How does your mind work? How do you approach problems? How do you organise ideas? Ben Macintyre summarises Isaiah Berlin’s suggestion that there are two kinds of thinkers: the hedgehog and the fox.
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Hedgehog writers, argued Berlin, see the world through the prism of a single overriding idea, whereas foxes dart hither and thither, gathering inspiration from the widest variety of experiences and sources. Marx, Nietzsche and Plato were hedgehogs; Aristotle, Shakespeare and Berlin himself were foxes.
Today, feasting on the anarchic, ubiquitous, limitless and uncontrolled information cornucopia that is the web, we are all foxes. We browse and scavenge thoughts and influences, picking up what we want, discarding the rest, collecting, linking, hunting and gathering our information, social life and entertainment…
This way of thinking is a direct threat to ideology. Indeed, perhaps the ultimate expression of hedgehog-thinking is totalitarian and fundamentalist, which explains why the regimes in China and Iran are so terrified of the internet. The hedgehogs rightly fear the foxes.
For both better and worse, fox-thinking is dominant. At its worst, it means shorter attention spans, shallower memories, fragmented, unsustained argument, the undermining of intellectual property rights and a tendency to mistake anecdote for fact. At its best, the internet represents an intellectual revolution, fostering free collaboration as never before, with dramatically improved access to boundless information, the great store of the world’s knowledge just a few keystrokes and clicks away.
The nimble internet fox is both an extraordinary time-saver, nipping from one place to another on instant mind-journeys that would once have taken years. But he is also a prodigious time-waster, wandering down distracting avenues of celebrity gossip, pornography, invective and the minutiae of other peoples’ lives.
Reading the web usefully requires a new form of literacy, the ability to sift from the abundance of information what is helpful from what is pointless or merely distracting. Many feel overloaded by the onslaught of information: too many websites, too many messages, a deafening chorus of tweets and texts. Internet thinking is not just about browsing and gathering, but choosing and rejecting. The internet fox knows many things, but while hungrily snarfing up titbits from every corner, he must also know what is indigestible, what is nourishing and what is poisonous.
I’m only half-convinced by this. It’s true that an intellectual revolution has taken place. It’s true that we have to develop these skills of scanning, sifting and sorting. But the paradoxical effect of this information overload is that our core beliefs can remain unchallenged. The mind darts around the web but finds it much harder to settle down and engage deeply – as you have to do when you read a book or enter into a conversation. So the hedgehog that forms our identity can remain untouched. The infinite freedom of the internet makes it a place where it is very easy to reinforce one’s prejudices. Perhaps we are hedgehogs in foxes’ clothing.