Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Internet: Humanity's Collective Consciousness

My wife asked an interesting question last night: Given all the information readily available on the Internet, why go to school to learn anything? Granted, it’s difficult to acquire hands-on skills via the Internet, but in terms of the information that is available, why memorize anything when almost any information is so readily accessed? My wife asked this question in a negative sense, meaning she disapproved of the way (American) society is shaping up and being educated when compared to what we went through as children. [Oh, god, we’ve reached that age.]

I distinctly remember what a big deal it was when my junior high school got Commodore 64’s. At the time, the Internet was still just a gleam in Al Gore’s eyes. As I finally got around to finishing my B.S. in 2011, I recall students in college math and physics class being allowed to use their phones or other devices during tests. Although I did not cave into that temptation, I suppose such is the way we integrate ourselves with technology. Yes, it is easy to view the Internet’s influence as negative when we had it so ‘hard’ when my wife and I were growing up. Really, though, that negativity stems from a sense of foul play, of the game changing and no longer being fair to the older generations. This by itself doesn’t make the Internet unworthy of the degree to which it is currently used. I see nothing inherently wrong with the Internet such as it is, as a repository for information we would otherwise be holding in our own brains. That’s pretty much how I view the Internet as a whole, like a brain, only it’s everyone’s brain. (Well, everyone who has a connection.)

Think of all the kinds of information we upload. Reliable information, unreliable information, real-time information, memories, procedures, our likes, our dislikes, and we answer self-assessment quizzes. We can train, do commerce, and socialize through the Internet; there is a lot we do through the Internet that we used to do without it. The difference is that now, we can do many things faster and our reach can be global (which has had the unexpected consequence of proliferating subcultures). So why so much adversity to technology, especially from older people?

One obvious answer is that people get set in their ways and believe what was an already adequate way of doing things (for them) does not need to change. Getting set in one’s ways prohibiting learning, which is too bad since learning helps maintain cognition. A second answer might be that people generally fail to see the Big Picture. In this context I’m talking about people seeing the Internet for what it really is; our collective consciousness. We access the same things – types of information – from the Internet in a manner similar to how we use our own brains, the difference being that the source of information is kept external to ourselves and is more reliable in its presentation (not more reliable in accuracy, though, and we cannot recall feelings or emotions from the Internet. Not yet, anyway). Ultimately, the Internet is neither good nor bad; it just is what it is. I believe aversion for the Internet stems from something a bit more subtle; the vulnerability of the Internet to those who rely too heavily upon it or wish to abuse it.

I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with students using the Internet to do their physics or math tests but doing so does make those students vulnerable should the Internet ever go away. Whereas I was able to do my physics or math work by pulling information out of my head, other students are relying on the assumption that the Internet will always be there for them when they need information. If the point of terrorism is to disrupt lives, I don’t understand why terrorists do not try to destroy the infrastructure that supports the Internet or do not try to disrupt its operation more often. Have you been around people who are otherwise always connected when the Internet is disrupted for more than an hour? It’s a little bit frightening. That’s because they are left alone with their own brain when the Internet, The Brain as I like to call it now, is so much more entertaining seeing how their desire to always be connected has deprived them of actively participating in life and gaining experiences. (Being constantly connected also prevents contemplative or reflective thought among a species that already engages in it so infrequently.)

Indeed, why bother to learn anything when you can just access The Brain? Because if the The Brain were to ever go away, humanity’s technological progress would be thrown back at least two hundred years, and I do not believe most people today could survive a day in even the most advanced country in 1814, or a Third World country today. Of course, that’s what Western countries would become if The Brain died; there’d be societal collapse, seeing how people would no longer have bank accounts and therefore could not buy food and don’t know how to garden and can no longer access that information on a device they overpaid for…you get the picture. Relying on The Brain too much leaves one vulnerable. Is that what we want in a world where it seems that despite all the information in The Brain, people still don’t seem to know anything?

As consciousness is an emergent property of our brains and our brains are made up of discreet cells vulnerable to failure, so too may the cells (people) of The Brain fail. We should be required to memorize information and be able to apply skills for if we cannot, then what are we? Merely individual cells that aren’t terribly important to consciousness.

No comments: