Citizendium Blog

January 8, 2010

New (2010) question: how the Internet is changing the way you think

Filed under: Internet, Press & blogs, Theory — Larry Sanger @ 11:56 am

“How Has The Internet Changed The Way You Think?”  A zillion famous scientists and other luminaries have given answers.  Here is mine.


The instant availability of an ocean of information has been an epoch-making boon to humanity. But has the resulting information overload also deeply changed how we think? Has it changed the nature of the self? Has it even — as some have suggested — radically altered the relationship of the individual and society? These are important philosophical questions, but vague and slippery, and I hope to clarify them.

The Internet is changing how we think, it is suggested. But how is it, precisely? One central feature of the “new mind” is that it is spread too thin. But what does that mean?

In functional terms, being spread too thin means we have too many Websites to visit, we get too many messages, and too much is “happening” online and in other media that we feel compelled take on board. Many of us lack effective strategies for organizing our time in the face of this onslaught. This makes us constantly distracted and unfocused, and less able to perform heavy intellectual tasks. Among other things, or so some have confessed, we cannot focus long enough to read whole books. We feel unmoored and we flow along helplessly wherever the fast-moving digital flood carries us.

We do? Well — some of us do, evidently.

Some observers speak of “where we are going,” or of how “our minds” are being changed by information overload, apparently despite ourselves. Their discussions make erstwhile free agents mere subjects of powerful new forces, and the only question is where those forces are taking us. I don’t share the assumption here. When I read the title of Nick Carr’s essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I immediately thought, “Speak for yourself.” It seems to me that in discussions like Carr’s, it is assumed that intellectual control has already been ceded — but that strikes me as being a cause, not a symptom, of the problem Carr bemoans. After all, the exercise of freedom requires focus and attention, and the ur-event of the will is precisely focus itself. Carr unwittingly confessed for too many of us a moral failing, a vice; the old name for it is intemperance. (In the older, broader sense, contrasted with sophrosyne, moderation or self-control.) And, as with so much of vice, we want to blame it on anything but ourselves.

Is it really true that we no longer have any choice but to be intemperate in how we spend our time, in the face of the temptations and shrill demands of networked digital media? New media are not that powerful. We still retain free will, which is the ability to focus, deliberate, and act on the results of our own deliberations. If we want to spend hours reading books, we still possess that freedom. Only philosophical argument could establish that information overload has deprived us of our agency. The claim at root is philosophical, not empirical.

My interlocutors might cleverly reply that we now, in the age of Facebook and Wikipedia, do still deliberate, but collectively. In other words, for example, we vote stuff up or down on Digg,, and Slashdot, and then we might feel ourselves obligated — if we’re participating as true believers — to pay special attention to the top-voted items. Similarly, we attempt to reach “consensus” on Wikipedia, and — again, if participating as true believers — endorse the end result as credible. To the extent that our time is thus directed by social networks, engaged in collective deliberation, then we are subjugated to a “collective will,” something like Rousseau’s notion of a general will. To the extent that we plug in, we become merely another part of the network. That, anyway, is how I would reconstruct the collectivist-determinist position that is opposed to my own individualist-libertarian one.

But we obviously have the freedom not to participate in such networks. And we have the freedom to consume the output of such networks selectively, and holding our noses — to participate, we needn’t be true believers. So it is very hard for me to take the “woe is us, we’re growing stupid and collectivized like sheep” narrative seriously. If you feel yourself growing ovine, bleat for yourself.

I get the sense that many writers on these issues aren’t much bothered by the un-focusing, de-liberating effects of joining the Hive Mind. Don Tapscott has suggested that the instant availability of information means we don’t have to “memorize” anything anymore — just consult Google and Wikipedia, the brains of the Hive Mind. Clay Shirky seems to believe that in the future we will be enculturated not by reading dusty old books but in something like online fora, plugged into the ephemera of a group mind, as it were. But surely, if we were to act as either of these college teachers recommend, we’d become a bunch of ignoramuses. Indeed, perhaps that’s what social networks are turning too many kids into, as Mark Bauerlein argues cogently in The Dumbest Generation. (For the record, I’ve started homeschooling my own little boy.)

The issues here are much older than the Internet. They echo the debate between progressivism and traditionalism found in philosophy of education: should children be educated primarily so as fit in well in society, or should the focus be on training minds for critical thinking and filling them with knowledge? For many decades before the advent of the Internet, educational progressivists have insisted that, in our rapidly changing world, knowing mere facts is not what is important, because knowledge quickly becomes outdated; rather, being able to collaborate and solve problems together is what is important. Social networks have reinforced this ideology, by seeming to make knowledge and judgment collective functions. But the progressivist position on the importance of learning facts and training individual judgment withers under scrutiny, and, pace Tapscott and Shirky, events of the last decade have not made it more durable.

In sum, there are two basic issues here. Do we have any choice about ceding control of the self to an increasingly compelling “Hive Mind”? Yes. And should we cede such control, or instead strive, temperately, to develop our own minds very well and direct our own attention carefully? The answer, I think, is obvious.


  1. I suspect this stuff can’t help but soak into the head and increase one’s knowledge. How coherent the knowledge is, or whether it’s just a junkpile of information or even data, is another matter.

    But I think of, e.g., being down the pub (my favourite local, the Pembury Tavern, a real ale pub in Hackney run by a computer scientist whose friends show up and make the place a geek haven on Tuesdays and Sundays) with a table full of Wikipedians and one non-Wikipedian, and the Wikipedians talking rubbish as one does down the pub but fabulously erudite rubbish, covering a ridiculous range of knowledge, all just picked up in the course of participation in the encyclopedia. And the non-Wikipedian, who is just as smart as the Wikipedians, being slightly boggled at the range of material.

    This is turning data/information/knowledge into subject matter for social discourse and human interaction. And it may well be as vapid as people who didn’t understand or care to understand mathematics trying to pick up other people who didn’t know or care or about mathematics in the early 1990s using “chaos theory” as material.

    But I’d hope it would bring home to more people, and make it a reasonable assumption, just how BIG human knowledge actually is. English Wikipedia is over a BILLION WORDS. Two thousand complete sets of Lord Of The Rings, imagine trying to read and understand it. And human knowledge has long been really, really huge … we’re just more keenly aware of it now.

    Comment by David Gerard — January 9, 2010 @ 10:08 am

  2. Unfortunately, the problem is being stated as essentially binary: take raw data from the Twitters and search engines, or do traditional analysis with more sources. I will freely say that I worry when I see high school and college students today having far more difficulty, it seems, in turning out reasoned reports, than when I wrote my high school papers reports on stone tablets. This is something I’ve discussed with some of the Eduzendium sponsors, without a clear conclusion, but concern that it would take us two or three hours to write an article that a student didn’t finish in a semester.

    Consider that insect hives are highly organized. The hive mind of which you speak, however, is not. At best, it is a minimally filtered “push” model (e.g., Twitter) versus unstructured query (e.g., Google). Contrast this, however, to automated “data fusion” approach that contextualize, such as mashups, or a military system such as Blue Force Tracker.

    Comment by Howard C. Berkowitz — January 9, 2010 @ 11:47 am

  3. What I think the internets SHOULD be used for is to give REAL knowledge to the poor. Money should not be a barrier to education (or maybe, everyone should have the money to get education, but that is a different issue.).

    Ultimately, it is what the person does with the stuff on the ‘nets that determines anything. They can either use it for learning, or they can use it for crap.

    “This is something I’ve discussed with some of the Eduzendium sponsors, without a clear conclusion, but concern that it would take us two or three hours to write an article that a student didn’t finish in a semester.”

    How can one get to be able to do the former, instead of the latter?

    Comment by mike3 — January 31, 2010 @ 12:48 pm

  4. I pick the second option: we should strive to develop our minds well and direct our attention carefully.

    Given that we will do that, how can we use the Internet to improve our learning?

    I think this is an important question, because without the answer, we risk doing two alternatives:
    1. significantly under-using the Internet - missing out on its positive effects; or
    2. having our learning or our lifestyles disrupted by the Internet, through errors in our attempts to use it.

    I want to know the answer personally, and I think everyone should know.

    This is because I don’t trust any authority organisation (government, company, or church) to care about people’s education to teach people (children or adults) how to use the Internet to their advantage. Because of this, the responsibility falls to the people themselves (or in the case of young children, to their parents) to ensure that they use the Internet in a way that is beneficial to them. It should be a part of our culture, like writing.

    Comment by Deschutron — February 1, 2010 @ 4:12 am

  5. Dear Mr Sanger,
    Hello and good morning/afternoon my name
    is Hua Yan Hu and I live in Australia.I
    have been reading about you on your
    biggest succsess “WIKIPEDIA” and I
    would want to congratulate you for
    all that you have done for the
    world!!! I would just want to ask you
    for your written permission to
    copy some of your great work(which I
    mean but I promise
    I will not make a copy of

    YEAR 7.



    Have a nice day Mr Sanger.

    Comment by Hua Yan Hu — March 4, 2010 @ 4:01 am

  6. Hello Hua Yan Hu, you don’t need to ask for anybody’s permission to copy any articles from Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s license lets you do that. Look up “Wikipedia license”!

    Comment by Larry Sanger — March 4, 2010 @ 9:36 am

  7. Hello Larry,

    I hope you are doing fine.

    I wrote a paper about Wikipedia and it would be great if you have a minute over the next day or so to comment. I would be most interested in your comments.

    This is the URL

    have a great day

    Comment by janette — May 12, 2010 @ 6:38 am

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