comunisim relies on is the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth. If there is only a fixed amount of wealth then the only way to get anything is to take it from someone else and anything you have is something you are preventing others from having.

    Of course in the real word this assumption is false because with human creativity we can produce things that didn’t exist before.

    But if you are creating a world in the form of an online game or simulation, then the design of the world is up to you. If you want the game world to be compeling you need people to have goals and values to obtain in the game world. If all the goals and values are easy to obtain by everyone then the game is boreing. So, every interesting game world impliments some method of making it so that items with more value are rare and hard to get.

    This is almost always implimented by making some step in the process of obtaining a valueable item a bottleneck with very limited or fixed availablity.

    This frequently causes the kind of tension and fights among the players that you would expect from a fixed wealth system. The question is, do they take the patterns of thought and behavior that they learn in the game to deal with the fixed wealth system and then apply them to the real world?

    I’m not against online games, I’m just pointing out that to the extent there are flaws in the implimentation that cause the simulated world to diverge from reality then the behavior people learn in the simulated environment won’t be appropriate for the real world. If the effect is subtle, will the person even notice it? If they don’t even notice the flaw or the difference in behavior, will they be able to compartmentalize it so it doesn’t spill over into how they think about and deal with the real world?

  23. John Skiff says:

    I went to college in the late 80’s and are early 90’s. The Internet at this time was available to only a small number of folks who knew how to work the system. Now the Internet is an open access point to just about anything under the sun. But what I notice the most is that it doesn’t encourage open discussion and the sharing of ideas. It is creating a neo-Tribalism of online cliques. People frequent sites that have messages that they already agree with and they haunt and harrass sites where they disagree with the message.

    But no sharing of ideas. Or at least not enough learning of new ideas.

  24. Scott Catledge says:

    I prioritize and process easily; however, my efficiency is reduced by the incredible amount of opinion and sheer misinformation on line characterized by much, of not most, of Wikipedia. (I cannot say all because I have seen well-documented intelligent postings). As for “educated” comment, Citizenpedia–or whatever its name was (is?)–showed me that PhDs can be even dumber than hoi polloi. Fortunately, the dumbest seem to post the most often: I can simply sort by name, eliminate those who love to see their inanities on line, and read the rest.
    Has Internet changed the way I think? Not in the least. It has facilitated my communication and my acquisition of information.

  25. I find the internet a fantastic information resource and a huge time-saver. I’m always on a “curiosity binge” over some subject or another and now I can unearth the facts I am seeking in minutes without leaving home.

    Can you imagine how much Ayn Rand could have created and left for us if she had a word-processor and a blog?

  26. Thank you Ali, Ameeta, Michael and Aneel for your comments. As you can see, I am currently focused on adding more food for thought to this post. I will respond to comments a little later. Please keep the comments coming.

  27. Aneel says:

    Given that I grew up with the net, I can’t say how it’s changing/changed the way I think.

    But here is the salient point regarding how it’s woven into how I do think:

    Access to vast stores of data AND the ability to interact with the same idea as expressed from a multiplicity of contexts increases the [potential] velocity at which integrations can be made.

  28. Michael says:

    @Ameeta I agree. Generally speaking, I have no difficulty dealing with the huge amount of information t find on the internet. I’m able to filter and prioritize so that I only deal with the most relevant and important items, and because my knowledge is and always has been well-intgrated I can process what I do read (or see/hear in the case of video info) quickly and efficiently. These skills are sorely lacking in the vast majority of people. They have no solid factual base, nor fundamental principles upon which to base their encounters with new information. This leaves them confused and at the mercy of whatever they’re feeling at the moment, leading to incorrect or contradictory processing of that information. This self-perpetuates, and they’re never able to overcome it. All thanks to the invalid way they were taught to think and learn.

  29. Ameeta Saxena says:

    I think the dismal attention span is more to the current education system and methodologies. From what I’ve heard, it’s the schools in the US which encourage this “figuring out” method and hands-on learning as against actual systematic teaching and intelligent guidance. This almost amounts to re-inventing the wheel. There’s a difference between learning inductive, analytical and problem solving skills and doing unnecessary, all-over-the-place kind of time-wasting”research”.

  30. Ali says:

    I think it’s mostly crow overload. Take any subject, and you have hundreds of articles discussing it from many interesting perspectives. Speaking for myself, all the time and effort required in understanding these ideas, usually, leave that much less time and effort to analyze and assess as to which one is correct. Mostly, it’s sheer fatigue that sets in and makes it very difficult to persevere in the will to form an independent judgment.

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