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The Internet and the Republic of Skepticism, Part One

All Info All Ways

Barrett Brown

March 18, 2010

Having recently found myself in need of an anecdote with which to make some allegedly clever point about man's track record in predicting his own technological innovations, I recalled a story that had made the rounds in the months leading up to 2000, during which time the nation's periodicals were running retrospectives on the soon-to-be-completed 20th century. Some great number of the resulting feature articles of that era ended up beginning with the same account of a U.S. patent clerk who had resigned his post in 1899 with the explanation that everything worth inventing had already been invented. The incident seemed to me sufficiently amusing to be thrown into the essay as filler, which is the stuff that writers throw into essays when they get sick of their own writing (unless I'm the only one who does this, in which case the term does not actually exist). At any rate, the story would serve as a fine illustration of the manner by which even attentive individuals often overlook the indications that great change is afoot. A few moments and Google search terms later, though, I had learned that this oft-repeated anecdote was almost certainly false.

The patent clerk myth had been printed as fact in quite a few respected publications throughout 1999—this, despite that very same myth having been debunked by the Skeptical Inquirer back in 1989. Ten years after the tale was shown to be false, a number of professional journalists and their fact-checkers got wind of it and determined it to be true. Yet another ten years on, I recalled the tale and was able to determine it to be false—and after less than half a minute of thing-clicking. This is hardly to my credit; I was simply working in an informational landscape vastly superior to that which existed a decade ago. For instance, humanity has made impressive strides with regards to the results one may obtain by way of thing-clicking.

Look back to 1989, when the Skeptical Inquirer article in question was released. Tens of thousands of people may have read the piece at that time and found it interesting, but altogether the author was unable to have much positive impact on the public understanding. The limitations of the era made it quite unlikely anyone who read the piece would happen to be in a position to use the information therein in any significant manner; conversely, those who could have used the information in some way that would be of measurable benefit were quite unlikely to have known that such a useful article existed, much less been able to locate it, and thus it was that some dozen or so feature editors ran the myth as fact. In terms of its utility to the public understanding, then, the article might as well not even have existed until it existed on the Internet.

Taken together, the rise of the search engine coupled with the digitalization of vast amounts of information that would have previously been either difficult or impossible to access has provided us with unprecedented opportunities to debunk that which requires debunking, as well as to ensure that a given debunking is particularly accessible to those who happen to be looking into a given subject. This is just as well; the rise of such things as e-mail forwards have provided our not-so-skeptical adversaries with similarly unprecedented opportunities to perpetuate things that need to be debunked, which you've probably experienced to the extent that you're included in the address books of people in whose address books you were not really intending to be included. The question that naturally arises, then, concerns whether the particular dynamics of the Internet have had the overall effect of fueling nonsense or throttling it.

The reader will agree that the extent and nature of the stimuli that one takes in has some effect on the content one accumulates in one's mind; the reader will just as readily agree that the Internet has some effect in turn on the extent and nature of the stimuli one takes in. To the extent that one uses the Internet, then, one is subjected to a different array of stimuli than if one did not use the Internet. We thus establish that the Internet does indeed have some effect on the content one accumulates in one's mind.

Less immediately obvious, though still fairly obvious, is the extent to which a given medium has an effect not only on the user's knowledge base, but even the structure of the mind itself, and thus in turn its potential products. The adaptation of writing by the classical Greeks, for instance, appears to have brought radical changes in the nature of Greek output, allowing for a fundamentally greater degree of abstract thought than was previously possible and allowing in turn for systems of ethics and high philosophical commentary of the sort that we do not seem to find in the oral output of the pre-alphabet Greeks or any preliterate culture, in fact. Plainly, this is an extreme example, and the transition from orality to literacy is likely of more severity in terms of the cognition of the user than is the transition from the printing press to the Internet (both of which are merely sub-mediums by which literacy may be conveyed). Even so, the severity of the former is of sufficiently high degree that the lesser severity of the latter is nonetheless potentially quite great in its own right. The shift from a textual environment defined by the printing press to one providing for the Internet as well, then, must have some undefined impact—perhaps even a great one—on the cognitive abilities of those of us who have participated in the transition, as well as those who will have grown up in the post-transition era.

The attentive reader will notice that we have yet to establish whether or not the cognitive impact that we have determined to exist along with the impact on one's knowledge base is a good or bad thing in terms of the mind's overall functioning. The more widely-read attentive reader will notice that my assertion to the effect that the Internet has any cognitive effect at all is itself controversial and is in fact disputed by a number of prominent neuroscientists and others whose views on the subject would presumably merit attention. Before we continue, such objections ought to be addressed.

In January of this year, the publication Edge released the responses to a question its editors had posed to dozens of authors, journalists, artists, and scientists: "How is the Internet changing the way you think?" The results were picked up by such mainstream outlets as Newsweek, from which science editor Sharon Begley makes the following observation:

Although a number of contributors drivel on about, say, how much time they waste on e-mail, the most striking thing about the 50-plus answers is that scholars who study the mind and the brain, and who therefore seem best equipped to figure out how the Internet alters thought, shoot down the very idea.

For instance, Harvard cognitive neuroscientist Joshua Butler responded to the question in part by way of the following:

The Internet hasn't changed the way we think anymore than the microwave oven has changed the way we digest food. The Internet has provided us with unprecedented access to information, but it hasn't changed what we do with it once it's made it into our heads. This is because the Internet doesn't (yet) know how to think. We still have to do it for ourselves, and we do it the old-fashioned way. Until then, the Internet will continue to be nothing more, and nothing less, than a very useful, and very dumb, butler.

Others, including some with backgrounds in neuroscience as well as psychology and related fields, expressed agreement with this general conclusion, if not necessarily for the same reasons. And thus Begley is correct to note that "scholars who study the mind and brain" dismiss the idea that "the Internet alters thought." But as she herself makes clear later in her piece, other scholars of similar and even identical areas of expertise entirely embrace the idea, while still others identify it as a reasonable possibility. One might wonder how Begley decided that the "most striking thing" about the answers is that some mind-oriented scholars dismissed the idea of the Internet's impact on thinking, rather than that other mind-oriented scholars embraced it. Begley herself quotes several of the latter group and even makes her own passing reference to "the (few) positive changes in thinking the Internet has caused" after having quoted additional experts who likewise ascribe to the concept of the Internet having an effect on the thinking of its users, although considering such changes to be largely negative. One might conclude that the truly "most striking thing" about the results is that mind-oriented experts are in fact split three ways on whether the Internet has positive, negative, or no effects whatsoever on the mental processes of those who use it, while others consider the truth to be undetermined.

Of those opinions expressed to the effect that Internet use has either no or negative effects, several appear not to make much sense. Begley provides a briefer version of the following excerpt from the answer given by Foreign Policy contributing editor Evgeny Morozov:

What I find particularly worrisome with regards to the "what" question is the rapid and inexorable disappearance of retrospection and reminiscence from our digital lives. One of the most significant but overlooked Internet developments of 2009 — the arrival of the so-called "real-time Web", whereby all new content is instantly indexed, read, and analyzed — is a potent reminder that our lives are increasingly lived in the present, completely detached even from the most recent of the pasts....

In a sense, this is hardly surprising: the social beast that has taken over our digital lives has to be constantly fed with the most trivial of ephemera. And so we oblige, treating it to countless status updates and zetabytes of multimedia (almost a thousand photos are uploaded to Facebook every second!). This hunger for the present is deeply embedded in the very architecture and business models of social networking sites.

Regardless of what one thinks of Facebook, it is difficult to see that Morozov has really shown that an obsession with photos and other records of the past somehow denotes some unseemly and unwarranted "hunger for the present." It would be even more difficult to see how the nature of the Internet, which has provided unprecedentedly facilitated access to the whole of the past at least to the extent that the past has been recorded, is of any greater detriment to man's collective focus on that which came before him. Sitting in an easy chair in some unscrubbed corner of Brooklyn, I may obtain, within just a few seconds, a general summary of any known event in the history of man or nature, coupled with links to more specific and comprehensive sources of information on some great number of aspects of such an event, including those pieces of data from which the general summary was originally composed in the first place. How long would this have taken in the 1950s, even for someone with the advantage of residing in some cultural node equipped with fine libraries, universities, and potentially accessible experts? It would have likely taken at least an hour even in such an optimal environment as the grounds of a university, which is the sort of place that not even a student is likely to be at any given moment, if memory serves, which it very well may not. It would certainly not have taken a mere ten seconds, as it would today for me to learn something about, for instance, the Russo-Japanese War. Incidentally, I just Googled that term, clicked on a link to its Wikipedia article, browsed the table of contents found at the top of that page, went straight to a subsection of that article, read the assertion that Japanese civilians were on the whole not particularly happy with the extent to which Japan pressed Russia for concessions after its victory, and then verified that this was the case by clicking on a citation which in turn led me to the text of a newspaper account of the treaty in question—a New York Times article from 1905, itself one of the millions of artifacts to which our predecessors would have been unable to receive access without some degree of wasted time and difficulty, if at all. The past has never been anywhere near as accessible, nor as accessed, yet some complain that the Internet has prompted us to become "completely detached" from the past in the favor of the present, which itself has never been so lacking in accessible content relative to that which came before.

Naturally, other sorts of objections are raised in the responses. University of California neurobiologist Leo Chalupa challenges the Internet's utility in a manner that does not seem to draw on his relevant specialty:

The Internet is the greatest detractor to serious thinking since the invention of television. Moreover, while the Internet provides a means for rapidly communicating with colleagues globally, the sophisticated user will rarely reveal true thoughts and feelings in such messages. Serious thinking requires honest and open communication and that is simply untenable on the Internet by those that value their professional reputation.

I know of no situation in which "honest and open communication" is necessarily tenable in the first place, although Chalupa is correct that there is more to lose in conveying unpopular thoughts by way of some facet of the Internet, which, as he notes, "provides a means for rapidly communicating with colleagues globally" and could thus be used to more widely convey some opinion that would consequently evoke some negative reaction from one's fellows, particularly if one's fellows are easily upset. But surely Chalupa has some useful information to convey that will not enrage his colleagues, and at any rate one would expect that the majority of the information he'd be inclined to disseminate by way of the Internet would be of value, and not damage, either to the world or to his own reputation. And surely the majority of accessible information is worth being made available to the majority of connected humans, and certainly the information to which one is likely to expose oneself on the Internet is, on the whole, accurate, and thus potentially useful. Certainly there is misinformation to be found and in some cases believed, and certainly there is some degree of irrelevant information that one might be inclined to take in at the expense of time dedicated to other, more useful pursuits. But the objection that the Internet's facilitation of information flow may damage one's "professional reputation" due to one's colleagues being unable to handle one's awesome yet edgy ideas does not strike me as a particularly damning condemnation of the communications age, although it may tell us something about neurobiology, which sounds more and more interesting.

There are certainly downsides—of both the merely potential and nearly universal sorts—to use of the Internet, particularly if the one doing the using is proceeding in an undisciplined manner. Even its advantages are potential traps, as is known to anyone who has sought out data on some relevant thing like Chinese wheat production only to spend two hours learning the plots of various Japanese role playing games. The potential for information addiction is real. But upon the harnessing of fire, man must have wasted quite a bit of time staring into it even after having properly utilized it in cooking his meals. Every new invention entails a test of our will.

Still, I will not cop out of this argument by suddenly declaring that we all have free will and what will be will be, a tact that God is always taking out of plain intellectual cowardice. Rather, I will note again that the views expressed above regarding the Internet's lack of impact on the human mind are countered by views to the contrary held by individuals with just as much claim to our attention by virtue of academic background as those with whom they are in disagreement.

While the credentialed debate the subject, we may consider that the perpetuation of information has, on average, been a positive thing for humanity's station on the planet, where we were once in actual competition with its other inhabitants but have since outran them all and are now preparing to decide which of our old adversaries will get to accompany us to Mars. Insomuch as the knowledge we have gained will soon allow us to spread the planet's life beyond the planet's own confines and thus to perpetuate it well beyond its earth-bound potential, and to the extent that we favor the perpetuation of life, we ought to agree that the process by which we have obtained the means to accomplish all of this—the general uptrend in the average human being's access to information—might very well be something worth maintaining. And then we might remember that no one is seriously arguing that the Internet has not increased the average human being's access to information. Whatever other effects it may have on one’s mind, it is at least providing it with the unprecedented potential that comes with having one's mind satiated as the mind wills. Likewise, it brings the revolutionary novelty that arises when individuals can obtain any information in any combination, individuals being to some degree defined by the information that informs their thoughts. No biologist should object to the mixing of genes; no humanist should object to the mixing of memes.

Though it has not been proven that the Internet has some overall cognitive effect on its users that we would deem positive, those who are convinced that the effect is largely negative or even nonexistent have yet to compile any airtight case. But if we ask the specific question regarding whether or not the Internet assists the cause of skepticism, we may show that it assists the cause of information and trust in our collective judgment that the former has nothing to fear from the latter.

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Barrett Brown is the instigator of Project PM, a distributed cartel intended to reduce certain structural deficits that have arisen in the news media. He's a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, The Huffington Post, and True/Slant. His first book, Flock of Dodos: Behind Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design, and the Easter Bunny, was released in 2007; his second, Hot, Fat, and Clouded: The Amazing and Amusing Failures of the American Chattering Class, is set for publication in 2010. Brown can be reached via e-mail at barriticus@gmail.com.