How did the Internet change your way of thinking?

On: October 2, 2011
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About Leonie Nijenmanting
New Media enthusiast, especially interested in participatory practice. Read more about participatory culture and research on Pearch In addition, I'm a rock climber and one of the bloggers for Vertical Athletes

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The Edge project asked artists, scientists and writers how the Internet changed their way of thinking. Specifically their way of thinking, resulting in a book with diverse and personal essays. Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia and Citizendium wrote an essay to answer this question, and I found his point of view very refreshing.

There’s no denying that the coming of networks, Internet being the most prolific, we are faced with many more sources of information. We have access to too many websites, we receive too many messages. There is just too much happening, online and in other media, and we can’t escape from that. We might say: “That’s not such a bad thing, right?” But the problem here is that most people don’t know how to effectively manage their time when it comes to dealing with this overload. We feel like we’re behind all the time. It leaves us stressed, constantly distracted by newer messages and not able to focus.

This state of being, where we are almost ‘lost’ as humans in an information overload, has been studied by several authors. It is often described as a loss of control which we can’t resist, we can’t avoid it and we passively undergo these changed, not being able to actively change our state of being in relation to this overload of messages. Sanger refers to Nicholas Carrs’ essay Is Google making us stupid? and finds that the main point in these discussions seems to be that individuals hand off intellectual autonomy. Google makes us stupid by taking over the decision-making process for us. The search engines knows what we want to see based on previous queries, and we willingly sumberge ourselve in this “echo room”, a concept described by Cass Sunstein, where we stay in a cocoon of messages that reflect our opinion and point of view, while it seemes like we get a complete picture of information. We don’t object.

Sanger has a different point of view. He sees the passive human mind as a symptom of a problem, not the cause. To exercise freedom, you need focus. And focus is part of the human will. Carrs statement therefore dictates too much lack of moral, or vice to the individual. According to Sanger, we don’t have to be so immoral, just because of the strong appeal of social networks in the digital age.
Others could state, and they have, that we nowadays, on social networks like Facebook and Wikipedia, still deliberate, but we do it collectively. For example, we vote on things on Digg, del.icio.us and Slashdot, and might feel obliged to spend a little more time on important items. It’s the same wat we try to come to a consensus on Wikipedia.

So if we determine ourselves through social networks, we’re subjected to a collective, or ‘general will‘, as Rousseau describes it. This is how Sanger understand the collective-deterministic point of view (your actions are determined by the group), which contradicts his own individualistic-libertarian stance (you are autonomous as an individual).

He states this because we have the freedom to choose not to participate in these networks, to only selectively consume the output of it. Therefore Sanger doesn’t agree with the idea that we are turning into a collective, ‘dumb herd’, as argued by Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation.
Decades before the Internet emerged, there were already progressive voices in education that just knowing facts was not enough anymore. The world and availability of information changed to fast that being able to work together and solve problems was more important. Social networks empowered this ideology.

Sanger answers two questions in his essay. Do we have control of whether surrender to a collective brain that’s becoming more eminent as time goes by? According to him, yes. And do we have to give away more control, or try to control ourselves? From the arguments stated above, it’s clear how Sanger feels about this.

The essay by Sanger attracted me, because I am also annoyed by the concept of my generation being labeled as ‘the dumbest generation’. The fact that I participate in networks, and consume information from these networks critically, does not mean I don’t know my facts. I still have a functioning memory and if I want to get something done, I have enough discipline to focus myself. Because I choose to do so.

I put the emphasis on the fact that I use these networks critically, because that is where we need to make a distinction. We escape the herd when we start thinking about what we are doing. In order to get the most out of these systems, we should work with them. Not mindlessly, but consciously.

So I asked myself: How did the Internet change my way of thinking? Instead of helping me answer the couple of questions that I had, I started asking more questions, not just relying on any information put before me. I try to use as much resources as possible and I’m aware of the fact that the information I have today may already be different tomorrow. By staying in touch with many different people on different social networks, I try to keep up on my general knowledge. However these networks also allow me to keep in touch with people specialized in my field of interest. Does that mean I believe everything that comes along? No. So have I escaped my ‘dumb generation’? Maybe not completely, because I am one of those people with time management problems, easily distracted and not always focused. But my critical view on the networks I work with does allow me to make substantial use of the benefits the Internet has provided me.

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