NOT since the advent of printing has an invention so altered the way we live as the internet has.
Access to information – some valuable, much of it trivial – has grown logarithmically; handwriting has become almost anachronistic in the span of a generation; retail business has been upended; the democratisation of ideas and the speed at which they travel have proved politically transformative.
Yet, in its infancy, we remain largely ignorant of how the internet might change us. Among the best-known efforts at dissecting this phenomenon was Nicholas Carr’s 2008 article in The Atlantic, titled ”Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. The headline, itself a provocative form of stupidity, obscured Carr’s argument, chiefly that a spoon-fed diet of internet candy seems to diminish our ability to concentrate and conquer problems that resist being condensed into a hyperlink. Carr’s worried, persuasive voice, though, was but one.
John Brockman has collected the views of 154 scientists, philosophers and artists to consider the question posed by this book’s title. Note, he asked contributors how the internet has changed the way ”you” – not ”we” – think. Brockman’s aim is not treatises. He wants personal responses and, to a satisfying degree, he gets them.
He has been posing thought-provoking questions since 1996 as founder of Edge (edge.org) and put them in book form since 2005. The question for his 2010 edition (even the internet has not sped the arrival of this print-format book to our shores) produces little consensus. This proves a central strength.
Clay Shirky, an author who specialises in analysing the social impacts of the internet, observes that we value most that which is scarce. But in making so much information available on the internet we have lessened our appreciation for, and therefore the value of, knowledge. This, for Shirky, explains a collapse in the quality of public debate.
Hang on, says Kevin Kelly, editor-at-large for Wired, the Life magazine of the digital age. He argues that for every internet ”fact”, we encounter an ”anti-fact” that pushes us to embrace uncertainty and apply our critical faculties.
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