Before reading this book, I would have answered its question—"Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"—with an almost reflexive "Of course" (beingBefore reading this book, I would have answered its question—"Is the Internet Changing the Way You Think?"—with an almost reflexive "Of course" (being mainly influenced by Nicholas Carr's The Shallows). Now, my answer is different.
In terms of answers, this book has a lot of them (and a lot of questions too). It consists of more than 150 short essays, which are available on the Edge website. The answers vary wildly, from "The Internet is profoundly and irreversibly changing the way I think," to "Hell if I know," to "Not at all." This wild variety is at once the book's strongest and weakest point: you get exposed to (almost) all of the major opinions on the topic, but most, if not all, of the essays are not long enough to support the expressed opinions in a convincing and satisfying manner. Some of the essays are surprisingly well thought out and well written, but generally the signal-to-noise ratio isn't high enough.
Is the Internet changing the way I think? The Internet is definitely changing some things about me, such as the increasing tendency to believe that if I can't find a piece of information online quickly, then it doesn't exist online, and if it doesn't exist online, then it doesn't exist. But is the Internet really changing the way I think? I simply don't know....more
The words of Douglas Hofstadter pretty much summarize what I think of this book: "it's a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It's as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can't possibly figure out what's good or bad."
Why am I not convinced? Well, the exponential growth of computing power over the last 100 years is hardly deniable. Extrapolating that trend and predicting that it is will continue for some time is reasonable. But my crap detector starts to go off when Kurzweil goes from there to assert that computers will exceed human intelligence (causing a technological singularity in the not-so-distant future) and to make all those overly-optimistic transhumanistic predictions. For me, the main problem is equating computing power with intelligence. To quote Steven Pinker, "sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems." My current view is that the "brain as a computer" is a very powerful and useful metaphor, but it's still a metaphor: the brain is not a computer. And as Jaron Lanier puts it, "the distance between recognizing a great metaphor and treating it as the only metaphor is the same as the distance between humble science and dogmatic religion."
Other than that, I was mainly disappointed to see that Kurzweil did not discuss different or opposing views adequately (as he apparently does in The Singularity is Near, in which he devotes a whole chapter to respond to critics). For example, he discussed the views of Roger Penrose in less than two pages, and he did not even mention John Searle other than in a footnote and in the Suggested Readings list.
So, until further notice, I will remain in the collective camp of Searle, Penrose, Lanier, and the like despite its shortcomings because I find it more convincing. (Or could it be that I find it more comfortable because it agrees more with the way I want the world to be? Perish the thought!)
In short, I would recommend skipping this book (unless you want to judge for yourself how Kurzweil's predictions for 2009 have fared) and, if you insist on reading Kurzweil, to try instead his later book, where he actually responds to critics (but, as I haven't read it yet, I don't guarantee it will be more convincing).
P.S. I can't help but to draw a parallel to projects such as FuturICT, in which it is hoped that by throwing enough data at the problem, "we might be able to construct models of complicated phenomena even when we don't have any underlying laws on which to build them." But as David Weinberger notes in "The Machine That Would Predict the Future", "the practical difficulties quickly turn exponential. There is always another layer of detail, always another factor that may prove critical in the final accounting; without a prior understanding of how humans operate, we cannot know when our accounting is final." (On a side note, this throw-more-data-at-it also reminds me of the throw-more-hardware-at-it mentality in software development.)...more