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Saturday, January 09, 2010

EDGE ANNUAL QUESTION


HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?
Every year the NY literary agent John Brockman asks a question to a bunch of scientists and intellectuals around the world. Here is my reply to this year's question.

THE POWER OF CONVERSATION

I spend more than half of my working hours doing my email: I have 4407 messages in my Gmail Inbox today: stuff that I haven't read yet, that I have to reply to, or that I keep in the Inbox just to take advantage of the search facilities and be able to easily retrieve it when needed.

Each time I find myself in the end of the afternoon still writing messages to friends, colleagues, perfect strangers, students, etc. I have the guilty feeling of having wasted my day, as the weakness of my will had prevailed on any sense of duty and intellectual responsibility. Psychological reactions can be harsh to the point of inflicting myself various forms of punishment such as imprisonment in a dusty Parisian library without Internet connection or voluntary switching off of the modem at my place. That is because I have the precise idea that my work is NOT writing emails: rather it is a matter of writing papers and learned essays on philosophy and related issues.

But what is philosophy? What is academic work in general, at least in the humanities? One of my mentors once said to me: Being an academic just means being part of a conversation. That's it. Plato used the dialogue as a form of expression to render in a more vivid way the dialectic process of thinking and constructing knowledge from open verbal confrontation. One of the books that influenced me most during my undergraduate philosophical studies in Italy was Galileo's Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems. I read on the Edge site that Edge is a conversation. So, what is so bad about email conversations that are invading my life? What is the big difference between the contemplative state in front of the blank page of a new paper and the excited exchange through Gmail or skype with a colleague living in another part of the world?

My intellectual life started to get much better when I realized that the difference is not that much: that even papers and comments to the papers, reviews, replies, etc. are conversations at slow motion. I write a paper for an academic journal, the paper is evaluated by other philosophers who suggest improvements, it is then disseminated to the academic community in order to prompt new conversations on a topic or launch new topics for discussion. That is the rule of the game. And if I make an introspective effort and try to visualize my way of thinking, I realize that I am never alone in my mind: a number of more or less invited guests are sitting around somewhere in my brain, challenging me when I claim with overconfidence this and that or when I definitely affirm my resolution to act in a certain way.

Arguing is a basic ingredient of thinking: our way of structuring our thought would have been very different without the powerful tool of verbal exchange. So, let's acknowledge that the Internet allows us to think and write in a much more natural way than the one imposed by the written culture tradition: the dialogical dimension of our thinking is now enhanced by continuous, liquid exchanges with others.

The way out of the guilty feeling of wasting our time is to commit ourselves to interesting and well articulated conversations, as we accept invitations to dinners in which we hope to have a stimulating chat and not falling asleep after the second glass of wine. I run a Website that keeps track of high-level, learned conversations between academics. I find that each media produces its wastes: most books are just noise that disappears few months after the first release. I don't think we should concentrate of the wastes, rather, we should try to make a responsible use of our conversational skills and free ourselves from unreal commitments to accidental formats, such as the book or the academic paper, whose authoritative role depends on the immense role they played in our education.

If it happens that what we will leave to the next generation are threads of useful and learned conversations, then be it: I see this as an improvement in our way of externalizing our thinking, a much more natural way of being intelligent in a social world.