Jul 21, 2010

[Web] A New Way Of Thinking

It's often highlighted in popular fiction that we use a very small portion of our brains. The rest of it doesn't appear to be immediately accessibly by the conscious mind and thus we try to make do with what we get. There have been countless movies, stories and other such flights of fantasy that speculate what might happen should we gain mastery over this unused portion of the brain. They normally go down the road of superhuman intelligence, mutant powers like telekinesis or pyrokinesis or perhaps just outright insanity, as our consciousness may not be designed to fully handle all that power or something.

The JetsonsWe now live in very technological times. Sure, it may not be the kind of world of tomorrow that shows like The Jetsons predicted, but it certainly has its similar merits and advantages. At the forefront of a lot of change is the rapid development of the internet. In the past 15 years, we've seen a dramatic change in how we utilize this complex information repository. From its early roots in text-based BBS rooms, we're now in a period when almost anything is available online.

A popular accusation that has made the rounds is that the internet is making us dumber. The fact that people feel less obligated to memorize details or learn things for themselves given the alternative of going online does seem like rather damning evidence. But maybe we're just looking at the next step in our thinking process with old eyes and with the bias of traditional processes. I really don't feel the Web is a crutch - it may very well be a major part in the next step of our evolution.

Google changed the game in terms of web search when it came out since it moved away from just trying to compile a directory of the web and instead created a smarter, faster way to sift through it. Instead of trying to trap you in the search portal, they only wanted to help you along and have you leave as soon as possible. Google showed the world that search could be able speed and accuracy, all wrapped in a minimalist package. And we all responded and voted with our keyboards and learned to rely on Google for so many things. Sure, most search engines have responded to this challenge and have adapted to this new search environment, but Google really started it all.

At the same time, mobile technology has made leaps and bounds and now devices have gotten smaller and a lot more powerful. The advent of the smartphone and its ability to combine the functions of a phone, a web browser and a multimedia device have made it indispensable to many people. Even the simplest of phones have some way of accessing the web and keeping us all connected.

If you don't use your phone, then perhaps you carry around a laptop and connect to available WiFi signals at will. This couldn't be more true now that developers have come up with devices like netbooks, which emphasis mobility and easy web access all with a 10.1 screen size. And they keep coming up with other ways to access the web on the go like eBook Readers and of course Apple's iPhones and iPads. The list goes on and on.

LobotThe point is, we've reached a day and age that (1) we've learned to use the web to access information quickly and (2) we've grown accustomed to a variety of ways to keep connected to the web no matter where we are. Maybe Star Wars had it right with the concept behind Lobot, who was a man that was pretty much networked to Cloud City by the device attached to his head. Or if you want a more malevolent example, there's always the Borg or whatever. In many ways we're like this too - we've try to stay connected to the web wherever we go and we use it to add to our intelligence. We become smarter because of the shared information that is available to everyone.

A friend of mine used to joke about "Google Delay" during a chat conversation - this being the amount of time the person you're talking to seems to pause to consider a response when it's very likely he's actually searching on Google for information about whatever you're talking about. But Google Delay, or whatever you want to call it, really isn't much time anymore. Google, or whichever is your search engine of choice, all give results pretty quickly and the conversation remains seamless. So now we get to appear like we know more than we did without the aid of the web.

OodThose who badmouth reliance on the web and claim that it makes us dumber think that instead of memorizing and thinking, we instead rely on the internet to do the thinking for us. That would indeed be bad, but I feel a greater majority of us are going down a different path. I like to look at the internet as an augmentation to our thinking ability. Sure, we can't yet consciously access a majority of our brains but there's nothing wrong in taking on a second one. I know, that sounds a lot like the Doctor Who aliens known as the Ood with their brains in their hands, but that may not be a bad thing. Now we get to focus on using our intellectual capacity for more important things and we can use the web to answer more trivial questions. But that's just the beginning.

We also use the web to address things we normally wouldn't be able to resolve on our own. Just think about how getting lost used to be such a socially burdensome experience. If you had no idea where you are, you'd need to somehow find someone in the area who could (1) speak your language and (2) tell you how to get where you need to go. Now we have online mapping technology like Google Maps that can give us turn-by-turn instructions, transit information or even walking paths where available.

And the examples of how the web helps us more and more go on and on. Heck, this list is constantly evolving and becoming longer and more complex as time progresses.

Now we get to process the world with the benefits of two brains. We start with our own, one that is shaped by years of education and learning by experience. The other is a more social one, a repository of shared experiences and information that we can all add to and access as needed. As the world learns more, gets smarter and takes the time to document this knowledge on the internet, we all become smarter because of it.

And this is why I feel this is all part of our evolutionary progression. This is a great leap forward for us - a way for everyone to have access to more information, whether in our brains or elsewhere. Aren't these exciting times that we now live in? The fact that we can now do all this with greater and greater ease has to be a good thing. And in time we'll figure out better ways to stay connected with greater ease and speed. And in the end we'll all be the better for it.
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