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Does the internet have a brain? Highlights from our chat with TED Book author Tiffany Shlain

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Brain-Power-Ted-webNew parents talk to their babies constantly — not because the babies will understand, but because they want to encourage brain development. Tiffany Shlain offers a fascinating idea in the TED Book Brain Power: does the global brain of the internet need similar prodding? In the book, which is accompanied by this short film, Shlain draws parallels between neuroscience and tech development. In a TED Blog Q&A last month, Shlain shared how she got interested in this topic. She said, “A mentor began to share research on child brain development with me. I quickly discovered that the language neuroscientists used — connections, links, overstimulation — and the strategies early childhood development specialists used to describe brain development in the early years of life are similar.”

On Tuesday, December 4, Shlain sat down for a live Q&A with the TED Conversations community about the ideas in her book. Read the full discussion — and see some of the most interesting interactions below.

Robert Sagal asked:

What, in your opinion, could we each be doing to help shape a more developed internet? Is regularly going offline a part of this, or is it more in how we choose to spend our time when we are online?

Shlain responded:

I definitely think unplugging weekly is very important. Try it — I promise you will love it.

When we are online, we need to be mindful that everyone you follow is influencing the connections in your brain. So we need to be mindful of who and what ideas and which connections we are making happen. That’s all for us personally.

And our minds, of course, plug into this larger global collection of minds. On that front, I feel very strongly that we need to bridge the digital divide so we can get as many different perspectives and wisdoms participating in these global conversations.

People also need to be paying attention to policies that are happening that can reshape the global brain in the wrong way. There is a meeting happening (ITU) which is making some major decisions about information flow. You can watch this video to understand what is happening and how to get involved.

I know that’s a big list. I unpack it more clearly in the TED Book, which I think you would really enjoy reading. And it has fewer typos ;)

John Bergquist asked:

Have you seen others taking technology breaks? If so what has the response been? I am so thankful that you encouraged me to take them. Do you find it challenging to schedule those rests around your busy schedule and how technology centered your medium and craft is?

Tiffany Shlain answered:

I love that you do them too now. That has been the best part of these films — sharing that I unplug and seeing other people try it. Do I find it challenging to do … no. I just have to plan.

Now, most close friends and family know they can’t get in touch with me Friday night through Saturday at sundown. Everyone adapts and then suddenly you have this day to focus on your family or just yourself. It is good to let your mind go into a different mode one day a week. With my kids, we are pulling out all sorts of games (like a ‘70s version of Clue that I found in my garage and Scrabble.) We spend more time outside. It’s all good.

TED’s own Aja Bogdanoff asked: 

What would be your ideal future for this developing “mind” of the internet? Would it have any characteristics that it doesn’t currently have? Do any existing networks achieve the sorts of deep, meaningful thoughts and connections that you’d like to see?

Tiffany Shlain answered:

It’s been proven throughout history that innovation occurs when you get the most people from different perspectives thinking about a problem. Matt Ridley outlined this beautifully in his book The Rational Optimist, where he talked about how innovation usually happened in cities where the most folks from different backgrounds lived very close together.

The ideal future of the developing internet is when everyone who wants to be online is online, and we have collaborative tools to bring people together from all different parts of the world to solve problems. We are just at the beginning of what I feel people will look back as the “Age of Collaboration.” That’s the “thinking” part of the future I would love.

I also believe we are being awash in oxytocin (the “love/collaboration/sharing hormone” in the brain) with all these links, clicks, posts, text. I think empathy will only increase as we get more connected.

Brain Power is part of the TED Books series. It is available for the Kindle and Nook, as well as through the iBookstore. Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone.