What is your answer to this question? Please add your comment.
I am reading a book that asks this question to 150 people in various fields. See here. I will be posting brief summaries of the most interesting themes that emerge from the book along with commentary in this post.
1. I was astonished to see one common theme quickly emerge from the couple of dozen answers I have read so far. Many of this people see the Internet as a trade-off: while they appreciate the dramatic expansion of information accessible to them at dramatically faster speeds, they bemoan a loss of the ability to sustain uninterrupted deep thought on deep issues over a long period of time. Do you experience any such trade-off?
2. Richard Dawkins points out that the unplanned integration the world wide web is achieving resembles the evolution of the nervous system of multi-cellular organisms. Nassim Taleb argues that by spreading information fast and increasing interdependence the internet exacerbates the phenomena of fads, turning the world into “Extremistan” with large unpredictable swings.
3. Peter Diamandis points out that the internet world of “Ask and you shall receive” puts high premium on asking better and compelling questions. Gregory Paul suggests that we should be looking at the generation that grew up immersed in the world wide web to see if the way they think is different from the generations before them.
4. Lee Smolin thinks we are being transformed from cultivators of thoughts to hunter-gatherers of information. Frank Tipler raises the question of whether the internet is a great leveler reducing the diversity of thought or it increases diversity of thought by creating isolated groups on the internet.
5. Paul Kadrosky says internet is like having a super-collider of ideas on your desk, a private particle accelerator that throws things into violent juxtaposition with great speed with resulting collisions producing new particles–new ideas.
6. June Cohen argues that the increased ability to connect to other people is returning us back to the more intensely social animals we always were, and that twentieth century mass-media with its centralization of information flow was an aberration in human history.
7. Chris Anderson argues that speech was the primary means of communication throughout human history before Gutenberg. Printing press gave the written word an insuperable transmission advantage, and civilization became dominated by the that mode of communication. With the Internet now speech has acquired the same universal transmission ability as the written word, and because it is more natural to human beings, it will replace written word as the dominant mode of communication. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
8. In the most insightful answer so far, Clay Shirky points out that whenever a radically new medium of communication comes along that men need to discover new standards of cooperation that make an entirely new level of interaction possible. He talks about the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry brought about by a group of chemists who formed the “invisible college“, a precursor to the Royal Society. As opposed to the alchemists who were obscurantists, keeping all their discoveries (and fantasies mixed in with them) secret, the members of the invisible college shared their work, describing and disputing their observations, conclusions and methods, thereby learning from both successes and failures, and building upon each others’ works–thereby launching the scientific revolution. He notes that the bulk of internet seems to be stuck in the “invisible high school” with a modicum of information floating in an ocean of age old social obsessions. He points out that the internet now makes possible a level of collaboration many orders of magnitude higher and that there already are some examples of people developing new standards of interaction and building somethings that were unthinkable before: Wikipedia, arXiv.org, NASA clickworkers, Linux etc. What will the new invisible college look like?
9. One of the people, whose name I don’t readily recall, made a fascinating point about memory. When you can look up anything you need at any time, what you need to keep in memory to operate effectively changes. You can outsource most of the things you used memory for in the past to computers and websites–your own or those of others. To use an analogy, you can move from being an infantryman weighed down by his heavy gear to a nimble modern special ops operative able to call in massive firepower on any target at will from miles away.
10. In the comments below, Aneel observes that for him “Access to vast stores of data AND the ability to interact with the same idea as expressed from a multiplicity of contexts increases the [potential] velocity at which integrations can be made.” Andrew Layman points out that “This raises the relative value of what the internet cannot supply: wisdom. That requires both experience and an organized mental filing system. So I find that I spend less time on research and more on evaluating and organizing.” John Skiff observes “what I notice the most is that the internet doesn’t encourage open discussion and the sharing of ideas. It is creating a neo-Tribalism of online cliques. People frequent sites that have messages that they already agree with and they haunt and harrass sites where they disagree with the message.” Please read their full comments below. I will keep highlighting comments in this post that make a point of the same order of magnitude as the best answers in the book. So please keep the comments coming.
11. Thanks Chris for your detailed thoughts. I particularly like your observation about how the internet on one hand diminishes and on the other hand deepens division of labor. You are right in questioning the question–in fact the question to start with, which most of the people in the book actually address is: “How is the internet changing your life?” I am not too concerned about the possibility of seductive power of simulated reality reducing the focus of reality. We have always had that problem in spades throughout history–most systems of religion and philosophy have been much much worse simulations of reality than any games and have used a much deeper level of psychological and political sophistication to support the illusion than a game developer could hope for. While transmission speed of fads of all kinds has increased, their half-life has shrunk.
12. Geoffrey Miller says that the most revolutionary change is in his judgement and decision making–the way he evaluates and chooses among options. The online peer ratings and reviews in sites like Amazon and Tripadvisor provide an incredibly efficient means of exploring and navigating through choices.
More updates coming soon; check back here.
What is YOUR answer to this question? Please add your comment.