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

Posted in Knerds on March 9, 2012 by

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, 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.