Over the course of history, new technologies have created global shifts and fueled the forward momentum of countries and empires. Every new invention -- from the mobile cannon to movable type -- has left its mark on humankind. The current technology impacting people on a worldwide scale is the Internet, and we are just beginning to understand its impact on our daily lives.
If you took a smart phone back to the time of the Salem Witch Trials, and showed the Internet (and the vast amount of information it contains) to the men who sentenced the women of Salem to hang (also figuring you could get crystal clear connectivity, along with time travel), they'd suspect you were also in league with dark forces, and being imprisoned or hanged would be in your immediate future.
Even if you only made a much shorter trip through time, back to the early 1960s, the smart phone you brought with you would far outstrip any piece of technology NASA had at the time, much less government security agencies, or large corporations. The tech we use daily is the stuff of science fiction television shows from the 1960s.
Let's say you could use your same all-purpose time machine (with crystal clear cellular connection) to transport back a citizen of the United States from the 1700s, and show them the wonders of future life in 2012: heart transplants, flying machines that could go as far as the moon and metal body parts for when knees or hips wore out. The list could go on, but even this strange bit of news would cause our innocent visitor to think the world had gone crazy and people had messed with primal forces they never should have messed with.
The laptop, tablet or smart phone you'd be using to show our modern world to this visitor from the 1700s is a key component of our digitally connected world, but the technology everyone accesses with their electronic communication devices is the Internet.
In time travel movies, visitors from the past used to get a brief update of our future world and how we got here by watching TV, which inevitably showed them a speeded-up version of the wonder and horrors of the twentieth-century, until they were exhausted and confused after processing an abbreviated version of a world driven mad by technology run amok.
In the book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr cites studies which prove how specific neurological pathways of our brains have already been rewired by the Internet. He poses the idea Internet reading is, by its nature, a distracted form of reading, and concentrated long-form reading where one becomes fully engaged in a novel or piece of non-fiction accesses a different part of the brain. If our ability to deeply concentrate has been reduced, by reading in the form of scanning, following links, and simply being unable to choose which article or website is the correct one for us, does it mean that over the brief life-span of the Internet it has already changed the way we think?
Technology is advancing at such a rapid rate that it will eventually surpass the human mind's ability to keep up with the myriad accelerations one now adjusts to, often on a weekly basis. In only a few decades we'll reach The Singularity, which American author, scientist, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts will occur around 2045. According to Mr. Kurzweil, this is the point when men and machines meet up, and possibly merge. But even if human beings do cyborg up, our biology still has its limits.
Rewiring our minds is one thing, but allowing us to choose how we want them rewired is up to each one of us. The near future poses many questions about this new technology: Will the Internet continue to expand and develop without major restrictions (like those already imposed upon it by repressive regimes), and become a safe space for artists, social change thinkers and activists, and proponents of free thought around the planet? Is the future of the Internet to eventually become just an evolving mega-store and online shopping mall? Will countries and borders become more fluid as the Internet age takes us deeper into the twenty-first century? Connectivity and reinvention are intertwined, and an online world incorporating freedom of thought and an open, honest exchange of ideas is essential for solving the global challenges we face.