The Upload Has Begun

 

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The Edge Annual Question — 2010

HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?



By Sam Harris

It is now a staple of scientific fantasy, or nightmare, to envision that human minds will one day be uploaded onto a vast computer network like the Internet. While I am agnostic about whether we will ever break the neural code, allowing our inner lives to be read out as a series of bits, I notice that the prophesied upload is slowly occurring in my own case. For instance, the other day I recalled a famous passage from Adam Smith that I wanted to cite: something about an earthquake in China. I briefly considered scouring my shelves in search of my copy of The Wealth of Nations. But I have thousands of books spread throughout my house, and they are badly organized. I recently spent an hour looking for a title, and then another skimming its text, only to discover that it wasn’t the book I had wanted in the first place. And so it would have proved in the present case: for the passage I dimly remembered from Smith is to be found in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Why not just type the words “adam smith china earthquake” into Google? Mission accomplished.

Of course, more or less everyone has come to depend on the Internet in this way. Increasingly, however, I rely on Google to recall my own thoughts. Being lazy, I am prone to cannibalizing my work: something said in a lecture will get plowed into an op-ed; the op-ed will later be absorbed into a book; snippets from the book may get spoken in another lecture. This process will occasionally leave me wondering just how and where and to what shameful extent I have plagiarized myself. Once again, the gates of memory swing not from my own medial temporal lobes but from a computer cluster far away, presumably where the rent is lower.

This migration to the Internet now includes my emotional life. For instance, I occasionally engage in public debates and panel discussions where I am pitted against some over-, under-, or mis-educated antagonist. “How did it go?” will be the question posed by wife or mother at the end of the day. I now know that I cannot answer this question unless I watch the debate online — for my memory of what happened is often at odds with the later impression I form based upon seeing the exchange. Which view is closer to reality? I have learned to trust the YouTube version. In any case, it is the only one that will endure.

Increasingly, I develop relationships with other scientists and writers that exist entirely online. Jerry Coyne and I just met for the first time in a taxi in Mexico. But this was after having traded hundreds of emails. Almost every sentence we have ever exchanged exists in my Sent Folder. Our entire relationship is, therefore, searchable. I have many other friends and mentors who exist for me in this way, primarily as email correspondents. This has changed my sense of community profoundly. There are people I have never met who have a better understanding of what I will be thinking tomorrow than some of my closest friends do.

And there are surprises to be had in reviewing this digital correspondence. I recently did a search of my Sent Folder for the phrase “Barack Obama” and discovered that someone wrote to me in 2004 to say that he intended to give a copy of my first book to his dear friend, Barack Obama. Why didn’t I remember this exchange? Because, at the time, I had no idea who Barack Obama was. Searching my bit stream, I am reminded not only of what I used to know, but of what I never properly understood.

I am by no means infatuated with computers. I do not belong to any social networking sites; I do not tweet (yet); and I do not post images to Flickr. But even in my case, an honest response to the Delphic admonition “know thyself” already requires an Internet search.

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