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Chain links: Is the Internet empowering or enslaving us?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I don’t believe in God—at least, not any version I’ve encountered so far—but I do believe in free will. Free will, which I define as our capacity to recognize and act on choices, is what makes life meaningful. I can’t be sure that free will exists, so my belief is, I suppose, a faith. And it is a faith sorely tested by advances in science and technology.

Recently, for example, I’ve been brooding over whether the Internet, laptops, smart phones and all the razzmatazz of our wired (and wi-fi) age are enlarging or diminishing our free will. Because free will is not something you either do or don’t have; it can thrive or shrivel, depending on your circumstances. You have more free will now than you did when you were two years old, for example, or than you would if you were locked in a prison or afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

The proximate cause of my brooding is The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (W. W. Norton & Co., 2010), in which Nicholas Carr argues that Google, e-mail, Twitter and so on are transforming us into fast-twitch intellectual skimmers. Pundits Jonah Lehrer and Steven Pinker assure us that the Internet’s upside outweighs its downside. But I can’t stop fretting over The Shallows, which I just reviewed for The Wall Street Journal and chatted about on Bloggingheads.tv.

Carr’s most disturbing proposition is that we are not choosing all our cool new information technologies of our own free will. He raises the specter of "technological determinism," a term coined by cranky economist Thorstein Veblen to describe how technologies such as the steam engine, railroad and telegraph propagate in ways that often seem beyond our control.

Veblen’s contemporary, Karl Marx, was evoking this idea when he wrote, "The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrialist capitalist." Carr also quotes the gnomic 1960′s egghead Marshall McLuhan, who called human beings "the sex organs of the machine world." McLuhan’s aphorism reminds me of Richard Dawkins’s description of human beings as "lumbering robots" constructed by selfish genes to make more copies of themselves.

Carr’s book has made me excruciatingly aware of how my digital gadgets control me, rather than vice versa. When I have a job to do, like finishing this column, I compulsively check my e-mail and online comments on my articles, and I wander off into hyperlinked rabbit holes far from my topic. When I mentioned this problem to a friend, he retorted, "Just stop! Quit whining and turn your wi-fi off!" But that’s like telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking.

Technological determinism seems especially compelling when I watch my teenage kids speed-texting their friends, updating their Facebook accounts, chortling over Tosh.0 clips on YouTube. Did they really choose this life or was it foisted on them? They wonder, too. My son says he sometimes thinks about spending less time online, but he worries that he’ll be cut off from his friends.

Some of us seem more in control of these technologies—or at least benefit more from them—than others. These are the inventors, builders and sellers—the equivalent of Marx’s feudal lords—intent on making us slaves of their products. Carr notes that Google has designed its search program to entice us to keep clicking hyperlinks rather than lingering on a page. The more Web pages we look at, the more ads we see, the more money Google makes. Google is "in the business of distraction," Carr writes.

According to the most radical version of technological determinism, even lords like Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are just tools—sex organs!—of their own inventions. This idea culminates in paranoid sci-fi visions like The Terminator and The Matrix, in which the machines turn on and attempt to destroy their hapless human creators.

I realize the irony—even contradiction—of this column. I wrote it on a laptop, embedded hyperlinks I found via Google (lots of good stuff about technological determinism on Wikipedia), and e-mailed it to my editors who posted it on this Web site for you to read and respond to online. Just last week, I was enthusing about how surveillance and communications technologies will help us achieve a world without war. In this world, I like to think, we will have more choices, more free will, than we do today.

Will our technologies take us to a peaceful, prosperous utopia or to a dystopian nightmare? I still believe (or should I say I have faith?) that the choice is ours to make.

Image: Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, from Wikipedia

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  1. 1. jtdwyer 6:27 pm 06/15/2010

    I understand just a little about the financing of websites, but, really, do people actually buy products based on their viewing web ads? The only time I seem to visit any of these sites is when I inadvertently ‘roll over’ something (so annoying, but effective?). I’m still wondering when this house of cards will tumble, but maybe I’m overestimating others…

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  2. 2. scientific earthling 7:55 pm 06/15/2010

    Your first idea, I agree with completely. Since there is no god, there is no right or wrong, there is no purpose to life, we exist for a while then just cease to be.

    My only pleasure is acquiring knowledge of the scientific kind. My impending death is no concern to me. Money, property, other assets, friends and lovers they are but fleeting experiences in an overall nothingness.

    If you accept this all the rest of your concerns are trivial. Time itself probably does not exist, it is a creation of our mind. Life is Alice in wonderland, each one of use experiences a different story.

    Just enjoy every single day.

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  3. 3. robert schmidt 9:37 pm 06/15/2010

    @John Horgan, I think your beliefs about free will are derived from your definition of it, "our capacity to recognize and act on choices," rather than neuroscience’s understanding of the phenomenon, It could be argued that even the simplest organisms have choices, i.e. a number of potential behaviours. But the choice they make is based on the stimuli and the conditioned or programmed response to that stimuli. We are ok with that when we talk about other species but we can’t seem to accept it about ourselves.

    I was at a neuroscience conference a number of years ago in which we discussed free will from the neurological substrate through to the philosophical implications. At that time, free will was defined as non-caused behaviour. That implies that nothing about the subject’s physiology or their conditioned responses, or past experiences determine the behaviour. Free will must be a spontaneous event derived only from a cognitive process. After reviewing the evidence from a variety of experiments we were forced to conclude that all behaviour is caused. We are slaves to our brains. We cannot make a decision that is not supported by our neural networks. For us to take an action a cascading series of spikes travel through our nervous system from our senses through our brains to our muscles. Throughout the journey the spikes are amplified, degraded and integrated by a variety of processes. Those processes are defined by our genes, our development and our experiences. There is no place where spikes can arise, in an organised or directed fashion, without stimuli. Therefore, there is no reason to believe there is such a thing as free will. It seems your observations agree with that conclusion.

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  4. 4. robert schmidt 9:45 pm 06/15/2010

    @jtdwyer, I was just in a meeting on the subject this afternoon and the simple answer is yes. Tremendous amounts of money are spent on this for good reason. I personally can’t imagine that telemarketing generates anything more than hatred but obviously it works or they wouldn’t do it.

    "maybe I’m overestimating others" the best response to that is one of my favourite quotes;

    "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." – H. L. Mencken.

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  5. 5. akmangalick 11:39 pm 06/15/2010

    It seems self-contradictory to say that one’s free will can thrive or shrivel, depending on circumstances. I can accept that one’s capacity to recognize and act on choices may be linked to our development from newborn to adult, but I would argue that this capacity, once exercised, cannot become weaker, except through neurophysiological trauma. Alzheimer’s disease is (slow-acting) trauma, but imprisonment is not. It may be that someone has fewer choices presented when in prison, but the capacity to select from those choices remains.

    This seems consistent with the idea that animals have less capacity to exercise free will, based almost wholly on the complexity of their cognitive abilities.

    In any case, to address the main theme of your post, John, I would make the case that individuals’ increasing use of the Internet does not represent a lessening of free will, but rather choices made by each of us to allow some degree of limitation in what is presented to us. Another way of saying this is to quote Rush, "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice."

    I believe that this phenomenon should rightly be seen as an *increase* in the choices available to us, absent a proportionate increase in our ability to consider those choices in real time and take appropriate (to each of us) actions. Perhaps we allow technologies to control our lives to one degree or another so as to reduce the cognitive load to a level that our brains can effectively manage. In this, there may be yet another spectrum, wherein some welcome and thrive on a multitude of choices presented continuously, while others are more happy leading a very simple life, sans modern technology.

    Even given this interpretation, I agree that your final question is still quite valid.

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  6. 6. akmangalick 11:44 pm 06/15/2010

    @jtdwer and @schmidt, spammers continue to operate because their click-through rate is non-zero, even if very small. I would say that the same principle applies to search engine advertising.

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  7. 7. Dr. Paradox 12:24 am 06/16/2010

    When I could no longer read a book without thinking about how it could become a blog post, I knew it was time to stop. When my brain began to automatically turn incidental events into whimsical Facebook status updates, I knew it was time to stop. I don’t think this reflects a problem with ‘free will’, but rather a problem with the way habits/patterns are formed, retained, and subsequently prioritized in the hierarchy of the brain. ‘Free will’ is nothing more than your ability to intentionally shift the focus of your attention elsewhere, but this too reflects your past knowledge/habits/experience.

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  8. 8. 7 5:22 am 06/16/2010

    I choose not to enter a comment, ergo I have free will.

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  9. 9. MisterA 7:26 am 06/16/2010

    I find the Internet and modern communications invaluable, however they are good servants but very poor masters. I live by a beautiful tourist walking route and on sunny weekends lying in the garden I hear folks walking past talking into their mobile phones, totally cut off from the beauty and peace of the countryside and the here and now. As an ex surfing and gaming addict I just know it isn’t healthy for the mind. Folks like Dr. Paradox will recognize their addictive behaviour and do something about it. Others will fall into a habit which may be worse than drug addiction.

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  10. 10. JamesDavis 8:08 am 06/16/2010

    Every time something new comes along, and there is nothing new under the heavens, these exact same philosophies are discussed, we grow from them and expand our minds further toward our ultimate goal…perfection with the herd. Learn everything you can and collect every beautiful thing you can along your journey because when we get to our final destination, that is all you will have been able to bring with you.

    It doesn’t matter where you go or how you get there; what matters is that you get there and if you choose not to go to perfection with the herd, then you have stopped in the hell of your mind and that is where you are meant to be because you have arrived at your destination. Whatever you choose, the choice is always your and can never be accredited to or blamed on anyone or anything else.

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  11. 11. SilvioPitti 10:15 am 06/16/2010

    Quoting JamesDavis: "Whatever you choose, the choice is always your and can never be accredited to or blamed on anyone or anything else." This is free will, the fact that whatever you do, even if someone threatens you to death, the consequences are yours and only yours. The more informed of the consequences you are the better the decisions you can make. We are living a beautiful era where information is at our fingertips and he who can take advantage of it is all the more able to use his free will. My children too seem "enslaved" by videogames, but I remember my father always said that I watched too much TV when I was younger. I don’t think I grew up worse than my father because of television.

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  12. 12. Bree 11:45 am 06/16/2010

    The internet empowers learners and enslaves the self-absorbed [even more]. Neither have free will because we are still driven by ancient instinctual passions as surely as all animals, and the neo-cortex which is evolving to override them has barely started functioning.

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  13. 13. TenPath 12:09 pm 06/16/2010

    Nothing enslaves man more than his greatest enemy, his ego. Once he sees that his own happiness and great fulfillment lies in wanting less for himself and more for others, then will he be free.

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  14. 14. Bree 1:14 pm 06/16/2010

    Wanting, whether it’s less for yourself or more for others stems from the primary instinctual passions called nurture and desire. All animals with a mid brain (dog’s devotional brain) are controlled and blinded by them. Commonsense (benign intelligence is where freedom lies (third brain neo-cortex, upgrade in process) . The concept of ‘MY’ free will is an oxymoron, it cannot be possessed. Being sensible (coming to one’s senses, not passions) opens all doors.

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  15. 15. Relates 7:58 pm 06/16/2010

    Free will presupposes understanding. Many people these days think that science provides undefrstanding, but science is knowledge and information which is different from understanding. Understanding is based on wisdom which is the subject of the discipline of philosophy.

    Philosophy died when science demonstrated that there are no absolutes, E = mc squared. Post modern relativism has taken the place of philosophy and wisdom, so there is no understanding, even though there is much information, so there is no real free will.

    What is needed is the rebirth of philosophy that goes beyond absolutes and relativism. See my website for more rightrelates.org.

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  16. 16. Bree 10:30 pm 06/16/2010

    Philosophy is borrowed wisdom from a failed past. It has never brought man to his senses. Conceptualizing (philosophizing) just diverts intelligence away from actual experiential facts. Advocating even more Dreamtime when we need all eyes on the ball (earth) will only destroy this world.

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  17. 17. Lillian542 7:40 am 06/17/2010

    I don’t understand how it can be rational to believe in free will without having some sort of spiritual belief… in a purely natural world, everything either has a cause or is random. Nothing is a free choice. In fact, nothing is a choice at all.

    For the will to be free, our conscience would have to (to borrow from Thomas Aquinas) be an "unmoved mover" that wasn’t acting randomly. This is impossible in purely natural phenomena. It seems to me that it is irrational for anyone who endorses naturalism to rationally believe free will exists. But if someone can explain how the two can fit together, I’d like to hear it…

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  18. 18. Lillian542 7:49 am 06/17/2010

    I don’t understand how, form a naturalistic perspective, it can be rational to believe in free will, because everything natural is either caused or random. Robert schmidt phrased it so much better than I ever could in his response to John Horgan a few posts ago…

    Free will can only exist if is it supernatural. To borrow from Thomas Aquinas, we would have to be "unmoved movers" who weren’t acting randomly. That is theoretically impossible in nature. Neuroscience has also shown empirically that if we are purely natural, material beings, we have no free will. Our conscience and experience of making decisions are products of reactions in our brains. We (our consciences) don’t control those events in our brain. We are produced by them.

    So it seems to me like believing in free will means that you are logically required to believe in a soul of some kind. If anyone can explain why this isn’t true, I’d like to hear it.

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  19. 19. sunnystrobe 11:59 am 06/17/2010

    But you HAVE just chosen to enter a comment! So there goes your free will …
    Never mind – seek solace with great minds, like:
    Jean Jacques Rousseau:
    Man was born free! Yet everywhere is he in chains! (For chains, write: links), or:
    Friedrich von Schiller, of ‘Ode-to Joy’ Fame:
    Man is only truly human where he’s at play!

    The Web is the ultimate toy for us social animals.

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  20. 20. iamsam 10:26 pm 09/20/2010

    Even though it seems as we have free will to control how much technologies and communication technologies we use in our lives, in reality, we do not. These days, every household has at least one computer in the house. Also, most students cannot do homework without using the computer. As being a college student, a laptop was one of the material that we were expected to bring to college. More than half of my homework in college is done in either in Microsoft Office or on class websites. Moreover, if there is like a group project, we meet up on social networking websites such as Facebook, MySpace, or Skype to do the project. I mean we could choose not to meet up on social networking websites, but in this way, the work can be done more quickly and more efficiently. Also, as the author mentioned, the teenagers are connected to their friends over these social networking websites. The teenagers would be cut off from their friends without these websites.

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