How is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?

By Sean Carroll | January 11, 2010 10:57 am

This year’s Edge World Question Center is out, posing the query mentioned in the title. My own answer is kind of lukewarm — the internet did allow me to find my future wife, which certainly changed the way I think about a lot of things, but that’s not the tack I wanted to take for this project. Instead, I’m basically giving credit to you blog readers for keeping me honest. (Among other things.)

But many of the other answers are fascinating. Just to pick some at semi-random, I enjoyed the responses from Danny Hillis, Anthony Aguirre, Frank Wilczek, Victoria Stodden, Martin Rees, Scott Atran, Lisa Randall, Irene Pepperberg, and Clay Shirky. Keep thinking!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Technology
  • TimJohnsonMN

    To me, the internet has made me less a repository of information and more an index of said repository. I know now I’ve read or heard something vaguely but can quickly look that information up rather than just dismissing my recollection entirely. I can’t say it’s made me have less in-depth knowledge, but it has freed me up to memorize less since retrieval is still pretty much instantaneous. I probably have a surface knowledge of more topics as well, thanks to making research so accessable.

  • Laura

    Almost word for word what Tim said above although he’s expressed it more clearly than I would have. In addition, because of the retrieval aspect, my memory’s changed so that I remember the information that would let me search and find something more easily (in a nutshell, I’m remembering search terms).

    And this is probably not what the question meant but the Internet’s definitely changed the way I think of people. The anonymity can really bring out the worst in people, reminding me of the xkcd comic (

  • steeleweed

    I am enamored with serendipity and you can’t beat the Internet for that. Link leads to link leads to link, etc. I find so many interesting things I forget what I was originally searching for, although that may mean I’m getting senile. If anything, the Internet doesn’t so much change how I think as interfere with real thinking – information overload clutters the mental desk.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    It has taught me the value of privacy. I have a nephew whose Facebook exploits have, predictably, generated the kind of unwanted scrutiny his grandmother would have warned him against, if she could get her head around doing more than sending emails. Sadly, his parents subscribed to that hands-off post-boomer parenting philosophy, the one that says your parents should be your friends, and that to gain your respect and obedience, they should be expected to reason with you. No reasonable person trusts humanity enough to broadcast what kids today (I used to utterly hate hearing those two words come out of an adult’s mouth…”Kids today!”) see, apparently, as an obligatory level of disclosure. Many adults aren’t much better.

    So many see interconnectedness as nothing but positive. They see guarded privacy as a hint of shame, or a perhaps a need to cover up some wrongdoing. The innocent have nothing to hide. Sadly, I think the unprecedented availability of very personal information about almost anyone in our community means that we ALL now have something to hide. Only the most cloistered haven’t done something that someone couldn’t use to raise questions about character, fitness, propriety. Check that; the cloistered are clearly suffering from some mental infirmity to desire something other than what the arbiters of orthopraxy deem to be a healthy pursuit of socialization. I know all about that from my in-depth study of agoraphobia on Wikipedia.

    That a global network brings us all together, that it facilitates this amazing new level of intimacy, is about as double-edged a sword as ever was forged, IMO. “Good fences make good neighbors” wrote an astute observer of human nature well before the Internet Age. Human nature has changed not a whit since “Mending Wall” was written. But the tools we’ve built to remove all barriers have changed beyond anything one of Frost’s time, or any previous time, could have imagined. How will this panoptical “utopia” change how we relate to each other, once all privacy is gone? I don’t know, but clearly we have no will to hide ourselves from it.

  • daisyrose

    Your future wife? how did you find your present wife?

    The internet has made me waste a lot of time amusing my self – with as much reward as I would have gotten playing solitaire.

    Now instead of surfing a hard copy of the 11th edition – I now surf wiki – more information – faster and less depth.

    I say it has made me lazier in some ways and made me *think* I am more connected than I am :( I now depend on the internet for almost all current events – no longer getting a daily paper and I have cut out most of my magazines.

  • Lab Lemming

    Does Jennifer know about this future wife?

  • Phillip Helbig

    “Your future wife? how did you find your present wife?” :-)

    Actually, some languages have a tense for something which is in the future at the time it is written, but will be in the past by the time it is read. (Sean’s malapropism is not quite the same thing.) The closest modern English gets is this gem from the back of a Hell’s Angel’s jacket: if you can read this, the bitch fell off.

  • Phillip Helbig

    The internet hasn’t changed the way I think, but it has changed the way many, many tasks are accomplished.

  • NomNomNomamous

    I’m not so young, but young enough that I hardly remember what I thought about prior to the internet, let alone _how_ I thought – so, to the older and wiser potential answerers, I raise a related question: in detail, what was the way in which you thought before the internet? What element of the human condition passed me by completely – and is it critical? Have I been permanently incapacitated by Google, Inc. before I even got to know what I was missing?

  • daisyrose

    Dear NomNomnomamous, The short answer is -Yes- with knowledge and the ease of a plethora of information – comes a loss of wonderment of experiencing something for the first time alone – The exquisite misery of uncertainty.. .. The long answer – Mark Twain’s Life On the Mississippi…

    …I stood as one bewitched – I drank it in with speechless rapture – The world was new to me – I had never seen any thing like this at home …

    …a day came when I began to cease noting the glories and charms which the moon, sun, and twilight wrought upon the river’s face..

    Where as to the trained eye these were not pictures at all but the grimmest and most dead earnest of reading matter.
    With knowledge – Romance and beauty – gone – all the value of any feature was in its usefulness…
    The useful information it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steam boat. …

    …and another day came when I ceased to note them.

  • Brian Too

    I’d suggest the very question is wrong. I don’t believe that the Web has changed the way I think–not at all. I has changed the way I behave somewhat, and it has changed the way I relate to people substantially.

    Before the Web access to information was often a problem. A solvable problem, but a problem nonetheless. Now information is easily available and we have had to develop stronger filtering skills in order to detect misinformation. The Web to me is like the ultimate encyclopedia, but it’s a bit unkempt and not entirely reliable.

    Regarding people, I like most tend to seek like-minded individuals. The Web has certainly enabled this behaviour. Also, since many like-minded people are available online, it’s much easier to reject people who are not like-minded, particularly those online.

    I read an analysis, long ago, of successful people. It described the behaviour of successful people versus those who were less successful. It was fascinating!

    The gist of it was that essentially all people start out, in any given situation, in much the same circumstances. They have partial or bad information and a set of preferences. The successful people were very quick to update their bad information, fill in the holes in their knowledge, and adjusted their behaviour in response. The unsuccessful people didn’t learn and didn’t adapt. My understanding was that the failure to adapt was the key to their lack of success.

    What’s my point? I’d suggest that the Web has made a world where knowledge and information is now easily available. This is likely to enable the successful personalities, but it won’t much help those with counter-productive behaviours.

  • Allison P.

    The internet has evolved quickly and the way we think has evolved along with it. We no longer have to look through books or encyclopedias to find desired information, instead we Google or Bing it. In this way it has made information more readily available for us to find, and we are able to find information much more quickly. Also we are able to find related topics to the information by just clicking a link. The internet has made it possible for us to do almost anything without ever leaving home or even actually talking to someone else for that matter. We can send job applications, order clothes, groceries, even takeout.
    I believe the internet has changed the way we think about socializing with others. This would include the ways in which we communicate with our friends, family, co-workers. We now can even meet our significant others over the internet. Something that is a little off topic, but that I found interesting; I was surfing the internet the other day and found a website for online marriages. This shows how much socialization between individuals has changed. The internet has changed the ways in which we view communication with others, as well as the ways in which we receive information.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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