This year’s Edge Annual Question is, “How is the Internet changing the way you think?” Follow the link to see answers from a lot of smart people. My answer follows.
The Internet has trained me to be less reactionary and actually consider the positions I take before I take them. I have written so many blog posts, blog comments, discussion group posts, and emails over the years and been embarrassed by my own half thought out positions enough times that I’m better at thinking things through than I once was. A fair amount of the time, I realize that my original argument is not correct, and I wind up thinking differently. That results from putting one’s opinions on display in a medium where it’s possible to get instant feedback from people who have little to dissuade them from being honest, and where it’s easy to find contrary and complementary arguments to measure yours against.
More importantly, though, the Internet provides a go-to community of experts on just about any topic. The widespread availability of massive amounts of raw data and trenchant analysis makes the Internet age unlike any other. The Internet makes it easier to interact with knowledgeable people. In what other era would it be easy for people to get questions about Mexican cooking answered by Rick Bayless, its foremost evangelist?
Let’s say you want to get up to speed on Yemen, given the connection of terrorists based in Yemen to the underpants bomber. Here’s a blog by a Yemen expert, Wal Al-Waq. Here’s Middle East and Islam expert Juan Cole. Here’s Middle East expert Marc Lynch. And that’s just the beginning. For basic Yemen facts, there’s the Yemen page in the CIA World Factbook and the Yemen article in Wikipedia. You can brief yourself on quite well on Yemen over your lunch break. Twenty years ago, access to the same kind of knowledge was simply unavailable. You could go to the library and pick up books and journal articles by those authors, filled with information that is likely to be dated. The most recent information would probably be in encyclopedia articles that are updated annually.
The second order effect of having access to all of this information has been to make it easier to apply the lessons of other fields to my profession — software development. I find it fascinating to find patterns in economics, or cooking, or sports, or military strategy that can be applied to making better software. Sifting through all of that information to look for useful bits would have been too time consuming in the age before the Internet, but now it’s almost easy.
Altogether, the Internet is the best tool for getting smarter and better informed we’ve ever known. The key is learning how to use the tool. I wouldn’t pick any other era to live in.
On a related note, see Tyler Cowen on blogging as a learning mechanism.