Danny mentioned Julian Baggini (answering questions about the Ethics of War for BBC News Online) and the name rang a bell because we’d worked on the same student mag at UCL. His site links to a huge quantity of excellent writing that he’s done. Especially worth checking out are the pieces he wrote for, of all things, Cobol Report.
His latest piece, “Information Age Intelligence”, dismisses the idea that the information age is fundamentally changing the way we think; his argument is that we still use the same fundamental set of methods, but the emphases are changing. Good memory is now seen less as an attribute of intelligence, partially thanks to Google. “Nintendo thinking” is just rapid induction:
Computer game players are engaging in the same kinds of processes of reasoning we use to make sense of the world, only at hyper-speed. They enter the worlds of their games and learn about the rules of these worlds by observing regularities and generalising from them, expecting future plays to conform more or less to the rules of past ones. Like learners in the real world they can make mistakes. Sometimes the same thing happens in two or three games in a row and the player assumes this will always happen. But the next time it doesn’t. In the same way, in the real world we sometimes assume that regularities we observe are part of the settled nature of the world when in fact they are not: such was the thinking of people who thought that humans would never be able to fly.
More interesting, though, is “Are Friends Electric?”, a meditation on the value of online relationships (“e-relationships”) versus real ones. He considers the arguments from both sides, mainly dealing with the separation of mind from body that an online relationship gives:
We are now in a position to construct an argument that Internet relationships can be superior to physical ones. The first premise is the empirical claim that we judge people using to a large number of physical cues, including their physical appearance, accents, clothes, hair styles and demeanour. […]
The second premise draws on the long philosophical tradition of privileging the mental over the physical. It states that the self is to be identified with our mental lives, not our physical appearances. Put these two premises together and you arrive at the conclusion that our habit of relying on physical cues distances us from the authentic selves of others.
However, he turns this argument around for the opposite side: mind-body separation and the lack of physical presence often changes behaviour and impressions of others’ behaviour. He discusses the value of non-verbal communication, such as body language. (See also “emotional bandwidth” and the limitations of online communication)
While it is true that we can conceal our true beliefs by manipulating physical cues and behaviour, on balance it is probable that both physical cues and behaviour provide useful sources of information about the true nature of others are either absent in e-relationships or can be more carefully controlled and filtered.
Or, as an online friend once said:
You don’t leave your socks on the floor in VR.
While he personally favours real-life relationships over online ones, his imagined correspondent makes a great argument in favour of online relationships because of their behaviour-filtration and emotional narrowband: If you have an online friendship focused entirely around a single shared interest, you don’t want to have to deal with the other person’s political leanings or how they eat soup.