Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

That’s the title of a book in the Edge series edited by John Brockman, each containing short essays by a wide range of leading intellects answering a question.

The internet clearly changes how we behave, and live. But think? A much harder question because how we think is not, to begin with, well understood. But the answer is probably closer to no than yes, because our brain function is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. And it’s increasingly clear that much if not most of what we think of as thinking takes place on a level below conscious awareness. What you think you think and what you really think can differ.

Humans have developed ever more sophisticated tools to facilitate thought. First, language; then writing; both really huge add-ons to our pre-installed neuronal thinking apparatus. Then disseminating written language via printing. The internet, important though it is, must be seen as yet one more such tool, like an external hard-drive appended to our basic thinking machine. Which still remains basically unchanged.

But it bears noting that Edge asked a cultural elite about their thinking. Not “the man in the street.” Naturally many Edge responders emphasized benefits in terms of pursuing their intellectual, research, collaborative, scientific endeavors, etc. I was reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s saying religion is a good thing for good people and a bad thing for bad people. Smarter people aren’t necessarily better people. But in some ways the internet is a good thing for very smart people and a bad thing for the rest.

Those writing Edge essays can use it very advantageously. Some did bemoan being distracted by extraneous stuff. Cat videos? But cat videos are harmless. What very smart people don’t get waylaid by is all the internet’s toxic crap, all the stuff reinforcing pre-existing misconceptions, the political craziness, all the conspiracy theories. They’re too smart for that.

Notice I’m saying very smart people. Unfortunately being just “smart” isn’t enough. The anti-vax hysteria shows this. Anti-vaxxers are actually, on average, smarter than average. But not as smart as Edge contributors, who would never fall for such harmful nonsense — spread mainly by the internet.

The difference is that Edge writers and their sort tend to have a deep grounding of knowledge and understanding about the world, to vet things like anti-vaxx, creationism, new age fads, Trumpism. Too many others lack that: blank slates onto which rubbish sticks as well as truth. Suckers for hucksters, charlatans, and demogogues.

Roger Schank’s essay put it thus: “The intelligentsia may well be getting smarter because they have easy access to a wider range of good thinking, but the rest of the world may be getting dumber because they have easy access to nonsense.”

Or Mark Twain (supposedly) said: a lie can run around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on. That was before the internet really got going. And the book was published in 2011, before a lot of the worst net-instigated problems became evident — before anti-vaxx really exploded, and of course before we became aware of the pernicious aspects of social media, especially in relation to the 2016 election.

Changing topics, I’ll quote Alun Anderson’s essay: on the net, “[i]n a few hours, an innocent can see more of the pleasures and perversions of sex . . . than an eighteenth century roué could experience in a lifetime devoted to illicit encounters.” It really was so challenging back then. I’ve written previously about online porn’s ubiquity profoundly affecting this most elemental aspect of human life. In advanced Western societies, at least, sex has become a lot more open than it used to be, for a long time already, and we’ve grown somewhat jaded. This moderates the impact of widely available porn. But consider societies that remain more traditional. Anderson, with some experience of them, does so. He believes this aspect of the internet (a very big aspect indeed) will ultimately shake their foundations.

Stay tuned.

One Response to “Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?”

  1. Monkeyman Says:

    Don’t worry about porn. The problem is in politics. Who is more dangerous; Reagan’s Iran Contra scandal amd social policies or Larry Flynt ? Easy one. I would take Larry Flynt as a friend long before Oliver North Ed Meese and Jerry Falwell. Social rot has nothing to do with sex , fantasy and porn. Social rot is rooted in one thing. GREED. Lack of concern for the whole society will eventually bring that society down. Trump is wrong guy at the wrong time. If voting rights are reduced more again than that is another sign of rot. Riots happening now is because of a larger problem . GREED.

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