The following piece of mine appeared this past week on Edge.org, in response to John Brockman's annual question: "How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"
Like many others, my personal experience is that the internet is both the Great Source for information and the Great Distractor, fostering compulsions to stay “connected,” often at the expense of other, arguably more valuable aspects of life. I do not sense that the internet alters the way that I think as much as it does the way I work; having the Great Source close at hand is simply irresistible, and I generally keep a window open on my laptop for random searches that pop into my head.
Nevertheless, I am much less concerned about “tweeners” like me who grew up before the internet than I am with children of the internet age, so-called “Digital Natives.” I want to know how the internet changes the way they think. Although the supporting research may still be years away, it seems likely that a lifetime of daily conditioning dictated by the rapid flow of information across glowing screens will generate substantial changes in brains, and thus thinking. Commonly cited potential effects include fragmented thinking and shorter attention spans together with a concomitant reduction (let alone interest) in reflection, introspection, and in-depth thought. Another oft-noted concern is the nature of our communications, which are becoming increasingly terse and decreasingly face-to-face.
But I have a larger fear, one rarely mentioned in these discussions—the extinction of experience. This term, which comes from author Robert Michael Pyle, refers to the loss of intimate experience with the natural world. Clearly, anyone who spends 10-plus hours each day with their attention focused on a screen is not devoting much time to experiencing the “real” world. More and more, it seems, real-life experience is being replaced by virtual alternatives. And, to my mind at least, this is a grave problem. Let me explain.
As the first generation to contemplate the fact that humanity may have a severely truncated future, we live at arguably the most pivotal moment in the substantial history of Homo sapiens. Decisions made and actions taken during the next generation will have an imbalanced impact on the future of humans and all other life on Earth. If we blunder onward on our present course—increasing populations, poverty, greenhouse gas emissions, and habitat destruction—we face no less than the collapse of civilization and the decimation of the biosphere. (For believers and skeptics alike, I highly recommend Lester Brown's exceptional summary of our current eco-crisis and a plan to get us out of it: Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, 2009) Given the present dire circumstances, any new far-reaching cultural phenomenon must be evaluated in terms of its ability to help or hinder the pressing work to be done; certainly this concern applies to how the internet influences thinking.
Ecological sustainability, if it is to occur, will include greener technologies and lifestyles. In addition, however, we require a shift in worldview that re-configures our relationship with non-human nature. To give one prominent example of our current dysfunctional perspective, how are we to achieve sustainability as long as we see nature as part of the economy rather than the inverse? Instead of a collection of resources available for our exploitation, nature must become a community of relatives worthy of our respect and a teacher to whom we look for inspiration and insight. In contrast to the present day, sustainable societies will likely be founded on local foods, local materials, and local energy. They will be run by people who have a strong passion for place and a deep understanding of the needs of those places. And I see no way around the fact that this passion and understanding will be grounded in direct, firsthand experiences with those places.
My concern, then, is this: How are we to develop new, more meaningful connections to our native communities if we are staring at computer screens that connect us only to an amorphous worldwide “community?” As is evident to anyone who has stood in a forest or on a seashore, there is a stark difference between a photograph or video and the real thing. Yes, I understand the great potential for the internet to facilitate fact-finding, information sharing, and even community-building of like-minded people. I am also struck by the radical democratization of information that the internet may soon embody. But how are we to establish affective bonds locally if our lives are consumed by virtual experiences on global intermedia? What we require is uninterrupted solitude outdoors, sufficient time for the local sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures to seep into our consciousness. What we are seeing is children spending less and less time outdoors actually experiencing the real world and more and more time indoors immersed in virtual worlds.
In effect, my argument is that the internet may influence thinking indirectly through its unrelenting stranglehold on our attention and the resultant death (or at least denudation) of non-virtual experience. If we are to care about larger issues surrounding sustainability, we first must care about our local places, which in turn necessitates direct experiences in those places. As Pyle observes, “what is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?”
One thing is certain. We have little time to get our act together. Nature, as they say, bats last. Ultimately, I can envision the internet as a net positive or a net negative force in the critical sustainability effort, but I see no way around the fact that any positive outcome will involve us turning off the screens and spending significant time outside interacting with the real world, in particular the nonhuman world.