The mechanical clock came into common and widespread use back in the 14th century. This rather simple intention was a profound, paradigm shift for our way of life at the time. The mechanical clock served to substitute the previous way of relaxed approximations of time with one of measured and precise sequences. I’d bet that no one alive at the time realized the profound change that occurred after that. In a very short period of time we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock in deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise. That new way of thinking re-ordered society in general and our brains specifically. This paradigm shift in thought and action led directly to the invention of modern science and the scientific mind and all the scientific wonders we know today.
Over 700 years later, we have entered a new age and perhaps a similar paradigm shift is happening beneath our noses. There is a real possibility that the internet in general (and Google in particular) is making us stupid and smarter at the same time. For example, I have learned more about history, philosophy, gardening, physics and biology than I ever learned in school thanks to the ‘Net. But I also often find it hard to concentrate when I’m reading. There is some evidence to suggest that that my short attention span has something to do with the fact that my day job requires that I spend lots of time on the internet. When I’m reading an article filled with hyperlinks to other articles, I find myself wandering and following my interests wherever they may lead. When I find my way back to the intended article I generally skim it for the important parts and move on to the next interesting item. This is called “power browsing.” The lack of concentration could also be caused by “getting old” but if I want to blame computers then, by golly, I can.
There is some evidence to suggest that this skimming process has resulted in the gradual reformation of my thought process from one of concentration to an attempt to absorb many ideas all in at one time. I’ve heard others speak of this phenomenon, too. Like the invention of the mechanical clock, this process is subtly re-ordering our brains in profound ways.
Using history as an example, I think this will result in a good thing, overall. We are nearing the end of the Fossil Fuel age. The climate is changing. The population is growing while food supplies shrink. In order to meet these challenges, we are going to have to become smarter. We are going to have to learn how to access vast volumes of information quickly and efficiently and that is exactly what the Internet allows us to do. Knowledge isn’t king any more. The ability for ACQUIRE knowledge is the new ruler. We are outsourcing of our knowledge to the internet leaving the rest of our brains to do more productive things such as golf and whiling away the hours on Facebook.