The Internet and the way we think

We used to say the Internet would change everything. That would presumably include our minds.

And yet, obvious though it may sound, there’s something appealing simple about the annual question the Web site Edge asked a series of scientists, philosophers and other big thinkers this year: “Has the Internet changed the way you think?” Poring through the responses to the conversations Edge starts has become an intellectual thrill ride, and this year was no exception.

For Marissa Mayer, vice-president of search products and user experience at Google, the Internet has expanded our notion of what we can find out. “The Internet can facilitate an incredible persistence and availability of information, but given the Internet's adolescence, all of the information simply isn't there yet,” she writes. “I find that in some ways my mind has evolved to this new way of the thinking, relying on the information's existence and availability, so much so that it's almost impossible to conclude that the information isn't findable because it just isn't online.” This is why, when users finish searching in one Web-based repository, they start combing another.

That yearning for immediate gratification can have its downside, warned Release 2.1 author Esther Dyson. “Sometimes I think much of what we get on the Internet is empty calories. It's sugar — short videos, pokes from friends, blog posts, Twitter posts (even blogs seem longwinded now), pop-ups and visualizations…Sugar is so much easier to digest, so enticing…and ultimately, it leaves us hungrier than before,” she writes. “Worse than that, over a long period, many of us are genetically disposed to lose our capability to digest sugar if we consume too much of it. It makes us sick long-term, as well as giving us indigestion and hypoglycemic fits. Could that be true of information sugar as well? Will we become allergic to it even as we crave it? And what will serve as information insulin?”

Philosophy professor Barry C. Smith takes it one step further, owning up to his own addiction. “The overload is overwhelming, but so is my desire to know and not to miss anything. I'm tempted to know a little bit about everything and look for pre-digested, concise, neatly formatted content from reliable sources. My reading habits have changed making me aware of how important well-packaged information has become,” he says.

These are three fairly random examples, but they tend to capture attitudes that have been circulating on conferences and at dinner parties for years, at least. I’m more interested in how the Internet has changed the way IT managers think. Certainly it must change their perception of how close they can be to users, remotely configuring or controlling fleets of desktops that would have required physical visits in the past. It must give them a greater sense of ownership over certain information-driven strategies. It may even have given them some measure of respect for users who have developed a lot more problem-solving skill using technology that would have been true a generation ago.

For me, the Internet has changed the way I think of where companies are located. They still have offices, but projects I’m working on are available anywhere, as is my mail, photos, and to some extent my reputation. I probably live in the Internet about 50 per cent of the time now, and 50 per cent away from it. Maybe the biggest way it has changed the way I think is that I barely notice the difference any more.

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