Are You Even Thirty Yet? (Message 14: There is no Such thing as a Disadvantage with God)
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I am inclined to think that nothing could matter more than what people love. At any rate, I can think of no value that I would place higher. I would not want to live in a world without love. Would a world with peace, but without love, be a better world? Not if the peace was achieved by drugging the love and hate out of us, or by suppression. Would a world with justice and freedom, but without love, be a better world?
Not if it was achieved by somehow turning us all into loveless law-abiders with none of the yearnings or envies or hatreds that are wellsprings of injustice and subjugation. It is hard to consider such hypotheticals, and I doubt if we should trust our first intuitions about them, but, for what it is worth, I surmise that we almost all want a world in which love, justice, freedom, and peace are all present, as much as possible, but if we had to give up one of these, it wouldn't — and shouldn't — be love.
But, sad to say, even if it is true that nothing could matter more than love, it wouldn't follow from this that we don't have reason to question the things that we, and others, love. Love is blind, as they say, and because love is blind, it often leads to tragedy: to conflicts in which one love is pitted against another love, and something has to give, with suffering guaranteed in any resolution.
Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. There's nothing you can do that can't be done Nothing you can sing that can't be sung Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game It's easy.
We all been playing those mind games forever Some kinda druid dudes lifting the veil. Doing the mind guerrilla, Some call it magic — the search for the grail. Love is the answer and you know that for sure. Love is a flower, you got to let it — you got to let it grow. We have come by curious ways To the Light that holds the days; We have sought in haunts of fear For that all-enfolding sphere: And lo! Deep in every heart it lies With its untranscended skies; For what heaven should bend above Hearts that own the heaven of love?
If you believe in peace , act peacefully; if you believe in love, acting lovingly; if you believe every which way, then act every which way, that's perfectly valid — but don't go out trying to sell your beliefs to the system. You end up contradicting what you profess to believe in, and you set a bum example.
If you want to change the world , change yourself. There are three lessons I would write, — Three words — as with a burning pen, In tracings of eternal light Upon the hearts of men. Have Hope. Though clouds environ now, And gladness hides her face in scorn, Put thou the shadow from thy brow, — No night but hath its morn.
Have Faith. Where'er thy bark is driven, — The calm's disport, the tempest's mirth, — Know this: God rules the hosts of heaven, The habitants of earth. Have Love. Not love alone for one, But men, as man, thy brothers call; And scatter, like the circling sun, Thy charities on all. Thus grave these lessons on thy soul, — Hope, Faith, and Love, — and thou shalt find Strength when life's surges rudest roll, Light when thou else wert blind. Before our lives divide for ever, While time is with us and hands are free , Time, swift to fasten and swift to sever Hand from hand, as we stand by the sea I will say no word that a man might say Whose whole life's love goes down in a day; For this could never have been; and never, Though the gods and the years relent, shall be.
Is it worth a tear, is it worth an hour, To think of things that are well outworn? Of fruitless husk and fugitive flower, The dream foregone and the deed forborne? Though joy be done with and grief be vain, Time shall not sever us wholly in twain; Earth is not spoilt for a single shower; But the rain has ruined the ungrown corn.
I had grown pure as the dawn and the dew, You had grown strong as the sun or the sea. But none shall triumph a whole life through: For death is one, and the fates are three. At the door of life, by the gate of breath, There are worse things waiting for men than death; Death could not sever my soul and you, As these have severed your soul from me. You have chosen and clung to the chance they sent you, Life sweet as perfume and pure as prayer. But will it not one day in heaven repent you? Will they solace you wholly, the days that were?
Will you lift up your eyes between sadness and bliss, Meet mine, and see where the great love is, And tremble and turn and be changed? Content you; The gate is strait; I shall not be there. The pulse of war and passion of wonder, The heavens that murmur, the sounds that shine, The stars that sing and the loves that thunder, The music burning at heart like wine, An armed archangel whose hands raise up All senses mixed in the spirit's cup Till flesh and spirit are molten in sunder — These things are over, and no more mine. These were a part of the playing I heard Once, ere my love and my heart were at strife; Love that sings and hath wings as a bird, Balm of the wound and heft of the knife.
The relation between it and its users is one of subject and object: I can see it as if it were an image, but I cannot feel it, I'm not present in it, the interaction between the medium and I is too weak. Being a profoundly democratic medium, opening up unprecedented possibilities of self-expression, freedom of the press and access to information, the Internet is not only the source of unlimited access to knowledge, but paradoxically enough also the breeding ground of a general acceptance of a lack of competences.
Large social communities such as Facebook, which do not produce or exchange any kind of knowledge, seem to flourish, and because search machines are based on trivial algorithmic principles of recognition, it can be hard to find the qualified, critical voices in the bulk of information. If the Internet should help us become more consciously involved with the world, it is not enough to just canalise huge amounts of information into society. Search engines should be competence-focused, social networks should relate to competent search engines, and video and search functions should be better integrated.
This requires that Google, Yahoo, AOL and the other large companies defining the future of the Internet, provide the medium with enough confidence to operate with self-criticism. This is not enough. We have to base our use of the Internet on both trust and scepticism. In this way, the Internet would not stand outside reality and send information in, rather it would be conceived of as a part of reality, and thus the distinction between subject and object would dissolve, and we would experience the Internet as if it were a three-dimensional space.
The Internet would become a reality producing machine. The process was so gradual, so natural, that I didn't notice it at first. In retrospect, it was happening to me long before the advent of the Internet. The earliest symptoms still mar the books in my library. Every dog-eared page represents a hole in my my memory. Instead of trying to memorize a passage in the book or remember an important statistic, I took an easier path, storing the location of the desirable memory instead of the memory itself. Every dog-ear is a meta-memory, a pointer to an idea that I wanted to retain but was too lazy to memorize.
The Internet turned an occasional habit into my primary way of storing knowledge. As the Web grew, my browsers began to bloat with bookmarked Websites, with sites that stored information that I deemed important but didn't feel obliged to commit to memory. And as search engines matured, I stopped bothering even with bookmarks; I soon relied upon Altavista, Hotbot, and then Google to help me find — and recall — ideas.
My meta-memories, my pointers to ideas, started being replaced by meta-meta-memories, by pointers to pointers to data. Each day, my brain fills with these quasi-memories, with pointers and with pointers to pointers, each one a dusty IOU sitting where a fact or idea should reside. Now, when I expend the effort to squirrel memories away, I store them in the clutter of my hard drive as much as I do in the labyrinth of my brain.
As a result, I spend as much time organizing them, making sure I can retrieve them on demand, as I do collecting them. My memories are filed in folders within folders within folders, easily accessible — and searchable, in case my meta-memory of their location fails.
And when a file becomes corrupt, all I am left with a pointer, a void where an idea should be, a ghost of a departed thought. As visual artists, we might rephrase the question as something like: How has the Internet changed the way we see? For the visual artist, seeing is essential to thought. It organizes information and how we develop thoughts and feelings. It's how we connect. So how has the Internet changed us visually? The changes are subtle yet profound. They did not start with the computer. The changes began with the camera and other film-based media, and the Internet has had an exponential effect on that change.
The result is a leveling of visual information, whereby it all assumes the same characteristics. One loss is a sense of scale. Another is a loss of differentiation between materials, and the process of making. Art objects contain a dynamism based on scale and physicality that produces a somatic response in the viewer. The powerful visual experience of art locates the viewer very precisely as an integrated self within the artist's vision. With the flattening of visual information and the randomness of size inherent in reproduction, the significance of scale is eroded.
Visual information becomes based on image alone. Experience is replaced with facsimile. As admittedly useful as the Internet is, easy access to images of everything and anything creates a false illusion of knowledge and experience. The world pictured as pictures does not deliver the experience of art seen and experienced physically. It is possible for an art-experienced person to "translate" what is seen online, but the experience is necessarily remote. As John Berger pointed out, the nature of photography is a memory device that allows us to forget. Perhaps something similar can be said about the Internet.
In terms of art, the Internet expands the network of reproduction that replaces the way we "know" something. It replaces experience with facsimile. The Internet is producing a fundamental alteration in the relationship between knowledge, content, place and space. If we consider the world as divided into two similarly populous halves: the ones born before and the ones born after — of course there are other important differences such as gender, race, class, ethnicity, geography, etc. I am responding to this question from Funes, a locality of 15, inhabitants in the core of the Argentine Pampas country side.
Five other users are here. A man on a Facebook page posting photos of a baby and a trip and myself, a 42 year-old architect on vacation with an assignment due in two hours! I am the elder here. I am the nonlocal here. Yet the computer helps me and corrects my spelling without asking anyone. Years ago when I was an architectural student and wanted to know about, say, Guarino Guarini's importance as an architect, I would go two flights down the stairs at Avery Library, get a few cards, follow the numbered instructions on those index cards and find, two or four or seven feet worth of books in a shelf dedicated to the subject I would leaf through all the found books and get a vague, yet physical sense of how much there was to know about the subject matter.
Now I Google "Guarino Guarini", and in 0. My Google search is both very detailed yet not at all physical. I can't tell how much I like this person's personality or work. I can't decide if I want to flip through more entries. I am in a car traveling from New York to Philadelphia. I have GPS but no maps. The GPS announces where to go and takes into account traffic and tolls.
In that other trip I had a map, I entered the city from a bridge, the foreground was industrial and decrepit the background was vertical and contemporary I zoom out the GPS to see if the GPS map reveals an alternative entry route, a different way the city geography can be approached. Nothing in the GPS map looks like the space I remember. What happened? Is my memory of the place faulty or is the focus of the GPS too narrow?
If decisions take into account the many ways in which information comes to us then the internet at this point privileges what we can see and read over many other aspects of knowledge and sensation. How much something weights, how does it feels, how stable it is. Are we, the ones that knew places before the internet, more able to navigate them now or less? Do we make better or worse decisions based on the content we take in? Do we have longer better rests in far away places or constant place-less-ness? How have image, space, place and content been altered to give us a sense of here and now?
I believe that the history of time has been impacted by several enormous inventions. First was the watch which unified man's concept of measurement of time. It is interesting to note that China was the last country to join the rest of the world in embracing the clock. It was chairman Mao who brought in this drastic change, among others. The invention of photography created several concrete displacements of our perception of the past. The world was quick to accept the photograph as a forcible document containing absolute evidence.
This concept endured until sometime in the s when the photograph was no longer accepted in courts of law. From my point of view the next great watershed that influenced our perception of time has been the arrival of the Internet. I know that it certainly speeds things up etc. I believe that there is a metaphysical element that surely the mystics could define.
But for me the most blatant phenomena is that my life has to an extent compressed to the extent that I am not only aging in the conventional sense but also not aging, due to the fact that rather than losing information with the passing of "time" I am in fact accruing more and more information. I remain indifferent to the entire event of place as it is experienced by young arrivals to the planet who find the most concrete forms of reality floating upon the surface of their computer display. The idea of an Internet without some form of computer device is, for the time being, out of reach.
Thus the Internet and the computer are married in some ethereal place, as yet undefined. As an amateur musician I find the Internet linked in time with the nature of music itself. I can hear it now. The Internet first appeared long after I had received my Ph. I had been trained in physical library search techniques: look up the subject in Science Abstracts a journal itself now made defunct by the Internet , then go to the archived full article in the physical journal shelved nearby.
Mark Twain - Wikiquote
I no longer have to go to the library; I can access the SCI and the online journals via the Internet. These Internet versions of journals and Abstracts have one disadvantage at present: my university can afford only a limited window for the search. I can use the SCI only back ten years, and most e-journals have not yet converted their older volumes to online format, or if they have, my university can often not afford to pay for access to these older print journals. So the Internet causes scientific knowledge to become obsolete faster than was the case with the older print media.
A scientist trained in the print media tradition is aware that there is knowledge stored in the print journals, but I wonder if the new generation of scientists, who grow up with the Internet, are aware of this. Also, print journals were forever. They may have merely gathered dust for decades, but they could still be read by any later generation. I can no longer read my own articles stored on the floppy discs of the 's. Computer technology has changed too much. Will information stored on the Internet become unreadable to later generations because of data storage changes, and the knowledge lost?
At the moment the data is accessible. More importantly, the raw experimental data is becoming available to theorists like myself via the Internet. It is well known from the history of science that experimentalists quite often do not appreciate the full significance of their own observations. Now that the Internet allows the experimenter to post her data, we theorists can individually analyze it.
Let me give an example from my own work. Standard quantum mechanics asserts that an interference pattern of electrons passing through a double slit must have a certain distribution as the number of electrons approaches infinity. However, this same standard quantum mechanics does not give an exact description of the rate at which the final distribution will be approached. Many-Worlds quantum mechanics, in contrast, gives us a precise formula for this rate of approach, since according to Many-Worlds quantum mechanics, physical reality is not probabilistic at all, but more deterministic than the universe of classical mechanics.
According to Many-Worlds quantum mechanics, the wave function measures the density of Worlds in the Multiverse rather than a probability. Experimenters — indeed, undergraduate students in physics — have observed the approach to the final distribution, but they have never tried to compare their observations with any rate of approach formula, since according to standard quantum mechanics there is no rate of approach formula. Using the Internet, I was able to find raw data on electron interference that I used to test the Many-Worlds formula.
Most theorists can tell a similar story. But I sometimes wonder if later generations of theorists will be able to tell a similar story. Discoveries can be made by analyzing raw data posted online today, but will this always be true? The great physicist Richard Feynman often claimed: "there will be no more great physicists. Feynman argued in Surely You're Joking Mr.
Feynman that all of his own achievements were due, not to his higher-than-other-physicists I. Everyone would think the same way. The Internet is currently the great leveler: it allows everyone to have access to exactly the same information. Will this ultimately destroy diversity of thought? Or will the tendency of people to form isolated groups on the Internet preserve that all important diversity of thought, so that although scientists all have equal access in principle, there are still those who look at the raw data in a different way from the consensus?
The Internet dispenses information the way a ketchup bottle dispenses ketchup. At first there was too little; now there is too much. Use of the Internet has not changed the way that I think, but it is making a unique contribution by providing me with immediate and convenient access to an extraordinary range of ideas and information. This development can be considered as a natural extension to the sequence that began with tablets of clay, continued through papyrus, parchment, handwritten manuscripts on paper to the recent mass produced books printed on paper.
Happily the Internet provides us with access to many of these earlier forms of the written word as well as to electronic communications. Access to information and ideas has always been important for both personal development and progress of a community or nation. As a school boy, when I first became interested in facts and ideas my family were living in an industrial part of the north of England and at that time I made great use of a public library. The library was part of an industrial village established by a philanthropic entrepreneur who made his money by importing Alpacas' cashmere-like fleece and weaving fine clothes.
Alpacas are members of the camelid family found in the Andes of Peru and Chile. He provided not only houses, a hospital, but schools and a technical college, and the library. I took it for granted that libraries which provided access to books, most of which could be borrowed and taken home, were available everywhere. This is still not the case, but in the near future the Internet may provide an equivalent opportunity for people everywhere.
Whereas libraries have been established in most major societies, it is only in the recent past that they have been made generally available to ordinary citizens. One of the earliest libraries for which records remain is the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt which was founded around BC by pharaoh Ptolemy I. It grew to hold several hundred thousand scrolls, some of which are said to have been taken from boats that happened to dock at Alexandria while carrying out their trade.
The library contributed to the establishment of Alexandria as a major seat of learning. Sadly the library was destroyed by fire. Never the less it represented a particular landmark in the development of the concept of a library as a collection of books to provide a reservoir of knowledge, that should be staffed by specific keepers whose tasks included expansion of the collection. Other similar libraries were established during this period, including those at Ephesus in Turkey and Sankore in Timbuktu. During the period of the Roman Empire wealthy and influential people continued the practice of establishing libraries, most of which were open only to scholars with the appropriate qualifications.
A survey in AD identified 29 libraries in Rome, but as the Empire declined the habit of establishing and maintaining libraries was lost. The development of monasteries provided a renewed stimulus for learning. They amassed book collections and introduced the habit of exchanging volumes. Recognizing the importance of learning the Benedictine rules required that monks spent specified periods of time reading. As Europe emerged from the Dark Ages wealthy families again began to collect books and then donate their libraries to seats of learning in places such as Florence, Paris, Vatican City and Oxford.
All of these libraries depended upon the copying of text by hand and it was only the development of printing by Gutenberg in the s that production of books was transformed they were much more readily available. During the period to there was an extraordinary expansion of libraries, by universities and nations. Some of these were named after major benefactors, such as the Bodlean Library in Oxford and the library donated by the Massachusetts clergyman John Harvard, after whom the university is named.
In the United States the Library of Congress was founded in and after a fire during the War of Independence its stock was replenished by the purchase of the collection that had been amassed by Thomas Jefferson. The Library of Congress now claims to be the largest library in the world with more than million items. It was also during this period that public libraries became more common and books became more generally available for the first time. In some cases subscriptions were used to purchase books, but there was no charge for subsequent loans.
One such was the Library Company of Philadelphia established by a group that included Benjamin Franklin in The oldest surviving free reference library in the United Kingdom, Chetham's, was established in Manchester in It was at this time that the UK parliament passed an Act to promote the formation of Public Libraries. In the United States the first free public library was only formed in , in New Hampshire. The Scots born entrepreneur Andrew Carniegie went on to build more than 1, public libraries in the US between and These libraries were the first to make large numbers of books available to the general public.
Of course books are only valuable to those who have access to them, can read and are encouraged to do so. Often reading was associated with religion as knowledge of the sacred scripture was important. In England around the ability to read a particular Psalm entitled a defendant to be tried in an ecclesiastical court, which was typically more lenient than a civil court. In some places funds were allocated specifically to teach people to read the scriptures, but this provision was not always available universally. At the time of the civil war in the US owners were prohibited from teaching their slaves to read and write.
As recently as the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire was arrested and expelled for daring to teach peasants to read. Universal access to the Internet could have an exceptionally important contribution to make to future political developments. Access to the Internet would then provide the opportunity to everyone anywhere in the world to obtain a great deal of information on any subject that they choose. Knowledge accumulated over centuries of human experience is an important counter to fashions of the moment communicated through commercial mass media.
It is hard to imagine that making each of us aware of the circumstances and beliefs of people in other parts of the world can do anything but good. We would surely be more likely to assist countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to form liberal democracies by helping to provide education, training, employment and so wealth and greater understanding than by military take over, which inevitably causes a very large numbers of civilian casualties and a great deal of damage. There is one cautionary note. Texts of any kind, be they on parchment or available through electronic systems, are only as useful as they are accurate.
In the days when books were prepared by hand the accuracy of scribes was recognized as being of paramount importance. In a rather different way, but of equal importance, we depend upon the rigor of the research done by those whose electronically reproduced articles we read.
Who has not Googled thyself? Most humans have a concept of self that is constructed in terms of how we think we are perceived by those around us and the Internet has made that preoccupation trivially easy. Now anyone can assess their impact factor through a multitude of platforms including Facebook, Twitter and of course, blogging. Last year, on the request of my publisher, I started a blog to comment on weird and bizarre examples of supernatural thinking from around the world. From the outset I thought that blogging was a self-indulgent activity but I agreed to give it a whirl to help promote my book.
In spite of my initial reluctance I very soon became addicted to feedback. It was not enough to post blogs for some unseen audience. I needed the validation from visitors that my efforts and opinions were appreciated. Within weeks, I had become a numbers junkie looking for more and more hits.
However, the Internet has also made me sentient of my own insignificance and power at the same time. Within the blogosphere, I am no longer an expert on any opinion as it is one that can be shared or rejected by multitude of others. But insignificant individuals can make a significant difference when they coalesce around a cause. As this goes to press, a British company is under public scrutiny for allegedly selling bogus bomb-detecting dowsing rods to the Iraqi security forces. This has come about because of a blog campaign by like-minded skeptics who have used the Internet to draw attention to what they consider to be questionable business activity.
This would have been very difficult and daunting in the pre-Internet days and not something that the ordinary man in street would have taken on. In this way, the Internet can empower the individual through collective campaigns. I can make a difference because of the Internet. I'll be checking back on Google to see if anyone shares my opinion.
George Bernard Shaw
Other people can help us compensate for our mental and emotional deficiencies, much as a wooden leg can compensate for a physical deficiency. Specifically, other people can extend our intelligence and help us understand and regulate our emotions. I've argued that such relationships can become so close that other people essentially act as extensions of oneself, much like a wooden leg can serve as an extension of oneself.
When another person helps us in such ways, he or she is participating in what I've called a "Social Prosthetic System. The Internet is already an enormous repository of the products of many minds, and the interactive aspects of the evolving Internet are bringing it ever closer to the sort of personal interactions that underlie Social Prosthetic Systems. More generally, the Internet functions as if it is my memory. This function of the Internet is particularly striking when I'm writing; I no longer am comfortable writing if I'm not connected to the Internet.
It's become completely natural to check facts as I write, taking a minute or two to dip into PubMed, Wikipedia, or the like. When I write with a browser open in the background, it feels like the browser is an extension of myself. Regarding perception: Sometimes I feel as if the Internet has granted me clairvoyance: I can see things at a distance. I'm particularly struck by the ease of using videos, allowing me to feel as though I've witnessed a particular event in the news. Regarding judgment: The Internet has made me smarter, in matters small and large. For example, when writing a textbook it's become second nature to check a dozen definitions of a key term, which helps me to distill the essence of its meaning.
But more than that, I now regularly compare my views with those of many other people. This inevitably hones my own views. Moreover, I use the Internet for "sanity checks," trying to gauge whether my emotional reactions to an event are reasonable, quickly comparing them to those of others. These effects of the Internet have become even more striking since I've used a smart phone. I now regularly pull out my phone to check a fact, to watch a video, and to read blogs. Such activities fill the spaces that used to be dead time such as waiting for somebody to arrive for a lunch meeting. But that's the upside.
The downside is that when I used to have those dead periods, I often would let my thoughts drift, and sometimes would have an unexpected insight or idea. Those opportunities are now fewer and farther between. Like anything else, constant connectivity has posed various tradeoffs; nothing is without a price. I am a better thinker now than I was before I integrated the Internet into my mental and emotional processing.
By using the Internet I have renewed or begun new epistolary interactions on a global basis with superb, knowledgeable scientists and historians. The Internet has made quickly available much obscure, scientific literature relevant and invaluable to me. It has generated new colleagues. The luxury far beyond the usual "he says, she says, they-say gossip" of the Internet leads us both nearby and geographically distant associates: graduate students, family members, et al. Note: of course our planet is mostly not earth, it ought to be renamed Planet Water or Planet Hard Rock.
The Internet makes a difference as we zero in toward the final detailed solution of our scientific problem: "How did the ancestral nucleated cell evolve some million years ago? Everyone agrees this evolutionary turning point, the appearance of animal-type cells in the fossil record happened in the time period the geologists call the Proterozoic Eon? The short answer is nucleated cells evolved "by promiscuous forbidden sexual fusion among wildly different kinds of bacteria.
They survived and still live together with the ups-and-downs of permanent merger. Probably some bacterial ancestors look back at the period million years ago when both water and air were full of hydrogen sulfide poisonous to people. Before oxygen bubbled up and its combustion fueled the frenetic rate of environmental degradation that began in the Proterozoic eon and continues until today was "The Age of Bacteria", a calmer, quieter time.
Aided and abetted by our very recent Holocene loud, careless, ignorant, frantic, clever but unwise, ephemeral human species, the rest of our planetmates have been there before us and will be there when we're gone. 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. And then somehow the creature became autonomous, an ordinary part of our universe. We are no longer surprised, no longer engaged in so much meta-analysis: we are dependent, some of us are addicted to this marvelous tool, this multi-faceted medium that is — as predicted even ten years ago — concentrating all of communication, knowledge, entertainment, business.
I, like so many of us, spend so many hours before a flat computer screen, typing away, even when surrounded by countless books, that it is hard to say exactly how the Internet has affected me. The Internet is becoming as ordinary as the telephone. Humans are very good at adapting to the technologies we create, and the Internet is the most malleable, the most human of all technologies, just as it can also be intensely alienating from everything we've lived as before now. I waver between these two positions: at times gratefully dependent on this marvel, at other times horrified at what this dependence signifies.
Too much concentrated in one place, too much accessible from one's house, the need to move about in the real world nearly nil, the rapid establishment of social networking Websites changing our relationships, the reduction of three-dimensionality to that flat screen. Rapidity, accessibility, one-click for everything: where has slowness gone, and tranquillity, solitude, quiet? The world I took for granted as a child, and that my childhood books beautifully represented, jerks with the brand new world of artificial glare and electrically created realities, faster, louder, unrelated to nature, self-contained.
The technologies we create always have an impact on the real world, but rarely has a technology had such an impact on minds. We know what is happening to those who were born after the advent of the Internet and for those like me who started out with typewrites, books, slowness, reality measured by geographical distance and local clocks, the world that is emerging now is very different indeed from the world we knew. I am of that generation for which adapting to computers was welcome and easy, but for which the pre-Internet age remains real.
I can relate to those who call the radio the wireless, and I admire people in their 70s or 80s who communicate by email, because they come from further away still. Perhaps the way forward would be to emphasize the teaching of history in schools, to develop curricula on the history of technology, to remind today's children that their technology, absolutely embracing as it feels, is relative, and does not represent the totality of the universe.
Millions of children around the world don't need to be reminded of this — they have no access to technology at all, many not even to modern plumbing — but those who do should know how to place this tool historically and politically. As for me, I am learning how to make room for the need to slow down and disconnect without giving up on my addiction to Google, email, and rapidity.
I was lucky enough to come from somewhere else, from a time when information was not digitized. And that is what perhaps enables me to use the Internet with a measure of wisdom. Never then did I imagine the potential dangers, or the creative possibilities, of polarization in virtual groups. Electronic communication and social networking enable Tea Partiers, global warming deniers, and conspiracy theorists to isolate themselves and find support for their shared ideas and suspicions.
As the Internet connects the like-minded and pools their ideas, White supremacists may become more racist, Obama-despisers more hostile, and militia members more terror prone thus limiting our power to halt terrorism by conquering a place. But the Internet-as-social-amplifier can instead work for good, by connecting those coping with challenges.
Peacemakers, cancer survivors, and bereaved parents find strength and solace from kindred spirits. By amplifying shared concerns and ideas, Internet-enhanced communication can also foster social entrepreneurship. An example: As a person with hearing loss, I advocate a simple technology that doubles the functionality of hearing aids, transforming them, with the button push, into wireless loudspeakers. After experiencing this "hearing loop" technology in countless British venues, from cathedrals to post office windows and taxi back seats, I helped introduce it to West Michigan, where it can now be found in several hundred venues, including Grand Rapids' convention center and all gate areas of its airport.
Then, via a Website, hearing listservs, and e-mail I networked with fellow hearing advocates and, by feeding each other, our resolve gained strength. Thanks to the collective efficacy of our virtual community, hearing aid compatible assistive listening has spread to other communities and states. New York City is installing it in subway information booths.
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Leaders in the American Academy of Audiology and the Hearing Loss Association of America are discussing how to promote this inexpensive, wireless assistive listening. Several state hearing loss associations are recommending it. The hearing industry is now including the needed magnetic receiver in most hearing aids and cochlear implants. And new companies have begun manufacturing and marketing hearing loop systems.
The moral: By linking and magnifying the inclinations of kindred-spirited people, the Internet can be very, very bad, but also very, very good. Being among those who have predicted that humans will be uploading their minds into cybermachines in the not too distant future, one might assume I'm enthusiastic about the Internet.
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But the thinking of my still primate mind about the new mode of information exchange is more ambiguous. No doubt the Internet is changing the way I operate and influence the world around me. Type "gregory paul religion and society" into Google and nearly four million hits come up. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but it looks impressive.
An article in a Brit newspaper on my sociological research garnered over comments. The new communication environment is undoubtedly altering my research and publicity strategy relative to what it would be in a less digital world. Even so, I am not entirely sure how my actions are being modified. The only way to find out would be to run a parallel universe experiment in which everything is the same except for the existence of an Internet type of communications, and see what I do in the alternative situation. What is disturbing to this human raised on hard copy information transmission is how fast the Internet is destroying a large portion of the former.
My city no longer has a truly major newspaper, and the edgy, free City Paper is a pale shadow of its former self in danger of extinction. I have enjoyed living a few blocks from a major university library because I could casually browse through the extensive journal stacks, leafing through assorted periodicals to see what was up in the latest issues.
Because the search was semi-random it was often pleasantly and usefully serendipitous. Now that the Hopkins library has severely cut back on paper journals as the switch to online continues it is less fun. It's good to save trees, and looking up a particular article is often easier online, but checking the contents of latest issue of Geology on the library computer is neither as pleasant nor convenient. I suspect that the range of my information intake has narrowed, and that can't be good.
On the positive side, it could be amazingly hard to get basic info before the Web showed up. In my teens I was intrigued by the notorious destruction of the HMS Hood in , but was not able to get a clear impression of the famed vessel's appearance for a couple of years until I saw a friend's model, and I did not see a clear image until well after that. Such extreme data deprivation is thankfully over due to Wikipedia, etc. But even the Internet cannot fill all information gaps. It often remains difficult to search out obscure details of the sort found only in books that can look at subjects in depth.
Websites often reference books, but if the Internet limits the production of manuscript length works then the quality of information is going to suffer. As for the specific question of how the Internet is changing my thinking, online apps facilitate the statistical analyses that are expanding my sociological interests and conclusions further than I ever thought they would go, leading to unanticipated answers to some fundamental questions about popular religion that I am delighted to uncover.
Beyond that there are more subtle effects, but exactly what they are I am not sure sans the parallel world experiment. I also fear that the brevity favored by on screen versus page turning reading is shortening my attention span. It is as if one of Dawkins's memes is altering my unwilling mind like a bad science fiction story.
But that's a non-quantitative, anecdotal impression; perhaps I just think my thinking has changed. It is possible the new arrangement is not altering my mental exertions further than it is because the old fashioned mind generated by my brain remains geared to the former system. The new generation growing up immersed in the digital complex may be developing thinking processes more suited for the new paradigm for better or for worse.
But as far as I know that's a hypothesis rather than a documented fact. Perhaps human thinking is not as amenable to being modified by external factors as one might expect. And the Internet may be more retro than it first seems. The mass media of the 20th century was truly novel because the analog based technology turned folks from home entertainers and creators gathering around the piano and singing and inventing songs and the like to passive consumers of a few major outlets sitting around the telly and fighting over the remote.
People are using hyperfast digital technology to return to self-creativity and entertainment. How all this is affecting young psyches is a matter for sociobehavioral and neuropsychological research to sort out. But how humans old and young are effected may not matter all that much. In the immediacy of this early 21st century moment the Internet revolution may look more radical than it actually is, it could merely introduce the real revolution. The human domination of digital communications will be a historically transitory event if and when high-level thinking cyberminds start utilizing the system.
The ability superintelligences to share and mull over information will dwarf what mere humans can manage. Exactly how will the interconnected uberminds think? Hell if I know. We don't yet understand how we think or what it means to change the way we think. Scientists are making inroads and ultimately hope to understand much more.
But right now all I and my fellow contributors can do are make observations and generalize. We don't even know if the Internet changes the way we read. It certainly changes how we read, as it changes how we do many aspects of our work. Maybe it ultimately changes how our brains process written information but we don't yet know.
Still, the question of how the Internet changes how we think is an enormous problem, one that anecdotes might help us understand. So I'll tell a couple if I can focus long enough to do so. Someone pointed out to me once that he, like me, never uses a bookmark in a book. It doesn't make sense to find a place in a book that you technically have read but that is so far from your memory that you don't remember having read it. By not using a bookmark, I was guaranteed to return to the last continuous section of text that actually made a dent in my brain.
With the Internet we tend to absorb multiple pieces of information about whatever topic we decide we're interested in. Online, we search. In fact Marvin Minsky recently told me that he prefers reading on an electronic device in general because he values the search function. And I certainly often do too. In fact I tend to remember the answer to the pointed pieces of information I ask about on the Internet better than I do when reading a long book.
But there is also the danger that something valuable about reading in a linear fashion, absorbing information internally, and processing it as we go along is lost with the Internet or even electronic devices, where it is too easy to cheat by searching. One aspect of reading a newspaper that I've already lost a lot of is the randomness that comes with reading in print rather than online. Today I read the articles that I know will interest me when I'm staring at a computer screen and have to click to get to the actual article. Despite its breadth, and the fact that I can be so readily distracted, I still use the Internet in a targeted fashion.
So why don't I stick to print media? The Internet is great for disorganized people like me who don't want to throw something away for fear of losing something valuable they missed. I love knowing everything is still on line and that I can find it. I hate newspapers piling up. I love not having to be in an office to check books. I can make progress at home, on a train, or on a plane when there is enough room between rows to open my computer.
And I do often take advantage of the Internet's breadth, even if it is a little more directed. A friend might send me to a Web site. Or I might just need or want to learn about some new topic. The Internet also allows me to be bolder. I can quickly get up to speed on a topic I previously knew nothing about. I can check facts and I can learn other's points of view on any subject I decide is interesting.
I can write about subjects I wouldn't have dared to touch before, since I can quickly find out the context in a way that was previously much more difficult to access.
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Which brings me back to the idea of the quote "the plural of anecdotes is not data. It's not entirely clear but it might go back to a pharmacologist named Frank Kotsonis, who was writing about the effects of aspartame. I find this particularly funny because I stopped consuming aspartame due to my personal anecdotal evidence that it made me focus less well.
But I digress. Here's the truly funny aspect of the quote I discovered with my Google search. The original quote from the Berkeley political scientist Raymond Wolfinger was exactly the opposite, "The plural of anecdotes is data. The fact is that the Internet provides a wealth of information. It doesn't yet organize it all or process it or arrange for scientific conclusions. The Internet allows us as a group to believe both facts and their opposites; we'll all find supporting evidence or opinions. But we can attend talks without being physically present and work with people we've never met in person.
We have access to all physics papers as they are churned out but we still have to figure out which are interesting and process what they say. I don't know how differently we think. But we certainly work differently and do so at a different pace. We can learn many anecdotes that aren't yet data. This set me thinking about my own interactions with the Internet, and how they might differ fundamentally from using any other sources of information.
Lady Antonia could, I suppose, have said, "If you have cancer, don't look at the Merck Manual," or some other medical guide, but there must be more to it than that. It is, first of all, the effortlessness with which it can be used. I used to joke that if I had a query which could be answered by consulting a book in the shelves on the other side of my study or by using the Internet, it would be quicker and less energy-consuming to find the answer on the Internet. It's not even funny any more, because it's obviously the most efficient way to do things.
I am one of the few people who seem to trust Wikipedia. Its science entries, in particular, are extremely thorough, reliable and well-sourced. People who trust books two or more years out of date rather than Wikipedia are like people who balk at buying on the Internet for security reasons but happily pay with a credit card in restaurants where an unscrupulous waiter could keep the carbon copy of the slip and run up huge bills before they knew it. Lady Antonia Fraser's remark was really a tribute to the reliability and comprehensiveness of the Internet. It doesn't of course mean that it was accurate.
She may not have consulted all cancer sites, or it may be that no one really knows for sure what the prognosis was for oesophageal cancer. This, of course, has nothing to do with thinking. It could be that I would think the same if I'd been writing my books with a quill pen and had only the Bible, Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson's Dictionary to consult. But the Internet certainly constrains what I think about. It stops me thinking any more about that great idea for a book that I now find was published a few years ago by a small university press in Montana. It also reinforces my belief in my own ideas and opinions because it is now much quicker to test them, particularly when they are new opinions.
Of course, I was inclined to disbelieve in Intelligent Design before I had access to the wide range of wacky and hysterical Websites that promote it.
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But now I have no doubts at all that the theory is tosh. What do I do all day, sitting at my computer? I string words together, reread them, judge them, improve them if necessary and print them out or send them to people. And underlying this process is a judgement about what is interesting, novel or in need of explanation, and the juggling of words in my mind to express these concepts in a clear way.
None of that, as far as I am aware, has changed because of the Internet. But this is to deal with only one aspect of the Internet, its provision of factual content. But before all this, I knew there were lots of people in the world, capable of using language and saying clever or stupid things. Now I have access to them in a way I didn't before, but again this is just information provision rather than a change in ways of thinking. Perhaps the crucial factor is speed.
If I was setting out to write a book, I would start with a broad outline and a chapter breakdown, and these would lead me to set a series of research tasks which could take months: look in this library, write to this expert, look for this book, find this document. Now the order of things has changed. While I was doing all the above, which could take weeks or months, my general ideas for the book would be evolving.
My objectives might change, and my research tasks with them. I would do more 'broad brush' thinking. Now, when documents can be found and downloaded in seconds, library catalogues consulted from one's desk, experts emailed and a reply received within 24 hours, the idea is set in stone much earlier. The broad brush thinking is now informed rather than uninformed. I give up.
It's only a tool. An electric drill wouldn't change how I many holes I make in a piece of wood, it would only make the hole-drilling easier and quicker. A car doesn't change the nature and purpose of a journey I make to the nearest town, it only makes it quicker and leads to me making more journeys, than if I walked. But what about Lady Antonia Fraser? Is the truth-telling power of the Internet something to avoid? But anyone who says this is news just doesn't get out enough. The only way my thinking would have been changed by this 'revelation' would have been if I believed along with Dr Pangloss that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
And I don't. I notice that some radical social experiments which would have seemed Utopian to even the most idealistic anarchist 50 years ago are now working smoothly and without much fuss. On the upside, I notice that the variable trustworthiness of the Net has made people more sceptical about the information they get from all other media.
I notice that I now digest my knowledge as a patchwork drawn from a wider range of sources than I used to. I notice too that I am less inclined to look for joined-up finished narratives and more inclined to make my own collage from what I can find. I notice that I correspond with more people but at less depth. I am unconvinced of the value of these. I worry that this may be at the expense of First Life. My notebooks take longer to fill. I notice that I mourn the passing of the fax machine, a more personal communication tool than email because it allowed the use of drawing and handwriting.
I notice that my mind has reset to being primarily linguistic rather than, for example, visual. I notice that the idea of 'expert' has changed. An expert used to be 'somebody with access to special information'. Now, since so much information is equally available to everyone, the idea of 'expert' becomes 'somebody with a better way of interpreting'. Judgement has replaced access. I notice that I find it hard to get a whole morning of uninterrupted thinking.
I notice that I am expected to answer emails immediately, and that it is difficult not to. I notice that as a result I am more impulsive. I notice that I more often give money in response to appeals made on the Net. I notice that 'memes' can now spread like virulent infections through the vector of the Net, and that this isn't always good. I notice that I sometimes sign petitions about things I don't really understand because it is easy.
I assume that this kind of irresponsibility is widespread. I notice that everything the Net displaces reappears somewhere else in a modified form. For example, musicians used to tour to promote their records, but, since records stopped making much money due to illegal downloads, they now make records to promote their tours. Bookstores with staff who know about books and record stores with staff who know about music are becoming more common. I notice that more attention is given by creators to the aspects of their work that can't be duplicated. The 'authentic' has replaced the reproducible.
I notice that almost all of us haven't thought about the chaos that would ensue if the Net collapsed. What is the impact of spending hours each day in front of a monitor, surfing the Internet and playing games? Brains are highly adaptable and experiences have long-term effects on the brain's structure and function. You are aware of some of the changes and call it your memory, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. We are not aware of more subtle changes, which nonetheless can affect your perception and behavior. These changes occur at all levels of your brain, from the earliest perceptual levels to the highest cognitive levels.
Priming is a dramatic example of unconscious learning, in which a brief exposure to an image or a word can affect how you respond to the same image or word, even in degraded forms, many months later. In one experiment, the outlines of animals and other familiar objects were viewed briefly and 17 years later the subjects could still identify the animals and objects above chance levels from versions in which half the outlines were erased. Some of the subjects did not remember participating in the original experiment. With conceptual priming, an object like a table can prime the response to a chair.
Interestingly, priming decreases reaction times and is accompanied by a decrease in brain activity — it becomes faster and more efficient. Brains, especially youthful ones, have an omnivorous appetite for information, novelty and social interaction, but it is less obvious why we are so good at unconscious learning. One advantage is that it allows the brain to build up an internal representation of the statistical structure of the world, whether it is the frequency of neighboring letters in words or the textures, forms and colors that make up images.
Brains are also adept at adapting to sensorimotor interfaces. We first adapted to clunky keyboards, then to virtual pointers to virtual files, and now to texting with fingers and thumbs.