Edge Question 2010 – The Answer by Susan Blackmore


The way “I” think? I’m not sure that I know any more who or what is doing the thinking. That’s the question the Internet is forcing me to ask.

When I was just a human being, writing books and research papers, or appearing on radio and television, I could happily imagine that “I” wrote my books. I didn’t need to question who or what was doing the thinking or having the new ideas. In those days body, brain and knowledge were all bound up together in one place. To use an old metaphor, hardware, software and data were all bound up in one entity; it was reasonable to call it “Me”.

The Internet has changed all that. It has changed both the nature of selves and the nature of thinking. “I” am no longer just the imagined inner conscious self who inhabits this body, but the smiling face on my website and the fictional character other people write about in cyber space. If someone asks “Who is Sue Blackmore?” this body will have less say in the answer than the questioner’s search engine.

The change to thinking itself began gradually. Humans have long outsourced their knowledge to paper and books. So in the old days I would sit at my desk with my typewriter and look up things I needed to know in books in my own, or the university library. Then I got a word processor. This new hardware shifted a little of the work but all the creative thinking still went on inside my head, taking in countless old memes and bringing them together to make new ones, selecting among the results and writing just a few of them down.

Then came the Internet. This meant I could communicate with more people, which meant more mixing of ideas, but did not change the process fundamentally. The real change was the advent of the World Wide Web. Suddenly – and in retrospect it really does seem to have been sudden – masses of information was available right there on my desk. Almost over night I stopped using the university library. Indeed I haven’t physically been there for years now.

The Web needed search engines and these changed the world amazingly quickly. By sifting through mountains of data and coming up with relevant items, they took over a large part of what used to be human thinking.

I like to see all this in evolutionary terms. The creativity of an evolutionary process depends on the three processes of copying, varying and selecting information. First we had genes – replicators that banded together to create organisms. Then we had memes – replicators that worked together to create human minds. Now we have a third replicator and a new process of creative evolution. All those computers, programs, servers, cables and other essentials of the Internet might once have seemed to be hardly more than an extension of books, typewriters and telephones, but we should no longer see them that way.

Books, typewriters and telephones store information or pass it on, but they do not select the information they copy. They can vary the information by poor quality copying but they cannot put together old memes to make new ones. The Internet, or parts of the Internet, can.

Out there in cyberspace are search engines and kinds of software that copy, vary and select information, concocting new combinations and passing them around the globe in microseconds, making the results available to us all. This is truly a new evolutionary process; one that deals in ideas; one that creates images and original texts. Thinking has escaped from the human scale.

These days I still sit at my desk, but I am not just a human being thinking and writing down my thoughts. The keyboard I type on is recognisably like my old typewriter, but the process I am engaged in is nothing like it was before. Now, as I write, I jump quickly and often to things other people have written. I call up pages of information selected by software I do not understand and incorporate these into the text I am working on. This new text may go straight onto my website or a blog and from there may, or may not, be picked up by other sites and copied on again. Even books partake of this extraordinary creative process, with Google scanning and propagating pages to students, other writers, and bloggers. No one can possibly know where all the copies and fragments of copies have gone, how many times they have been copied or by what process they were selected. Ever more of the copying, varying and selecting goes on outside of human brains and outside of human control.

Is the Internet itself thinking? I would say yes, or if not it is on the verge of doing so. The digital information it passes around is a third replicator; a kind of information that is copied, varied and selected  by the massive machinery of the Internet and the Web.

So how has the Internet changed the way I think? The words I am writing now are far less “mine” than they were before. Indeed they have been created as much by John Brockman, the Edge community, and the entire Internet as by little me. I did not so much write them, as they used me to get themselves written.

So the answer is not that the Internet is changing the way I think; it is changing the nature of thinking itself.