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The Internet and How We Think

November 10, 2009

Peggy Orenstein, writing in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, said something about the Internet that has stuck with me.

The promise is of infinite knowledge, but what’s delivered is infinite information, and the two are hardly the same.

She goes on to talk about how too much data thrown at us all at once actually shuts down our ability to process it and learn, and how easy it is to be distracted by an Internet connection.

Having the ability to surf endlessly trains our minds to follow ideas down rabbit holes rather than thinking them through. It encourages multitasking, which research has shown is a less efficient way to think.

Perhaps it’s a testament to how much a child of the Internet that I am that this article leads me in a couple of different directions, some of them contradictory, that I’ll list here rather than pursue in great detail.They’re related to my work at FCNL, with online technologies, and as a Quaker.

  1. She is entirely right. When I start thinking about my work habits at FCNL, it is all too easy for me to pursue a fleeting thought online, or to respond to the latest email request, when I need to be writing and developing an argument.  The Internet aside, though, I know that I read and write and think and edit differently when I’m typing than when they’re working with pencil and paper. The best writing I’ve done in the past several months has been shut in a room with no computer and no Internet access.
  2. She’s not entirely right. I don’t think we can blame the Internet for making us multitaskers, although it probably encourages those tendencies. I can’t run the experiment with a version of myself who doesn’t have constant access to the Internet, but I think I would still be trying to juggle work, parenting, and life in my head most of the time. Where the difference is is in my ability to act on those thoughts at any time with an Internet connection.
  3. It’s a common lament that it’s much harder to get people to lobby in person than it is to get them to click and send a letter to their elected officials online. The time factor is definitely part of the reason. I wonder if online advocacy also encourages people to take less ownership of the arguments and inhibits the confidence to lobby in person. People are being given the information they need to act, but maybe not the knowledge to make them comfortable doing it.
  4. Even more so than work, the act of Quaker worship is the antithesis of the Internet data-bombardment. Worship requires being able to shut out all the little thoughts that come and settle down into that place where communion with the Divine is possible. Despite attending meeting for more than 10 years, this is a place I’ve only accessed a few times. Lately it’s been even more difficult, enough to make the effort uncomfortable and frustrating. I wonder how many others–espeically those of us who have grown up with the Internet– have a hard time making the switch between those two different worlds, and what meeting communities can do to help people overcome these obstacles to worship.

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