Will the internet really improve the way we think?

Will the internet really improve the way we think?

In a recent interview with the British Sunday Observer, Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, claimed that "it's the next billion [internet users] who will change the way we think". Such a big claim deserves some critical house room. Will the internet really change the way we think? Or are we just getting carried away?

Giving Wikipedia closer examination

Wikipedia has, by any standard, been an enormous success. In seven years it has become the fastest growing and most popular general reference works on the internet: 683 million visitors annually and ten million articles in 253 languages. I don't want to get embroiled in an arm-wrestling match about the accuracy of the entries (important though that is) but Jimmy Wales' claim deserves closer examination if only, because unlike Google and Yahoo, he would not kowtow to Chinese censors. Wales has said that censorship is "antithetical to the philosophy of Wikipedia.". Speaking of Wikipedia he also said "We occupy a position in the culture that I wish Google would take up, which is that we stand for freedom of information."

That commitment to freedom of information automatically places Wales in the same camp as Stallman, Lessig, Blake Ross, Tim Berners Lee and the other stalwarts of free software. As the editor of this website has already pointed out Wikipedia is not only licenced under the GPL, it was also one of the first instances of the principles of the free software philosophy to be applied to a non-technical field.

the internet search infrastructure is broken, broken for the same reason that proprietary software is broken (lack of freedom and accountability)

By the same token a more recent project, Wikia is a potential Google rival, but unlike Google, it has freed its search algorithms and it allows the user to create an account to edit and add to search terms as well. It has been argued that there is a need for free software products like this because the internet search infrastructure is broken, broken for the same reason that proprietary software is broken (lack of freedom and accountability). Wales has also adopted and is promoting the Grub distributed web crawler which utilizes spare desktop capacity to scour the web and build an index. GNU/Linux graphical clients are available. In true free software fashion Wales has released the Grub source code to the community as well. Handled properly it could be a "Google killer" - although the search results are poor so far but it is early days. Wales is not discouraged though. For him it is a statement of political intent: "we don't need secrecy" he told The Economist.

Wales and Wikipedia come from geek culture

For these reasons his opinions matter and they form part of the penumbra of freedoms that concern all users of GNU/Linux. Wikipedia is a classic example of the Eric Raymond's Bazaar in action. (Encyclopedia Britannica is an exemplar of the hierarchical Cathedral.) As Wales himself said: "We come from geek culture, we come from the free software movement, we have a lot of technologists involved". It is not surprising therefore to discover that in 1999, when Wales was studying for a PhD in financial mathematics, he stumbled across a free software manifesto by one Richard Stallman. He was hooked.

Linux is subversive--for all the right reasons

He had also read the seminal text The Cathedral and the Bazaar by Eric Raymond. It opens with three mighty words: "Linux is subversive". Bill Gates couldn't have put it better himself. Subversive, that is, for all the right reasons.

Whilst it is true that governments around the world condemned the Chinese for their actions, the nature of international politics is such that the room for manoeuvre is limited by shabby realpolitik and mutual self interest typical of inter-governmental relations. Countries don't have "best friends" (or "special relationships"), just mutual interests. Wikipedia is not so constrained. It has the latitude for relatively disinterested action. It stands or falls by the contributors--not shareholders, voters or entrenched civil servants. Of course, it's not perfect (what is?) but I would be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt in comparison with any of the FUD emanating from Microsoft or the companies and governments it cosies up to.

Democratizing information

Whilst it is true that Wikipedia is part of the free software movement and that in conjunction with the movers and shakers in GNU/Linux land it has helped to ensure the democratization of information, this is not the same as the democratization of ability. Not even Stalinist social engineering can ensure that. The internet may be seen by historians of the future as being as significant as the Industrial Revolution and as important as the invention of the printing press, the Renaissance and the Reformation but it is up to people to make of it what they will. The printing press led to the printing of Bibles in Latin and then in the vernacular and to great works of science like Newton's Principia but it can also be used to print and mass circulate pulp fiction, child pornography and ideologies of hatred. We don't dismiss printing out of hand. The invention of printing was a landmark in the history of the human species - and so is the internet. It's pervasive global reach however will have an impact that Gutenberg could not begin to imagine. Trying to control the internet is like trying to transport Nitroglycerine on a pot-holed road. It's likely to blow up in your face.

Happily, the internet enrages governments because it is so protean and difficult to handle and just as advanced nation states are giving way to the market state there is a corresponding transition from proprietary to free software and the internet is one of the engines driving this. Controlling print matter was easy by comparison. Stallman and Wales understood long before Microsoft that the internet was the key to the next great leap forward (sorry for the Maoist overtones there) as the de-centralised nature of the beast made it more difficult to control and hence privatize. We all realized a long time ago that GNU/Linux was good for the internet and the internet was good for GNU/Linux. The perfect symbiotic relationship. Wikipedia is a specific example of this.

Wales' argument can be summarised as follows: the internet is changing radically the way we do things. As the next billion users come online a new constituency of talent, interests and abilities will emerge. Far from causing the diversity of cultures to collapse into a bland homogenous digital mass hated by the dystopian anti-globalisation lobby, the democratization of knowledge is more likely to lift people out of ignorance, poverty and despotism. It won't be perfect, nothing is but it will be better than anything preceding it. The fact that Wikipedia is flourishing in so many languages gives the lie to all that pessimism.

Trying to control the internet is like trying to transport Nitroglycerine on a pot-holed road

Further, the nature of Wikipedia can help people to query source material and exchange information outside official channels (although that is something we should all do regardless of how information is presented and accessed). When you democratize information you can take it out of the hands of proprietary coporations and undemocratic governments (and even the democratic ones too). It makes a centralised command economy of knowledge virtually impossible. However, even if the quality of the information available is good, consistent and reliable in Wikipedia and on the net generally the inevitable question that must follow is this: is the very nature of how information is viewed and used detrimental to those rigourous intellectual qualities needed to protect the freedoms characterized by free software?

Is the internet destroying out attention span and damaging our capacity for deep thought?

Let me give you a personal example in order to attempt an answer to that questions: I stand second to no one in my awe and admiration for everything GNU/Linux and the internet has achieved. I wish it had all been around when I was a postgraduate research student. It would have made basic research faster, easier and fun (but not improved the quality of my thesis!). Except for one thing. It can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Information without intelligence is like magnitude without vector. I make no claim to genius here (believe me) but intelligence is not just about the endless collection of information and disparate facts. The accumulation of endless facts is no more proof of an intelligent life form than the ability of a sponge to absorb water is. (That is what sponges do but they have not inherited the Earth.) Progress in human affairs arises when an infinity of analysis collapses like a quantum probability wave and emerges to an instant of synthesis. In short, the eureka moment.

The internet can promote and facilitate this but it does not of itself create that synthesis. In our current evolutionary dispensation there are no easy shortcuts for a rigourous training in systematic thinking. Never in the field of human knowledge has so much information been available to so many. However, there is so much out there that it can tend to generate information overload and subsequent anxiety. This is usually accompanied by a tendency to snack or graze on snippets of information which, in turn, can affect attention spans and the capacity for joined-up thinking. The modern webpage too is a dense thicket of hypertext links and distractions. It takes a very disciplined mind to resist the tendency to spin off into a digital void of unstructured meanderings(though sometimes you make the most wonderful discoveries that way). The sum of these things has the ability to reduce our capacity for sustained thinking. Butterfly minds might abound.

One caveat: some commentators tend to assume that in a past, pre-industrial Arcadian idyll everyone was wise, cultured and educated, debating wisely and composing learned tomes on Shakespeare and Wagner. Then came the printing press, the industrial revolution and the internet and they abandoned the ramparts of high culture for the slums of the digital age. It was that kind of thinking that fueled the Romantic poets in their yearning for a pre-lapsarian paradise. It never existed. The truth was much nearer to the grim Hobbesian world described in Leviathan--solitary, nasty, brutish and short. A war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes, De Cive).

Is it a generational thing?

It is difficult for the present generation that has grown up with the pervasive presence of computers and the internet all around them to envisage a world without them. I am practically geriatric so I have a point of comparison, a cultural waypoint by which to navigate. I grew up and was educated in an era almost before pocket calculators and certainly before the internet and desktop computers. Log tables, sliderules and long division were the common currency of my schooldays. Books too. Especially Books. Nothing develops reading skills and powers of concentration like a book. At their best, books develop habits and patterns of thought that concentrate, extend and focus our intellectual abilities. The pace of analogue information processing (books) permits thoughts to echo and reverberate over longer periods of time; time for reflection and consideration. Our vocabulary has been extended and matured--and so have our minds. Sometimes, the long march of analogue culture and the great leap of the digital internet feel like that famous dichotomy between the Fox and the Hedgehog. The Fox knows many things but the Hedgehog knows one big thing. It is a pluralist versus a monist world view but there is no reason why we can't adopt both creatures.

Susan Greenfield, a British Professor specializing in degenerative brain diseases, has voiced concern that the uncritical use of the internet is causing young brains to be "scalded and defoliated by a kind of Cognitive Agent Orange" which militates against the more sedate and measured culture of books, causes the victory of process over content and, isolated, becomes addictive and mind changing. She also worries that it can induce a passivity which facilitates big government and big business. It seems almost superfluous to mention Microsoft.

Is the analogue future proofed?

Books are the scaffold that allow us to erect the complex edifice of thought in the same way that a fully stocked toolbox allows mathematicians to extend their powers of counterintuitive understanding. Books can be a profoundly liberating force. They are the keys to the kingdom. Franz Kafka rightly described books as an axe to the frozen sea around us. In computer terms they don't require recharging (and, excepting their initial production, they don't rely on non-renewable fossil fuels either), they will not suffer from hardware obsolescence (when did a book last crash with a blue screen of death fatal exception error?) and the "file format" (in your language) is guaranteed to persevere across the centuries. No danger of Microsoft's OOOXML ISO status making books inaccessible. The simple ability to read is the analogue's Rosetta Stone. It is possible for a reasonably educated person of today to read as far back as Chaucer before starting to really struggle with the language. A book is the ultimate form of Open Source. It is independent of future file format compatibility issues. Yes, you need to reprint to "reproduce" a text but you can lend it to anyone and provided they can read in their native tongue it will always be accessible. It's the grammar stupid.

The moral of the story is that we cannot fully know what inventions presage. The law of unintended consequences looms large. The internet is no different

The only issue of interoperability for books is translation and when, due to the homogenizing effects of cultural globalisation, small languages contract or disappear and translation becomes moot. Even then, it's an even bet some scholar has catalogued the grammar of a dying language and it is preserved in a book in a library--somewhere, and it's not proprietary either. This is the kind of future proofing file formats simply don't do.

Let's get it into perspective

Before I get swept up in a paen of praise to the printed word perhaps I should put the criticisms of the internet into a brief historical perspective: doubtless groups of disgruntled monks were observed muttering darkly in the cloistered sanctuaries of their monasteries about that nasty Mr. Gutenberg and his infernal printing press ruining the manuscript business and making knowledge available to heretics and peasants. Even back in ancient Greece a certain Plato fulminated about how the invention of writing was destroying the oral tradition and the role of memory in knowledge. Many criticisms of writing and printing were valid but they both brought huge technical, cultural and political benefits too. The invention of the railways provided the arteries of the industrial revolution but the Duke of Wellington didn't approve. He was convinced that they would only transport the young men of Eton College up to London to visit prostitutes (perhaps they did!) The moral of the story is that we cannot fully know what inventions presage. The law of unintended consequences looms large. The internet is no different.

The best thing about living in these challenging and interesting times is that it isn't a zero sum game. It's not either/or. You can have it all. The best of the internet--and the best of our civilization in books too. Doubtless Google has commercial motives but their plan to digitize all books, copyright complexities notwithstanding, is bold and imaginative. It might be the most presumptuous project of its kind undertaken since the Library at Alexandria. Perhaps it is the perfect synergy between the analogue and the digital. Yes, you will get a lot of new dross with Wales' next billion in the ever expanding latrine slush of the internet but amidst the digital fluff and ephemera you may have the next big thing and if it is based on free software and open source who knows where it go. Like the Confederate Army under General Lee during the American Civil War the ethos of free software has the capacity, with these numbers, to get to the battlefield first and take up a killing and winning position first. (I'll try to forget that the Confederacy lost the war for the sake of this analogy.)


Bruce Springsteen sang about "fifty seven channels and nothing on". Sometimes the internet can feel like that too--but the figure is more like fifty seven million--and there is a lot on. It was ever thus. In the same vein, surfing the net can sometimes feel like playing with the television remote--and draining the batteries. Yet, I feel that Wales is on the right track. With reservations. To paraphrase James Joyce, if we must have online Encyclopedia and search engines then let us have legitimate ones. Free, open and transparent. That will do nicely, thank you.


Author information

Gary Richmond's picture


A retired but passionate user of free and open source for nearly ten years, novice Python programmer, Ubuntu user, musical wanabee when "playing" piano and guitar. When not torturing musical instruments, rumoured to be translating Vogon poetry into Swahili.