Pinker Deftly Places the Internet Where it Belongs

I am skeptical of the idea that the Internet–structurally– is a completely unprecedented innovation in human history. I didn’t know exactly how to express this until I came across a passage by Steven Pinker in “The Mind,” a series of insightful Q&A-structured essays by prominent scientists and philosophers, edited by John Brockman.

Steven Pinker

Pinker begins by comparing the Internet to the human brain in its ability to share a lot of information very rapidly. But then he goes on to give us some humbling history as to where the Internet as a tool fits into our evolutionary past.

“Even nonindustrial hunter-gatherer tribes pool information by the use of language. That has given them remarkable local technologies– ways of trapping animals, using poisons, chemically plant foods to remove the bitter toxins, and so on. That is also a collective intelligence that comes from accumulating discoveries over generations, and pooling them among a group of people living at one time. Everything that’s happened since, such as writing, the printing press, and now the Internet, are ways of magnifying something that our species already knew how to do, which is to pool expertise by communication. Language was the real innovation in our biological evolution; everything since has just made our words travel farther or last longer.”

About the author

Noah Hutton

Noah Hutton is a film director and curator, and was named a 2015 Salzburg Global Fellow in Neuroscience and Art.

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2 Comments

  • This seems very obvious to me. At the moment the internet is a dissemination tool, extending the reach of human knowledge and providing a more level playing field for the disenfranchised. The observation that language is a true evolutionary advance does not obviate the future promise of networks, and the properties that may yet emerge from massive internet connectivity that may produce advances that are of the similar importance. To use the brain metaphor, it’s true that individual neurons could be considered an “advanced” cell type, but the emergent property of consciousness, and language itself, depends on networks…

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