Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, January 8, 2010

"How is the Internet changing how you think?"

The “Question of the Year” at Edge is: “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” (Though some parts of the website phrase it differently: "How has the Internet changed the way you think?") I will be commenting on some of the answers — though not all 159 of them — in the coming days and weeks, but I want to start with Danny Hillis, because he makes an essential distinction that not too many others will bear in mind:

It seems that most people, even intelligent and well-informed people, are confused about the difference between the Internet and the Web. . . . The Web is a wonderful resource for speeding up the retrieval and dissemination of information and that, despite Wolfe's trivialization, is no small change. Yet, the Internet is much more than just the Web. . . . By the Internet, I mean the global network of interconnected computers that enables, among other things, the Web. I would like to focus on applications that go beyond human-to-human communication. In the long run, these are applications of the Internet that will have the greatest impact on who we are and how we think.

Today, most people only recognize that they are using the Internet when they are interacting with a computer screen. They are less likely to appreciate when they are using the Internet while talking on the telephone, watching television, or flying on an airplane. Some travelers may have recently gotten a glimpse of the truth, for example, upon learning that their flights were grounded due to an Internet router failure in Salt Lake City, but for most this was just another inscrutable annoyance. Most people have long ago given up on trying to understand how technical systems work. This is a part of how the Internet is changing the way we think.

I want to be clear that I am not complaining about technical ignorance. In an Internet-connected world, it is almost impossible to keep track of how systems actually function. Your telephone conversation may be delivered over analog lines one day and by the Internet the next. Your airplane route may be chosen by a computer or a human being, or (most likely) some combination of both. Don't bother asking, because any answer you get is likely to be wrong.

Soon, no human will know the answer. More and more decisions are made by the emergent interaction of multiple communicating systems, and these component systems themselves are constantly adapting, changing the way they work. This is the real impact of the Internet: by allowing adaptive complex systems to interoperate, the Internet has changed the way we make decisions. More and more, it is not individual humans who decide, but an entangled, adaptive network of humans and machines.

It seems to me difficult to overstress how important this is — and how much more important than the ways we interact with our personal computers.

2 comments:

  • Vince Virgilio said...

    It certainly trumps the Mac v. PC debate.

  • There was a time when I would have asked "So what?" in response to this observation, or "Where is the actionable information?" With so much information overload compared to, say 150 years ago, filtering out the noise is a necessity. However, it's becoming clear that as individuals, we're far more vulnerable to impersonal, mechanized forces than ever before. Further, as behaviors aggregate and become institutionalized and abstract, like the so-called War on Terror, they take on a life of their own far beyond the will and control of either any person or group of leaders. In effect, we become the cogs operating within some larger, complex system that no longer cares for us.

    So the importance of understanding what's happening to us and making useful distinctions between the Web and the Internet become paramount lest we be further reduced to mere economic units and voting blocs.

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