In recent days I have stumbled on a treasure-trove of ideas and thoughts from some of the worlds eminent thinkers and captains of intellectual analysis. www.edge.org is a collaborative conversation based around a yearly topic posed by the editors , notably, John Brockman.
In 2010 the question above was posed and some 160 thinkers, artists, scientists, actors and dignitaries have written essays to probe this question in depth.
I thought I would add my own thoughts to this mix. Not because I consider myself equal amongst these people who have already given comment, but because the internet is MY tool for thinking, learning and doing many things in the everyday ordinariness that is my life.
The question is worthy of pondering by anyone with more than a passing interest in email, let alone virtual reality worlds such as Second Life or social networking platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. And my generation... the end of the Baby Boomers... are prime candidates to ask this question too. You see? It is MY generation who straddle the pre-internet and post-internet worlds who can answer this with any integrity. For those in Gen X and Gen Y - the internet is so pervasive a tool from their infancy that I believe they are already innately adjusted to its size and shape.
How has the internet changed the way *I* think? It's a bit like asking Cro-Magnon man how the spear changed the way he hunted?
Prior to 1995, any mention of the word "Internet" would have had me both intensely intrigued and simultaneously baffled. I vaguely knew of its existence but I did not understand it's implications or use. Our family got our first computer in February of 1996. My children were little and they were the focus of my entire life at that point. I was an exhausted mother and wife, crabby and lacking in the stimulative intellectual environments I have always craved.
I thought in black and white for the most part. I was a Wimmera Girl, a Lutheran, a Mother, a Wife. My husband owned a small business and we produced things and sold them to people who wanted them. Life was mundane. Ideas were only useful if they produced results or created something useful to others. Social interaction was limited to pre-existing friendships - also with similarly aged children of their own - and immediate family. Life for me at that time was conservative, fundamentalist and apart from the joy of watching my kids grow, quite depressing! I felt lonely and detached in many ways. I over-compensated by throwing myself into various voluntary positions in the local arts community and in my church. However, these never really did give me what I was seeking.
What was I really seeking? With hindsight I can see clearly what was missing in those days. Possibilities and Words. Together these two combine in the most magical way.
All my life, from the first memories I have of being able to think about the world around me, I have been seeking the magic kingdom of never-ending possibilities. Ideas are the spring board to possibilities. Words are the medium by which they are given life.
Intellectual critique and investigation into everything I didn't know I didn't know has been my heart's desire for a long, long time. From the time I was little, I used books as my tools to discover these possibilities. All my learning about things had until that point been from books. Family life in 1995 was wonderful on the surface but it was replete and without my books, I knew I would be on the brink of a black and foreboding malaise of the mind.
It was 1997 before my then partner, 'Baz' decided to put our family on the internet. Ostensibly this was to facilitate the running of our business. About the same time, I re-entered the workforce. My place of work was also connected to this vast strange world of emails and information on the World Wide Web (aka the 'Web'). I learned with faltering steps, how to start interacting with this awesome and amazing thing called "The Internet" and it's offspring "The Web".
I quickly discovered there was more to the internet than mere emails. Tentatively, I eyed message boards, seeking to find like minded others with whom to connect and exchange ideas with. At the time it scared the crap out of me... the thought of engaging with strangers whose faces could not be read or bodies seen was frightening and alien. I decided that I would "protect" myself by finding a message board of other females... mothers... with whom I could discuss things, in a general way.
My first real foray into social networking was through a little Australian message board for mums. Downundermums quickly became a second "home". It was here that my proclivities for words, text and the ability to type suddenly took on momentous importance. Here were women from the far reaches of my own nation who understood what it was like to be mothers to young children and yet still feel isolated, despite the strong sense of family. We all became firm friends. I still count many of them as my friends to this day.
My thinking grew outwards. I learned so much about the possibilities of the internet through this forum. I learned how to hunt down websites for factual information. I learned from these wise and strong women how to discern a "troll" and how to sense integrity in the information presented. I learned how to "emote" over electronic media - an important skill given there is no body language per se. More importantly, I learned that it is very very possible to love and deeply admire people you have never met in person and yet can be incredibly close to despite the distances. Never in my youth could I have imagined that having "pen-pals" in this way would become such an immediate and powerful means of connecting to others. Downundermums was my sanity saver.
13 years have past and the internet has become a critical tool in my everyday interactions with people. Even people I see regularly face to face, I "meet" with online as well. It's as if the internet adds a facet to the personality that isn't obvious in person. How a person interacts in text online can be very different from their physical persona. I've learned that how a person presents online is as multidimensional as the person face to face. There is a character and shape to their persona that is embedded within the syntax and semantics they use to express themselves. Facebook, for instance, is - quite frankly - a fascinating portrait of the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of human psychology.
With exploration into virtual worlds like Second Life, the advent of Google to search for what I want to know, the calls I can make across the globe using Skype, the networks I've formed through Facebook, the checking of hoaxes and spam emails using breakthechain.org and so on... the internet is both my pen, my paper, my resources toolkit, my encyclopaedia and my diary.
Thus, my thinking has changed. Dramatically.
I think through these fingers on the keyboard. Typing out my thoughts as they occur is both cathartic and energising. I "see" the world differently now. I see endless possibilities. Ideas ripple at every corner of my peripheral attention span. Everything is mutable, changeable, less solid and it's constantly metamorphosing into difference. Life feels fluid, hyper changeable and exciting viewed through this electronic window. The limits of the collective imagination are being pushed in all directions.
Once there was a time when I believed there were only two genders in the world. Now I understand that Gender is a purely personal perception and can't be pinned onto another person like a name-tag. There are scales of gender with a moving slider that can fall at any point across 4 dimensions! How freaky is that?
Once there was a time when I believed that information by experts was irrefutable. Now I understand that that same information can be queried by the masses en masse. How incredibly democratic (rightly or wrongly depending on the information in question) is that?
Once I never even knew that such a thing as a 10,000 year clock could exist but thanks to the World Wide Web - I know this is a fact!
Only this week, I have been able to seen incredibly detailed overhead photographic maps taken during our recent floods! This technology would have been considered far too fantastic even 10 years ago! Now through the connections I have with others online, I'm immediately able to access this information for myself! Incredible!
The internet is, at its weakest, the vilest of perpetrators for misinformation and depraved thinking. At its very best, it is a collaborative tool for humans to exchange the information which builds up and edifies for the collective good. It can be used to teach, to heal, to inform, to disseminate, to query, question, critique, amuse and yes... change. It isn't so much three dimensional as fractal in its audio-visual and psycho-social appeal.
The internet will change our antecedents in ways we can barely imagine right now. I for one am just glad I saw its birth and am able explore just a few of the infinite possibilities it creates through words, sounds, images and interaction. :)