After technology is created by humans, it goes on to shape what it is to be human. For instance, consider the ability of our younger generation to sit in front of a monitor and play a game, speak to a friend, write a blog/essay and follow a stream of news – all at the same time.
This ability was rare before the modern Windows based PC became ubiquitous. Mastery over navigating computer windows has changed the way our mind learns.
A computer user smoothly moves from one activity to another. Often the contents of one activity informs and influences how the user understands and processes the contents of another activity. As Bert Olivier explains:
‘Before the advent of computers and the internet, intellectual activity was largely determined by the prevailing experiential and didactic model to be linear, syntagmatic (semiotically sequential), instead of a combination of syntagmatic and paradigmatic (semiotically associative).’
So, at a rudimentary level, the development of the internet has improved our ability to think in an associative way (to the detriment of a linear way of thinking).
Both ways of thinking have benefits and pitfalls – but one particular benefit of associative thinking is its association with metaphor.
Metaphor is an important but often neglected part of our life (we use about 6 metaphors every minute). Metaphor is what we turn to when we need to express abstract thoughts- thoughts ranging from love to philosophy.
In Aristotles words ‘metaphor is giving a name to a thing which is something else’. By saying that one thing is another thing, the mind is forced into a powerful associative process of re-understanding – it delves into a network of analogies. It helps us change our perceptions, discover new ways of expression and understand difficult concepts.
Marco Bertolini gives a talk at TED about why metaphor is so important to any decision making process. He describes an experiment that asks subjects their opinion about a scenario in which a small democratic country is invaded and appeals to the US for help. The question is, should the US intervene?
Test subjects were asked their opinion, but the question was framed in one of three different contexts – one of World War 2, one of Vietnam and one of a neutral conflict. Those exposed to the WW2 scenario supported intervention significantly more than those that were not.
Of course, the likelihood is that many of those test subjects would not have based their decision on just one context if the event were to happen in real life. The internet would have allowed them to hear multiple perspectives, often simultaneously, all of which would have impinged on their final decision.
So the associative learning that comes from time spent on the internet should be seen as liberating, and a great way to improve our metaphorical way of looking at the world.
Of course, it also means that people are less susceptible to propaganda. But then, metaphor has always been the enemy of propaganda.