Tag Archives: knewton salon

From Details to Deep Understanding: How the Internet Has Changed the Way I Think

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.

In elementary school I worried about discrete facts. I had to memorize the preamble of the United States Constitution, and recall that “in the year 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” In high school, I worried less about discrete facts. I focused on being a better writer and thinker, however, I could still name all of the elements on the periodic table. In college, as an education major, I rarely bothered to even do assigned readings, and instead focused on debating with professors about their ideas. I finished with an A average.

This progression — from a focus on rote memorization to a focus on playing with ideas — relates not only to my change in perspective from youth to adulthood, but also to how the internet has changed my thinking. Today I work as a software engineer. I have to study and be aware of thousands of discrete facts. Yet the hardest and most important part of the job is the need for deep analytical thinking and reasoning. Debugging a complex system or implementing a sophisticated algorithm requires understanding that can’t be bought from scanning Wikipedia.

In today’s constantly connected world, I worry less and less about details that are a google search away, and instead try to refine my critical thinking abilities. The internet has changed the way I think by changing my priorities.

The Internet as an Extension of Human Thought

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.

Knewton Salon: How Has the Internet Changed the Way You Think?

Web of Connection

The Edge, the brainchild of mega-agent and editor John Brockman, is this century’s salon–an online community of experts and innovators. In the words of the novelist Ian McEwan, Edge.org is “open-minded, free ranging, intellectually playful … an unadorned pleasure in curiosity, a collective expression of wonder at the living and inanimate world … an ongoing and thrilling colloquium.” In the past, contributors have included such luminaries as biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and philosopher Larry Sanger. Last year the community published a book composed of answers to the simple but thought-provoking question: “How has the internet changed the way you think?” It’s a brilliant question, one that sparked a book filled with some of the most insightful essays I’ve read in a long time. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite essays, “Net Gain” by evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins:

“The unplanned worldwide unification that the Web is achieving (a science fiction enthusiast might discern the embryonic stirrings of a new life form) mirrors the evolution of the nervous system in multicellular animals.”

As I was reading the compilation I was reminded a lot of the kind of discussions we have at Knewton. So recently I decided to host our own The-Edge-style discussion here on the Knewton blog.

To kick it off, here are my own thoughts on the matter:

The beauty of intellectual surfing.

The internet has promoted a kind of “intellectual surfing”–you enter a topic or a question, click from story to story and ride the “wave” of knowledge you find out there. You never know when you’ll stumble upon a huge wave and discover a whole new interest altogether. It’s a beautiful and dream-like activity, an adventure of sorts. A waste of time? No more or less so than other adventures. The danger, the yearning, the aimlessness, the detours, and the sheer strangeness of the internet are part of the point.

Public intellectual, Jon Kleinberg has elaborated on the “adventure” aspect of the internet in his brilliant essay, “The Human Texture of Information”: “You bump into these computational artifacts like strange characters in a Carrollian Wonderland. There is the giant creature who has memorized everything ever written and will repeat excerpts back to you (mainly out of context) in response to your questions… And even more exotic characters are on the way; a whole industry works tirelessly to develop them.”

In this day and age, concentration is just a muscle we need to work out.

Does the internet ruin our capacity for relaxation, concentration and memorization? I don’t think so. I think the internet intensifies it. After all, contrast gives everything meaning. A weekend spent meditating or riding a bike is so much better because of the stimulation, the clicking, the flashing lights and “juicy feedback” (music and animation designed to make users feel proud of themselves for accomplishing something) in the rest of our lives.

I think we’re best off if we try to take responsibility for our own relationship with the internet. So, for instance, if I’m feeling like my mental capacity is being chipped away by all the frenzy and stimulation, I work it out by reading a long, hard novel or writing a poem. I think the key is to develop a sense of self-awareness that lets you know what you need to feel cognitively balanced.

This is partially why school is so important. On a raw level, school can show students what it feels like to concentrate at different levels–what it feels like to write a paper, solve a difficult math puzzle, and synthesize various skills. That way, students develop a taste for cognitive satisfaction and learn to look for it throughout their lives.

Along these lines, I don’t think that skills like memorization have decreased in importance. Sure, it may seem like we don’t need to commit facts to memory anymore and that the relevant skills today are navigation, retrieval, and analysis (how quickly you can find something, whether you can find it again later, and absorb what you need from it as quickly as possible). But memorization is still important; even in today’s world, where you have a universe of information at your fingertips, you have to remember how to navigate information, how to find it again, how to use tools to find it again as well as what you found in the past and how that might relate to the information rushing at you in the present. So in this sense, memorization is inextricably linked to navigation, retrieval, and analysis. The more you remember at any given point, the more space you have left in your “working memory” to perform complex cognitive processes.

In this way, the internet doesn’t let our minds atrophy. It raises the stakes in terms of what we expect from ourselves. Neurophysiologist William Calvin puts forth a variation on this argument in his essay, “The Shoulders of Giants”:

“So how has the Internet’s connectedness changed the Darwinian creative process? For the data-gathering stage, it affords us more variants, which others have already checked for quality. Search engine speed provides them faster, so that a number can be gathered within the time constraints of working memory–say, ten minutes… And that’s how I have been feeling about the Internet’s expansion of quick access to knowledge and ideas. You can stand on the shoulders of a lot more giants at the same time.”

Stay tuned for the next installment of Knewton Salon for other thoughts on this topic.