Al Gore on How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think

The Nobel Prize winner and former vice president talks global networks, Marshall McLuhan, and how computing is changing what it means to be human.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Technology and the "World Brain"

Writers have used the human nervous system to describe electronic communication since the invention of the telegraph. In 1851, only six years after Samuel Morse received the message "What hath God wrought?" Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: "By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time. The round globe is a vast brain, instinct with intelligence." Less than a century later, H. G. Wells modified Hawthorne's metaphor when he offered a proposal to develop a "world brain" -- which he described as a commonwealth of all the world's information, accessible to all the world's people as "a sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind: a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified and compared." In the way Wells used the phrase "world brain," what began as a metaphor is now a reality. You can look it up right now on Wikipedia or search the World Wide Web on Google for some of the estimated one trillion web pages.

Since the nervous system connects to the human brain and the brain gives rise to the mind, it was understandable that one of the twentieth century's greatest theologians, Teilhard de Chardin, would modify Hawthorne's metaphor yet again. In the 1950s, he envisioned the "planetization" of consciousness within a technologically enabled network of human thoughts that he termed the "Global Mind." And while the current reality may not yet match Teilhard's expansive meaning when he used that provocative image, some technologists believe that what is emerging may nevertheless mark the beginning of an entirely new era. To paraphrase Descartes, "It thinks; therefore it is." [1]

The supercomputers and software in use have all been designed by human beings, but as Marshall McLuhan once said, "We shape our tools, and thereafter, our tools shape us." Since the global Internet and the billions of intelligent devices and machines connected to it---the Global Mind -- represent what is arguably far and away the most powerful tool that human beings have ever used, it should not be surprising that it is beginning to reshape the way we think in ways both trivial and profound -- but sweeping and ubiquitous.

In the same way that multinational corporations have become far more efficient and productive by outsourcing work to other countries and robosourcing work to intelligent, interconnected machines, we as individuals are becoming far more efficient and productive by instantly connecting our thoughts to computers, servers, and databases all over the world. Just as radical changes in the global economy have been driven by a positive feedback loop between outsourcing and robosourcing, the spread of computing power and the increasing number of people connected to the Internet are mutually reinforcing trends. Just as Earth Inc. is changing the role of human beings in the production process, the Global Mind is changing our relationship to the world of information.

Gore Coversized.jpg

The change being driven by the wholesale adoption of the Internet as the principal means of information exchange is simultaneously disruptive and creative. The futurist Kevin Kelly says that our new technological world -- infused with intelligence -- more and more resembles "a very complex organism that often follows its own urges." In this case, the large complex system includes not only the Internet and the computers, but also us.

Consider the impact on conversations. Many of us now routinely reach for smartphones to find the answers to questions that arise at the dinner table by searching the Internet with our fingertips. Indeed, many now spend so much time on their smartphones and other mobile Internet -- connected devices that oral conversation sometimes almost ceases. As a distinguished philosopher of the Internet, Sherry Turkle, recently wrote, we are spending more and more time "alone together."

The deeply engaging and immersive nature of online technologies has led many to ask whether their use might be addictive for some people. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), when it is updated in May 2013, will include "Internet Use Disorder" in its appendix for the first time, as a category targeted for further study. There are an estimated 500 million people in the world now playing online games at least one hour per day. In the United States, the average person under the age of twenty-one now spends almost as much time playing online games as they spend in classrooms from the sixth through twelfth grades. And it's not just young people: the average online social games player is a woman in her mid-forties. An estimated 55 percent of those playing social games in the U.S. -- and 60 percent in the U.K. -- are women. (Worldwide, women also generate 60 percent of the comments and post 70 percent of the pictures on Facebook.)

Of Memory, "Marks," and the Gutenberg Effect

Although these changes in behavior may seem trivial, the larger trend they illustrate is anything but. One of the most interesting debates among experts who study the relationship between people and the Internet is over how we may be adapting the internal organization of our brains -- and the nature of consciousness -- to the amount of time we are spending online.

Human memory has always been affected by each new advance in communications technology. Psychological studies have shown that when people are asked to remember a list of facts, those told in advance that the facts will later be retrievable on the Internet are not able to remember the list as well as a control group not informed that the facts could be found online. Similar studies have shown that regular users of GPS devices began to lose some of their innate sense of direction.

The implication is that many of us use the Internet -- and the devices, programs, and databases connected to it -- as an extension of our brains. This is not a metaphor; the studies indicate that it is a literal reallocation of mental energy. In a way, it makes sense to conserve our brain capacity by storing only the meager data that will allow us to retrieve facts from an external storage device. Or at least Albert Einstein thought so, once remarking: "Never memorize what you can look up in books."

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Al Gore is a former vice president of the United States and Democratic nominee for president. He has published several bestselling books and is a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change.

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