Something Completely Different?

When I’m moderating or watching a panel discussion, I usually find that the most boring times are when everyone’s agreeing with each other. But during the “Internet or Not?” panel I moderated at the recent Boston Book Festival, I found myself fascinated and engaged not on a debate, but rather on a point of total harmony.

When Nick Carr and William Powers were writing their books, they both did a ton of historical research. Nick, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, looked over a long time span at the appearance of new ‘tools of the mind’ like the alphabet, the printing press, the clock and the Internet. And Bill examined seven great thinkers across two millennia in Hamlet’s Blackberry to see how they balanced the demands of living in a busy, connected world with their need to be contemplative and disconnected.

Eric Haseltine, the third panelist and author of Long Fuse, Big Bang: Achieving Long-Term Success Through Daily Victories, took an even longer view. Using his background as a neuroscientist, he described how our brains evolved to seek out and respond to short-term stimuli.

In short, these guys looked across significant time scales when researching and writing their books. And they all concluded that we’re seeing something new under the sun in the Network Era —  the time of the Internet, the Web, and Web 2.0. During the panel they all said (unless I misheard or am misremembering) that the Net is bigger and different than what’s come before — that it offers greater opportunities and challenges than earlier tools of the mind.

They differed in their optimism about this development. Haseltine was the most enthusiastic, talking about the Network Era as a new and exciting phase in human evolution. Powers was a cautious optimist. He acknowledged that ‘always on, always on you’ technologies are distracting and tempting as heck, but thought that we’d be able learn how to work well with them, and even to turn our backs on them at times (his family disconnects the Net on weekends; I thought the room was going to give him a standing ovation when he mentioned this). Carr was pretty pessimistic. He thinks the Net is eroding what he calls ‘the literary mind,’ and that we’ll be much worse off without it.

Leave aside these disagreements for minute, though. Isn’t it astonishing that these three writers reached basically the same conclusion about the Net’s hold on us, even though they approached the topic from quite different perspectives?

I have to confess: I don’t quite know what to make of this. I read Steven Pinker’s short opinion piece in the Times arguing that the Net was not exceptional in its impact on the brain, but all three panelists disagreed. I thought at least one of them would take the ‘same as it ever was’ viewpoint, but nope. And I have to say, I found their arguments pretty compelling (The Boston Phoenix will apparently post the audio file from the panel; I’ll tweet when it’s up.).

So let’s throw this one open to the crowd, and see what people have to say. Is the modern Net in fact the most tasty piece of brain candy ever? It sure seems to satisfy our desires for multimedia sensory input, constant stimulus and response, and social interaction. And these sure seem to be fundamental human desires, maybe even hardwired ones. I have trouble thinking of any previous intellectual technology that hits all of these desires simultaneously and so directly.

But I could well be overstating things, or missing something important. So tell us what you think, and why you think so. Is the Net ‘just’ the latest big tool of the mind to come along, or is it a bigger deal – a bigger discontinuity – than anything that’s come before? Leave a comment, please, and give us your arguments and evidence.