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Human Beings are Information-Seeking Creatures

May 24, 2012, 12:00 AM
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What's the Big Idea?

Is the Internet making us stupid? Will our capacity for contemplation be fried by the minute-to-minute updates of Facebook, Twitter, and instant messaging? Actually, no, says James Gleick, author of The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood

The Internet has revolutionized the way we connect and the way we think, speeding up the rate of virtually everything. At times, having so many facts at your fingertips can feel less like an upside and more like a deluge. (There's a reason why Gleick's book is subtitled "a flood.") But fundamental cultural and technological shifts in our relationship to information are hardly unprecedented. They're "part of the evolution of the species," he says. 

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Human beings are by nature information-seeking creatures. We’ve long been fascinated by the endless streams of data available in the world around us, and we especially love to try to make sense of them. (The word "information" is derived from a Latin stem informe which means to give form to the mind.) 

"Humanity has always been readjusting to developments in the flow of information," says Gleick. "Printed books appeared in Europe. People had to readjust their thinking. The telegraph made it possible to send instantaneous messages from one place to another place 100 miles away. People had to readjust, and they weren't always aware of the ways in which they were readjusting."

It might feel like we're losing the every day battles -- the battle to filter what we're willing to read on the web, the battle to not whip our heads around frantically every time we hear a ringtone -- but in the long-term, societies adapt and grow along with new technologies. Consider the telegraph, which "made it possible to synchronize human activity across great distances," and shaped our modern conception of time and scheduling. 

Broadcast radio also caused a lot of confusion and stammering at first, but was eventually embraced as a new medium, widening and connecting the world. Visionaries like Bertolt Brecht were obsessed.

As a playwright, Brecht "worked in a medium where the biggest audience he could hope to have day to day was a few hundred people, if he was lucky," explains Gleick. "Suddenly here is a way that people could broadcast to thousands of people, now millions of people. And he said, the man who has something to say and can't find listeners is in a terrible state, but even worse off is the listener who is looking information and can't find someone to speak to him. That's a 100 years ago and it makes you think: what if he had known about Twitter?" 

What's the Significance?

We're just beginning to get a glimmering of the way people will adapt to the power and potential of the Internet, but there are lessons to be learned from the past. It's critical to be willing (like Brecht) to embrace the unknown.

We asked Gleick what he thinks the future holds. "I guess it would be nice to be here in 100 years and see the new species that we’re going to have turned into, the cyborgs, the global consciousness that's coming," he said. "I guess I’d like to know what that's like. But in the meantime, every day brings us a surprise." 

This past month, Big Think has been running a series called Humanizing Technology, which asks the broad question of how technology can empower us, not make us more vulnerable. To view other examples of new and emerging technology that accomplishes this, visit the series here.

More from the Big Idea for Saturday, June 29 2013

The Physics of Ideas

We've come a long way from the days when ideas lived in particular cities, radiating outward via word of mouth or the hand-calligraphed codex of a specific philosopher. Almost as quickly as our br... Read More…

 

Human Beings are Informatio...

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