Before we decry the internet, it is worth remembering that the world wide web is only a modern solution to an ancient problem. Since the dawn of communication, human beings have needed to store, retrieve, filter, interpret and exchange information. The only difference today is that the internet achieves this at faster speeds and greater levels of sophistication than our brains, which leaves many of us feeling flustered.
You can hear this faint alarm bell of anxiety ringing in the title of John Brockman's thought-provoking collection of essays, How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think? Brockman is the editor of Edge (edge.org), a group of illustrious thinkers that aims to "seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves". Members include Ai Weiwei, Brian Cox and Ian McEwan. Each year Brockman asks a "big" question (in 2001 it was "what questions have disappeared?"; this year's is "what is your favourite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?") and invites Edge's 674 members to reply. Thankfully, many of Edge's essayists violently disagree with each other. To some, the internet is "a work of genius, one of the highest achievements of the human species" (Richard Dawkins) and "the most human of technologies" (the historian Noga Arikha). To others, it is "the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of the television" (the neurobiologist Leo Chalupa) and "nothing more than a very useful, and very dumb, butler" (the neuroscientist Joshua Greene).
The essays are peppered with insights. These include a theory that virtual cities will encourage states of psychosis, as real cities already do, and the observation that books, newspapers and television are, in fact, recent inventions, whereas websites based on communal sharing, such as Facebook, signal a return to prehistoric, tribal patterns of communication. Some essays are detailed and logical; others verge on the poetic: "Where has slowness gone?" The answer to the question posed in this anthology's title appears, at least in biological terms, to be no. Or rather, not yet.
"We know this," says Mark Pagel, professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Reading, "because we can still visit some people on Earth who don't have the internet. My general-purpose thinking circuits are hard-wired into my brain from genetic instructions honed over millions of years of natural selection."
It is true that learning a new skill does reshape our brains. The hippocampus enlarges in the brains of London cabbies as they learn the Knowledge. It doesn't mean, however, that they think in a different way. It is also pleasing to read that people who claim the internet has improved their "multitasking skills" are talking rot. "Genuine multitasking, at present, probably exceeds the limitations of the attentional system of Homo sapiens," the cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman says.
The process of compiling and reading this book is an example of how the internet is both a help and a hindrance. Canvassing the opinions of so many far-flung thinkers would have taken months, if not years, of correspondence prior to the invention of e-mail. Yet I am glad it is available as a printed book. If its 140 short essays had been displayed on a website, there is no way I would have finished them. My mind would have flitted elsewhere.
In fact, the only moments when I was able to think in a steady, concentrated way about the impact of the internet on my intellectual capacity came at times when I was forcibly disconnected from it: standing in the shower; going for a jog. The internet may not have changed the way we think, yet. But it is affecting our ability to concentrate. Nevertheless, is it fair to blame a brilliant new technology for our failure to use it productively?
-The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2012
How Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?Edited by John Brockman,Atlantic Books, 408 pages, £19.99