How has the internet changed the way you think? (DYM I.99)

By John Allen

In 1982 Time Magazine broke its tradition of naming the Person of the Year by choosing a machine: the personal computer.  

The magazine's cover features Pop Artist George Segal's sculpture that captures the anonymity and complexity of modern life. The generic man stares at a machine that will radically change his relationship to the world. He seems nonplussed by his new housematehis passive hands on his legs, the chair a good distance from the computer.  

Over the last 30 years, the computer has fully integrated itself into our lives, moving from a puzzling new appliance to a virtually seamless extension of our identities.   

Not all of us, though, are thrilled.  Last year, The New Yorker Magazine published Sherman Alexie's sonnet about how Facebook has changed the way we relate to each other and to our pasts:  
The Facebook Sonnet 
Welcome to the endless high-school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let's undervalue and unmend 
The present. Why can't we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let's exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let's all play games 
That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one's search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church. 
Let's sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness. 
~Sherman Alexie
Has the internet actually increased our isolation?  How has it affected our ability to think and work?  Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains explores those questions and more:
The boons are real. But they come at a price. As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski (Kindle Locations 179-182). Norton. Kindle Edition. 
Carr admits that it seems contradictory to his thesis that he'd be able to concentrate well enough to write a book about the internet's effects on thinking: 

It wasn’t easy. When I began writing The Shallows, toward the end of 2007, I struggled in vain to keep my mind fixed on the task. The Net provided, as always, a bounty of useful information and research tools, but its constant interruptions scattered my thoughts and words. I tended to write in disconnected spurts, the same way I wrote when blogging. It was clear that big changes were in order. In the summer of the following year, I moved with my wife from a highly connected suburb of Boston to the mountains of Colorado. There was no cell phone service at our new home, and the Internet arrived through a relatively poky DSL connection. I canceled my Twitter account, put my Facebook membership on hiatus, and mothballed my blog. I shut down my RSS reader and curtailed my skyping and instant messaging. Most important, I throttled back my e-mail application. It had long been set to check for new messages every minute. I reset it to check only once an hour, and when that still created too much of a distraction, I began keeping the program closed much of the day. 
The dismantling of my online life was far from painless. For months, my synapses howled for their Net fix. I found myself sneaking clicks on the “check for new mail” button. Occasionally, I’d go on a daylong Web binge. But in time the cravings subsided, and I found myself able to type at my keyboard for hours on end or to read through a dense academic paper without my mind wandering. Some old, disused neural circuits were springing back to life, it seemed, and some of the newer, Web-wired ones were quieting down. I started to feel generally calmer and more in control of my thoughts—less like a lab rat pressing a lever and more like, well, a human being. My brain could breathe again. 
********
The question, really, isn’t whether people can still read or write the occasional book. Of course they can. When we begin using a new intellectual technology, we don’t immediately switch from one mental mode to another. The brain isn’t binary. An intellectual technology exerts its influence by shifting the emphasis of our thought. Although even the initial users of the technology can often sense the changes in their patterns of attention, cognition, and memory as their brains adapt to the new medium, the most profound shifts play out more slowly, over several generations, as the technology becomes ever more embedded in work, leisure, and education—in all the norms and practices that define a society and its culture. How is the way we read changing? How is the way we write changing? How is the way we think changing? Those are the questions we should be asking, both of ourselves and of our children (Kindle Locations 3358-3393). Norton. Kindle Edition. 
In Curation Nation: How to Win in a World Where Consumers are Creators, Steven Rosenbaum identifies a new generation of internet curators who will make sense of the overwhelming flow of information.  These human "filters" cull information from the internet and turn it into meaningful stories about a particular area of interest.  In some ways, these people are a new type of journalist because, as Rosenbaum says, computers still cannot "distinguish between a genuinely new idea or approach and the same old thing" (Kindle Locations 3194). McGraw-Hill. Kindle Edition. 

Michael Chorost's book World Wide Mind  ponders how our connection to the internet's flood of information might become a biological integration: 
In Ramez Naam’s book More Than Human I learned of an idea that had been proposed by Rodolfo LlinĂ¡s, a New York University neuroscientist. It was hair-raising. He suggested that engineers could bundle thousands of slender wires into a cable and insert it into the femoral artery in the groin. They would snake the cable through the bloodstream to the brain, as if doing an angiogram. As the cable entered the brain, the wires would spread out so that each one ended up in a capillary. Once put in place, each wire could detect a single neuron’s firing, and change its firing by pulsing a jolt of electricity to it. 
Imagine it: a flower blossoming inside the brain, nanometer stalks splitting away from a micrometer stem. Expanding into every available capillary, touching every cubic millimeter of the brain, collecting terabytes of data in every second. By the same token, it could send in terabytes of data every second. It would be the most intimate interface ever invented. If you connected one person’s wired brain to another person’s, you could literally connect them together; they would have a real corpus callosum joining them (albeit with links of radio waves rather than wires.) And if you connected a number of people to each other via the Internet, then you would have a network in which each node was a human brain. The World Wide Web would become the World Wide Mind (54-55). 
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