Internet Thought

by Rob Horning

19 January 2010 posed the question “How has the internet changed the way you think?” and then collected the answers from a variety of scientists and artists and critics and the like here. It’s all worth reading. Nicholas Carr (who contributed his own entry) singled out the response of Google VP Marissa Mayer for particular notice, as it reveals what he regards as “Google’s intellectual ethic.” Her piece is titled “It’s not what you know; it’s what you can find out.” Her point is that the internet has freed us from having to remember or know anything other than search protocols, since those can bring us what we want to know.

Carr is, not surprisingly, horrified.

When Mayer says her “mind has evolved” to the point that it can only recognize and process information that has been digitized and uploaded, she is confessing to undergoing an intellectual dehumanization. She is confessing to being computerized.

He stresses that there are qualitative aspects of knowledge that stem from the practice of thinking things through, less instrumental things that transcend what a search engine can grasp: “Truth is self-created through labor, through the hard, inefficient, unscripted work of the mind, through the indirection of dream and reverie. What matters is what cannot be rendered as code. Google can give you everything but meaning.”

If you want to know when Best Buy closes or where the nearest ATM is, a search engine can help. The question is whether that ind of information retrieval frees us for more philosophic thought or instead trains us to expect equally instantaneous answers for more sophisticated questions. Or worse, does it teach us only to pose questions to ourselves that can be answered by a search-results info dump?

The internet helps drives a wedge between information and meaning: Previously we would generally only have the information that the search for some particular meaning or truth drove us to collect. Now, our tendency to consume information rather than pursue it leaves us in a position of having more information than can mean anything. But though Google can’t supply meaning to trivia and data, we can, which is why we are increasingly being relied upon to organize digital information under the guise of social networking and other Web 2.0 initiatives. We provide the meaning gratis through our labor, and Google uses it to fine-tune and enrich the results it gives out.

So the more information that’s available, the greater the demand for “meaning”—for some relationships to be established that will reveal what any given piece of data is likely to mean to various demographics. As internet companies develop ways to better capture and quantify and deploy these relationships, the space in which that ineffable quest for truth that Carr writes about can take place shrinks, or at least that effort becomes more irrelevant to more of us. Meanings will be offered to us based on various probabilities derived from our online behavior, and this will be sufficiently useful to stand in for truth.

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