Evolving back to the campfire?


TECHNOLOGY: How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Edited by John Brockman Atlantic Books, 408pp, £19.99

WHILE I WAS dipping in and out of this 400-page book, which asks 154 western intellectuals about the internet’s impact on the way they think, a visual joke began doing the rounds of the social networks. One picture shows a selection of leaves from common trees and asks how many you can identify; the second shows corporate logos, minus the company names. Most of us cannot fail to identify Apple, Nike, Twitter and the rest.

It is a prime example of how the global network has contributed to changing what we think about. How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?is the latest instalment in John Brockman’s series of annual Edge publications. The series is inspired by a failed 1971 art experiment that sought to distil all the world’s knowledge through a conversation between 100 of the most brilliant minds, as opposed to attempting to absorb the contents of a few million books in a library.

Edge ( edge.org) now has a more modest goal, and each year it addresses a question that comes to Brockman or one of his contributors in the middle of the night. This year’s question is highly topical, thanks partly to Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, which had the chattering classes aflutter before they were once again distracted by Twitter. Here Carr bemoans the establishment of a library without books at an elite US prep school, believing that by opting for the “swiftly moving stream of particles” on the web, rather than books, which focus our attention and isolate us from distractions, both he and the students stand to lose as much as they gain.

Carr’s book looks at how the web is changing our thinking; the question posed in Brockman’s is deliberately a personal one. Despite this, there is a common thread of concern among many of its contributors that the internet has created a global attention-deficit disorder as we flit from link to link, barely skimming the surface.

Kevin Kelly, Wiredmagazine’s editor at large, actually celebrates “the trancelike state we fall into while following the undirected path of links” on the web, but he says that, ultimately, the internet is just a tool that, like all tools, makes us smarter.

It is Mark Pagel, a British evolutionary biologist, who most effectively puts the attention-deficit-disorder theory to the sword, pointing out that the “curmudgeons and troglodytes” criticising the internet’s impact on literacy and numeracy are the “same people who grumbled about the telegraph, trains, the motorcar, the wireless, and television”.

Pagel is more concerned about a phenomenon called “bad mathematics”, whereby our brains are now assessing risk on the basis not of the experience of the small group around us, the tribe, but on the inputs of the seven billion people on Earth. As a result, for example, we overestimate the risk of our children being snatched, but this bad maths also makes the web a breeding ground for “neuroses and false beliefs”.

The internet as addressed here is largely one of academic pursuits rather than the mindless trawling of Facebook or the incessant tweeting that is the experience of most of the two billion people who now go online. As Richard Dawkins points out, the content of most online forums is “likely to be of a drivelling fatuity that insults the technology that mediates it”.

Dawkins, as you’d expect, is one of the more pragmatic contributors, who can balance the intellectual attractiveness of the Wikipedia hive mind with the “rubbish on the web” to come to obvious but rarely stated conclusions, such as how it is preferable to engage in a virtual world than to be a passive consumer of Big Brother on the couch.

The always-on nature of the web, which constantly beckons us to check what’s happening, may seem at odds with our natural instincts, but, as June Cohen of Ted Media suggests, the internet “may be returning us to the intensely social animals we evolved to be”. While 20th-century “old media” was one way, the web has become participatory and enables new forms of communication between friends and family.

Other contributors, of which this reader found too many were white male American academics, betray a cyberoptimism that harks back to the heyday of the cyberpunk movement, in the mid-1990s. The veteran Silicon Valley reporter John Markoff rightly points out that the “shining city on a hill” forecast in the web’s nascent days actually became a “Pandora’s box of nastiness” that wasn’t foreseen by the San Francisco cybercheerleaders but was predicted by prescient science-fiction writers, such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.

There is something ironic about reading these thoughts in a traditional hardback rather than on a screen. You certainly won’t agree with all the views expressed, but the question is worth considering away from the distractions of the web.

My takeaway? The internet is only beginning to evolve – it may even be beginning to self-evolve – but, if we want, it can enable us to return to a “premedia” social order that has similarities to the sharing of stories around the campfire.