Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"Question 2010"

The Edge gives its question for this year:


and supplies an ever-growing repository of responses from scientists, artists, and assorted Deep Thinkers. They make for fascinating reading. Even a quick cruise through the titles of the essays provides nearly endless thought-fodder: "The Plural of Anecdotes Is Not Data"; "Replacing Experience With Facsimile"; "Attention Is The Fundamental Literacy"; "Evolving A Global Brain"...

I got entangled in the Net back when Usenet newsgroups were practically the only way to experience it. Images were limited to ASCII art, unless you wanted to get a lot more technical than I wanted to get. Because of this, and because I was a voracious consumer of text before that text ever went hyper, my relationship to the Internet is vastly different than that of people half my age.
Those people, I've noticed, Twitter their time away, mindlessly connecting with pseudo-friends until they're blue in the Facebook. Popularity has always been an arbiter of truth--remember the 'cool' kids in the schoolyard: were they ever wrong?--but it's become the Ultimate Arbiter in these days of constant connectivity when anyone, anyone at all, can be famous for fifteen seconds on YouTube.
This mindset frightens those who don't embody it. Yet it has its advantages. Consider: where once information was hoarded, and the smartest person was the one who knew the most, nowadays it's much more accurate to say that most information is immediately and widely shared, and the smart people are seen to be smart precisely because they share their information.

Of course, not all--in fact, comparatively little--information is completely free of the taint of spin. Filtering information one finds on the Web through our human and thus fallible bullshit detectors takes up an ever-increasing amount of time and effort, so much so that many don't bother. There are those who view the Internet as an endless series of segregated choir lofts, wherein those who've gained admittance take turns preaching at each other while staring down their noses at the heretics below. No matter what you believe, it's trivially easy to find a community of like believers.

However, most of us have always sought out people who believe as we do. Orthodox Jewish parents don't generally try to find devout Hindus to marry their daughters; nor do ultrarational types often hook up or hang out with crystal-reading horoscope-invoking mystics. Blaming the Internet for human nature is akin to blaming cars for their reckless drivers.
But just as the Internet has made it ever so much easier to reinforce your beliefs, it's also proved a boon to those wise enough never to be too sure of themselves. Differing perspectives abound...just look at the collection of essays showcased here for a glaring example.

When I was in university, it was these differing perspectives that hooked me. Especially when I contrasted them with the single opinion usually force-fed by my professors as fact. Halfway through third year, I abandoned all pretense of attending classes, spending nearly every waking moment in one computer lab or another. So I was paying a couple of grand a year in internet connection fees masquerading as tuition fees. Was that any sillier than paying the same amount to have teacher's assistants read textbooks to me verbatim (and I was naturally expected to buy the textbooks, too, at hideously inflated prices)? I didn't think so. I still don't think so.

Differing perspectives. Those who try too hard to hold to just one, particularly if that one places value in withholding all others, will find themselves extinct as the Internet continues to evolve. Here I'm thinking of the mandarins in China, who have done (so far) a masterful job of keeping the world and its troubling notions of "democracy" and "human rights" on the other side of the Wall. While they're winning the battle right now, it's a war they're destined to lose: the lure of information is simply too strong.

And this drives home my core beliefs, Internet-shaped, about the interconnectedness of all things. These connections are made tangible every second of every minute of every hour of every day. It's only a matter of time before they envelop the world. Ultimately, this will happen for the good of us all.

On a more personal note, the Internet has me definitely more scatterbrained than I used to be. I still read books printed on dead trees, but my consumption of same has dwindled dramatically (from at least one a week in 1995 to closer to one a month now). I've noticed that stories, even good ones, rarely hold my interest the way they used to, so I read in increments of ten or twenty-five pages and then put the book aside for a day.
Google and Wikipedia have become my go-to sources for answers on nearly any question. I don't like to think I use these tools the way kids in math class use their calculators...but I probably do, at least sometimes. It can be so easy to think you're thinking when you're really just regurgitating.

Still, after twenty years online, the attraction of information gauged in zettabytes, out there free for the searching, is beyond intoxicating to me. The Internet has driven home not how much I know, but how much I don't.

1 comment:

Rocketstar said...

The www has and is making a huge impact on changing all cultures. For instance, You Tube is definitely allowing the Free Thinking and Atheist movement to reach more and more young people and providing them with information, connections, and videos to other ideas about human origin. Like any minority movement, access is key and You Tube has provided that to the Atheist and Free Thinking communities.

I like you keep feeling I am being pulled further and furhter INTO the www, especially with my new smart phone, it's insane.