In the latest Atlantic, Nicholas Carr provocatively asks, "Is Google Making us Stupid?" The point he makes is that our new style of search, hypertext, and scanning rather than "deep reading" is actually changing how our minds are wired. He speaks to it as a problem of diffusing attention, and I agree that there is an element of that. But, as I tend to be, I'm an optimist on this score. I think that the Internet is changing how we attend to issues in a positive way.
The Internet has created a new kind of communication that facilitates understanding, coordinating, managing, and participating in systems. Such facility with systems - from ecosystems to economic systems to technical systems to social systems - is emerging none too soon.
The last century or so has been characterized by the emergence of specialists. We have experts who can improve the design and performance of products like combustion engines, bombs, and financial derivatives. They are heads down focused on parts of larger systems but their actions have implications that spill outside of their products. Getting here has been a journey characterized by "deep" reading, drilling down to greater nuance and detail and understanding. The problems created by their success has created a need for a different kind of thinking and communication, a communication that looks shallow at first glance.
Going further down the rabbit hole on these specialties won’t necessarily improve our world. The issues that matter are those that spill across domains, that don’t neatly fit into Cartesian boxes of categories that say more about what we project onto reality than reality itself. “Deep” reading and thinking promises less in the way of progress than “shallow” reading and thinking that make connections and perceives system dynamics.
The Internet is changing how we think. By raising our awareness of connections, it raises the probability that we will properly understand and manage the systems that define our world. This, it seems to me, is a good thing.
On a related note, Milena pointed me to Hyperwords - a program that allows you to make any word on a page searchable, as if it were all hypertext. Talk about connections! Economist article here.