Sydney Morning Herald MARCH 31, 2012 - by Conrad Walters


The debate surrounding the cyber world's impact on our cognitive processes is delivered from all sides in a finely constructed anthology.

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 nuanced 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.

Editor John Brockman has collected the views of a hundred and fifty-four 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 annually since 1996 as founder of Edge and put these 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.

But we're losing those abilities if you believe Richard Dawkins, the British evolutionary biologist who decries "a habit of butterflying from topic to topic rather than attending to one thing at a time".

This perceived loss of focus - and many contributors point to it - prompts Marissa Mayer, a Google vice-president in charge of user experience, to argue that the era of memorised knowledge may be over and we gain little by mourning its death.

What will supplant it? Resourcefulness: the ability to locate and assess available information.

David Dalrymple, from the Mind Machine Project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, goes a step further, arguing that our most important skill may become the ability to focus on the data at our fingertips.

Much is made of the concerns, voiced by Carr, that our brains are being reshaped by a sandstorm of data that threatens to erode our ability to concentrate.

Many contributors suspect deep thinking is becoming harder when the next promise of euphoria feels perpetually one click away. And they worry about delegating our memory to devices, so that we no longer remember phone numbers and we turn to a calculator to tally a restaurant bill. But even this is far from unanimous.

One contributor, American playwright Richard Foreman, defines thinking as the time when we are disconnected from the internet's perpetual messages. And Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, points out that brains have always rewired themselves to leverage the use of tools, including maths, writing and language. Andy Clark, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of Edinburgh, adds another to this list: playing the piano, hardly a skill likely to spawn hysteria about social breakdown.

Then there are those who dismiss Brockman's premise. A Harvard cognitive neuroscientist, Joshua Greene, says the internet hasn't changed the way we think "any more than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food".

That is, the internet cannot think for us. "Yet," he concedes.

Brockman's assembled essays are blissfully free of jargon - there's no talk of wireless router speeds or protocols for internet ports - and in its breadth it achieves a sort of democracy. That's not to say it's perfectly balanced. Most voices emerge from the east and west coasts of the US and, to a lesser degree, Britain. Australia remains terra nullius; males vastly outnumber females.

However, Brockman also goes beyond the usual suspects. Among the essayists are musician Brian Eno, actor Alan Alda and novelist Douglas Coupland. Some of the most enjoyable surprises come from unexpected sources, such as two Canadian brothers, one a neuroscientist, the other a psychiatrist. Their co-written essay shares an anecdote that encapsulates the pervasiveness of the internet, namely the story of a woman who sought treatment for depression in part because she had no friends and tweeted from her psychiatrist's couch.

Where books by a sole author often circumnavigate an argument and germinate one sparkling central idea, the anthology amplifies this effect. Like poems, these essays call out for time to digest their ideas.

Most pieces are two or three pages long. (Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei delivers the shortest at four lines.) It would be easy to point an accusing, self-satisfied finger and mock Brockman's anthology as lacking the deep thinking many of its contributors lament having lost in their daily lives. But rarely do a book's margins yearn so frequently for a sharp pencil or a Kindle's keyboard.

Yet all this obsessing about the internet might itself ultimately be a waste of brain power. As one writer notes, a burst of electro-magnetic radiation in the atmosphere from, say, a rogue nuclear bomb could destroy every semiconductor on the planet. What then for our digitally dependent brains?

How Is The Internet Changing The Way You Think? - edited by John Brockman