Will the internet make us more generous and curious?

On a recent episode of Radio 4’s Infinite Monkey Cage (a humorous science show) Alan Moore – renowned graphic artist and author of Watchmen and V for Vendetta – described a comic strip by Stephen Collins (http://www.collinscomics.com/). A stranger approaches a fortress. He knocks at the gate and asks to be let in. The guards tell him he can’t come in because they’re only allowed to let in people who are useful. The stranger says “You’ll find me useful I am the internet.” The guards look doubtful. The stranger repeats “You’ve got to let me in, I’m the internet and I can prove it” and he waves two sheets of paper at them. “Look” he says “I bring you pornographic pictures and the opinions of angry children”. The guards refuse to let him in. “But I’m the internet” the stranger replies. The guards go into a huddle and then say “OK, if you’re the internet answer this: we are quite interested in purchasing hot water bottle in the shape of cats. What else might we be interested in purchasing?”

The internet and search engines have changed us. Where once our need for information was mainly linear and easily satisfied with straight answers to straight questions, we now positively need random information chucked at us, and crave esoteric answers. Our curiosity drive has become twisted and rambling like a country road with countless turns and no end in sight. There is not an information super highway, there is instead the complex network of connections between one place and another so that the map of the web would more resemble a map of the back streets of nineteenth century inner London rather than of twenty-first century New York.

In truth many meanderings across the internet defy definition and are unmappable, taking us back to an earlier age of journeys when it was common for there to be some well trodden paths but many mysterious less well travelled routes. Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus argues that the internet is returning humanity to an earlier path in other ways too. Shirky suggests that as we spend more time interacting with a wider range of contacts (via Facebook), and more time in active or collaborative pursuits online (compared to sitting alone in front of the TV) we will become more creative and more generous.

(And now Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has discovered that social networking actually triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical in our brains thus proving at least this possibility. ( http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/147/doctor-love.html?partner=homepage_newsletter)

How much the internet causes more generosity or how much it will enhance less attractive traits of humanity probably depends on humanity itself. As an optimist I will settle for the positive, or at least that it might be a bit less awful than the pessimists amongst us predict.

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