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The Internet as an Extension of Human Thought

Posted in Knerds on March 22, 2012 by



This post was inspired by Edge.org‘s collection of responses to the question, “How has the Internet changed the way you think?” Check out our other posts on the subject here.

If someone asked me when the Gettysburg address was delivered, I could say with dubious certainty that it was around the 1860s. Given just a few minutes, I wouldn’t be able to get any more specific than that.

But if I sat for a while and thought really hard, I might remember the day I learned about the Gettysburg address for the first time. I was in U.S. history class; it was first period; I hadn’t had breakfast. As I snuck a look at my watch, I realized it was 9:27 AM. My mind began to chase the patterns in the number: 9*2=18, 9*7 = 63. Oh, and 18*2 = 36, the flip of 63. And 1+5=6 and 8-5=3. And thus, the year of the Gettysburg address — 1863 — was indelibly imprinted on my mind.

Or so I thought. Now, on the few times that Lincoln’s speech pops into conversation, rather than think back on that day in history class and recollect the exact year, I google it. The contemplative process of recollection has been replaced by an action item, because it’s become much faster and easier to retrieve information from the internet than to remember it. As a result, less information is fundamentally woven into my memories and thoughts; more floats freely in my mind, untethered to personal context.

Some argue that this change in the representation of content within the mind implies a change in the mechanism of processing information, while others disagree. The question I’m more interested in, however, is not about the thought processes of the individual, but that of the collective: how is the internet changing the way we think?

Many of the contributors in the Edge’s original series considered a particular characteristic of the internet, or things that have been enabled by the internet: the World Wide Web, the search engine, the instant accessibility of information. While popular language has made the internet synonymous with the World Wide Web, the internet, at its essence, is the global system of interconnected computer networks. It’s this network that enables the vast amount of human-to-machine, human-to-human, and machine-to-machine data communication in today’s world.

This interconnected system means that the issue is no longer just what or how any one individual thinks. As applications of the internet go far beyond individual thought capabilities, we are increasingly detaching knowledge from our individual selves to this intertwined system of machines and humans. Through continual collaboration, the system builds its own collective knowledge, and in this way becomes capable of thinking at a higher level than any human could possibly dream of.

Take what we’re trying to do at Knewton. An individual teacher or one of our data scientists could conjecture the proficiency of a particular student or the key factors that influence how that student learns best. But thanks to the internet, the Knewton platform is able to analyze this in a much more refined and sophisticated way, leveraging the collective knowledge stemming from the unprecedented level of collaboration between the the machines that power the Knewton system, all the teachers and students using Knewton, and us Knerds.

The internet hasn’t just changed the way that I, or others, think. The internet is becoming a pivotal extension of human thought itself.