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William Franco
William Franco

Charli Baltimore The Diary You Think You Know Zip



The Internet is no different than previous (equally monumental) brain-enhancing technologies such as books or telephony, and I doubt whether books and telephony have changed the way I think, in the sense of actually changing the way my brain works (which is the particular way I am taking the question before us). In fact, I would say that it is much more correct to say that our thinking gave rise to the Internet than that the Internet gave rise to our thinking. Another apt analogy is perhaps mathematics. It has taken centuries for humans to accumulate mathematical knowledge; and I learned geometry and calculus in high school in a way that probably would have astonished mathematicians just a few centuries ago. But, like other students, I did this with the same brain we've all had for millennia. The math surely changed how I think about the world. But did it change the way I think? Did it change my brain? The answer is mostly no.




charli baltimore the diary you think you know zip



To be clear, the Internet is assuredly changing quite a few things related to cognition and social interaction. One widely appreciated and important example of both is the way the Internet facilitates hive-mind phenomena, like Wikipedia, that integrate the altruistic impulses and the knowledge of thousands of far-flung individuals. To the extent that I participate in such things (and I do), my thinking and I are both affected by the Internet.


I still remember typing essays on a much loved typewriter in my first year of university. Then the first computer, the first email account, the slow yet fluid entry into a new digital world that felt strangely natural. The advent of the Internet age happened progressively, we saw it develop like a child born of many brains, a protean animal whose characteristics were at once predictable and unknown. As soon as the digital sphere and became a worldwide reality recognizable as a new era, predictions and analyses about it grew. Edge itself was born as the creature was still growing new limbs. The tools for research and communication about this research developed along with new thinking about mind-machine interaction, about the future of education, about the impact of the Internet on texts and writing, about the issues of filtering, relevance, learning and memory.


Bite-size emails also carry another cost: We all know there's no substitution for thinking hard and deep about a problem and how to solve it, or for getting to grips with a new area, and such tasks demand long periods of concentrated attention. Persistent, frequent email messages threaten our capacity for the real work. Becoming aware of what email is doing to our allocation of time is the first step to re-gaining control. Like other potential addictions we should perhaps attempt to counter the email habit by restricting it to certain times of the day, or by creating email-free zones by turning off Wi-Fi. This year's Edge question at least gives me pause to think whether I really want to be spending 1000 hours a year on email, at the expense of more valuable activities.


The Internet has changed how I think about science, and how to identify it. Today most computational results aren't accompanied by their underlying code and data, and my opening description of being able to recreate results for oneself is not commonplace. But I believe this will become typical - the draw of verifying what we know for ourselves and being less reliant on the conclusions of others has remained evident in our long search for truth about our world. This seems a natural evolution from a state of knowledge derived from mystical sources with little ability to question and verify, through a science-facing society still with an epistemological gulf between scientist and non-scientist. Now, the Internet allows more of our understanding to seep from the ivory tower, closing that gulf and empowering us to know things for ourselves and changing our expectations about what it means to live in an open, data-driven, society.


Starting with no money, no backers, and no affiliation with elite institutions, the Internet made it possible for us to succeed by making knowledge accessible and searchable to me and my editors and writers on a scale never previously available. The intellectual playing field was being leveled and the Internet changed the way I think about the very real possibility of fairness and opportunity in a world that has for too long been rigged to favor the elite.


The Internet shows me more and more about those who participate in it, but I worry lest I forget that not everything or everyone in the world has a home on the Internet. Missing are those who cannot read or write, who have no access to a computer, or who chose to remain disconnected. There is a danger of coming to think that what cannot be found on an Internet search doesn't exist, and that the virtual world is the world. It isn't. However bizarre and incredible the people populating the Internet are, they are still akin to me, people with knowledge of computers and their applications. Certainly, there is diversity and hierarchy, and vast domains of varied information, but nevertheless, except when Internet users turn their attention on the those who are excluded, or who exclude themselves, a mirror will be held up to those who sustain the information age, and it is only this part of the world I come to have scattered information about.


How has my thinking changed since that day in 1993? Like most everyone I've become both more addicted to information, and more informed. With so much knowledge poised instantly beneath my fingertips, I am far less tolerant of my own ignorance. If I don't know something, I look it up. Today I flit through dozens of newspapers a day when before I barely read one. Too many hours of my life are consumed in this way, and other tasks procrastinated, but I am perpetually educated in return.


Huxley tells us that our minds are constantly editing down the world into manageable bits. The problem with the Internet is that the menu has gotten too big, too unwieldy and too full of lies and stupidity. Who can apprehend or trust it? For instance, if I search for "naked lady" I come up with 16,400,000 items in 0.18 seconds. Somewhere lies the perfect naked lady, but where is she? I get cranky and impatient. I know she's there somewhere and I want her now. I've become habituated to getting everything right away. I'm the editor who thinks he's in control, but my fingers on a keyboard have a tough time finding a few trees in this haystack of needles. Wherever I settle, I always suspect a better choice is just around the corner.


For the same reason that communist governments restricted access to Marx's and Engels' original writings, the Church had made it a death penalty offense (to be preceded by torture) to translate the Bible into the languages people spoke and understood. The radical change in attitude toward authority, and the revaluation of minds even at the bottom of society, can be seen in William Tyndale's defense of his plan to translate the Bible into English: "I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than the Pope himself." (After his translation was printed, he was arrested, tied to the stake, and strangled.) Laymen, even plowboys, who now had access to Bibles (because they could both read and afford them) shockingly decided they could interpret sacred texts for themselves without the Church manipulatively interposing itself as intermediary between book and reader. Humans being what they are, religious wars followed, in struggles to make one or another doctrine (and elite) locally supreme.


How has the Internet changed my thinking? The more I've loved and known it, the clearer the contrast, the more intense the tension between a physical life and a virtual life. The Internet stole my body, now a lifeless form hunched in front of a glowing screen. My senses dulled as my greedy mind became one with the global brain we call the Internet.


In the spirit of keeping the shadow at a distance, some work at staying uninformed. Julia, eighteen, says "I've heard that school authorities and local police can get into your Facebook," but doesn't want to know the details. "I live on Facebook" she explains, and "I don't want to be upset." A seventeen-year-old girl thinks that Facebook "can see everything," but even though "you can try to get Facebook to change things," it is really out of her hands. She sums up: "That's just the way it is." A sixteen-year-old girl says that even without privacy, she feels safe because "No one would care about my little life." For all the talk of a generation empowered by the Net, the question of online privacy brings out claims of intentionally vague understandings and protests of impotence. This is a life of resignation: teens are sure that at some point their privacy will be invaded, but that this is the course of doing business in their world.


I grew up with my grandparents who were frightened by the McCarthy era. A government that spied on its citizens; this is what their families had fled. In Eastern Europe, my grandmother explained, you assumed that other people read your mail. This never led to good. When someone knows everything, everyone can be turned into an informer. She was proud to be in America where things were different. Every morning, we went together to the mailboxes of our apartment building. And many days, she would tell me as if it had never come up before, "In America, no one can look at your mail. It's a federal offense. That's the beauty of this country." For me, and from the earliest age, this civics lessons at the mailbox joined together privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are for today's teenagers who accommodate to the idea that their e-mail might be scanned by school authorities and that their online identities might be tampered with. Not a few sum up their position on all of this by saying in one way or another: "The way to deal is to just be good."


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