Few inventions have revolutionised the world quite as much as the internet.
Providing almost unlimited knowledge at the click of a button, the internet has transformed the way we live and the way society functions.
A couple of decades ago, specialised knowledge was held only by a select few. Now we can learn pretty much anything by typing a few words into Google.
But is the human race actually any smarter as a result?
Given that we now have access to information on tap, the answer should be a definite yes.
But there’s mounting evidence to suggest the opposite may be true.
Is the internet making us stupider, and if so, why?
Welcome to the ‘Post Truth’ Age
Whenever Donald Trump utters the words “FAKE NEWS”, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes and marvel at how far one man can descend into self-parody.
But the issue of manufactured news and ‘alternative facts’ is a relevant one.
The internet doesn’t only offer us unprecedented access to information. It gives us unprecedented ability to share information. Anyone can now publish anything online and pass it off as truth.
The democratisation of information sharing has come with many benefits. Before we had to accept whatever government officials and ‘experts’ were telling us. We had to assume that whatever agenda they might have wouldn’t get in the way of honest facts.
The ability to question the official narrative is a key component of democracy. The internet has been a wonderful tool for this.
But what has happened in recent years is the emergence of the so-called ‘post-truth age’.
We now have competing narratives presenting different versions of the ‘truth’.
From falsely attributed quotes on Instagram to websites dedicated to ‘proving’ that the Earth is flat and countless other conspiracy theories, it’s become clear that we can’t believe anything we read online.
Even reputable media sources are increasingly reporting manufactured stories without first investigating the facts.
What does truth even mean anymore?
How do we tell what’s real from the lies, misinformation and inaccuracies bombarding us online?
This is especially tricky because part of the problem is the human mind.
Why the Human Mind is Wired for Ignorance
In his book “The Death of Expertise”, Thomas Nichols highlights one of the biggest obstacles to true knowledge.
It’s called confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is simple. We only tend to seek out information that already fits in with our existing viewpoint.
The human mind is very conservative. To a large extent, our mind isn’t wired to seek knowledge. It’s designed to strengthen our pre-existing belief systems.
In some ways, this is understandable.
If we were to question everything we think, we’d always be second-guessing ourselves. We wouldn’t be particularly functional in daily life.
It takes a certain amount of energy and openness to question our thoughts, beliefs and assumptions. It requires courage, too, because no one likes to feel they’re wrong about something.
Nichols talks about another tendency of the mind, known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning-Kruger effect maintains that the less skilled we are at a particular task, the less likely we are to be aware of our incompetence.
In other words, most of the time we are completely ignorant of the true extent of our ignorance.
We assume we know a lot more than we actually do. As a result, people with the least knowledge often tend to be most confident in their assertions.
Together, the Dunning-Kruger effect and confirmation bias make a lethal combination.
One might argue that in the ‘age of information’, there’s little excuse for being ignorant. After all, we have Wikipedia!
The problem is the mind often doesn’t want to learn. It doesn’t want to have to challenge its assumptions and assertions. Rather, it wants to bolster them, and by doing so, bolster our sense of self and ego.
We want to be right.
Exposure to information which contradicts our beliefs creates a form of cognitive dissonance. The mind doesn’t want to admit that its representation of reality is at odds with actual reality.
So, thanks to confirmation bias, we only tend to want information that confirms what we already believe.
The internet makes this all too easy.
In fact, many websites from Facebook to Google and Youtube have algorithms that filter the information we receive. They show us what they think we want to see.
By recording online searches, search engines create a ‘filter bubble’ that largely brings up information we already agree with.
Confirmation bias is therefore built into the internet.
If you add the Dunning-Kruger effect on top of that (ie, our inability to recognise our own ignorance), then you can see the problem.
The comments sections on many websites show this in full effect. People rarely agree on anything because everyone’s already convinced they are right.
Furthermore, there’s no opinion or belief, however outlandish or bizarre, that doesn’t have a tribe of online proponents.
Think the Queen is a shape-shifting reptilian? Join the David Icke forum. Believe the Earth is flat? There are websites devoted to ‘proving’ that. Wonder if the moon is actually made of cheese? There’s most likely a site for that too.
The internet can make the best (or worst) of us feel like experts on a subject. All we need is to find and share factoids on social media. But this is can be a pointless endeavour because our social media followers generally tend to have the same views as us. Those that don’t and who challenge our ideas are often unfriended promptly.
On social media, we’re rarely looking for reasoned discourse or to further our knowledge. We’re looking for people to agree with and reinforce what we have already decided is true.
The psychology of internet trolling is worthy of its own post. Journalist Christian Schneider’s rather grim assessment is:
“Rather than making the average American smarter, the Internet has instead allowed us to retreat back to our most base impulses. Whereas it once promised a high-minded world of boundless knowledge, interconnectivity has instead reinforced our flaws. We are now primarily roving packs of like-minded ideologues hell-bent on eviscerating dissent and demonstrating primacy within our own groups. (Who, when taking breaks, watch a lot of Netflix and porn.)”
The Battle For Your Mind
With so much material competing for our attention, it’s getting harder for content providers to grab our attention. Think about it. With endless Facebook and Twitter feeds to occupy us, it can take a lot to make to click a headline.
The old saying “knowledge is power” no longer applies in the internet age. Knowledge is available to everyone. These days, power is the ability to catch and sustain someone’s attention for more than a second.
To that end, content providers now have to play dirty.
That’s where clickbait comes in.
Clickbait is a way of manipulating people by triggering an emotional response. Emotive words fire us up by expressing something extreme, whether positive or negative. Words such as “Shocking”, “Outrageous”, “Scandal,” “Secret” and “You Won’t Believe” are common in clickbait headlines.
Aside from emotional manipulation, clickbait plays on the brain’s need to close the gap between what we know and what we want to know. That’s why clickbait headlines trigger our curiosity with cliffhangers. An example might be:
“This woman got insulted in line at the supermarket. You won’t BELIEVE what she did next…”
The problem is the content in question usually fails to match the hyperbole of the headline. We end up wasting our time on material of dubious quality and little value or relevance to anything.
Yet there’s a battle going on to control our minds — to get us to click and consume.
Clickbait generally works. It taps into primal parts of the human brain, so it’s most likely here to stay. With an increasing glut of information and pseudo-facts bombarding us, content providers have to work ever harder to grab our attention.
But, as psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic notes:
“Online stories are to intellectual curiosity what fast food is to hunger. Most of the stories we consume online are as valuable as daytime television.”
The internet makes it easy to fill up. But are we consuming anything of value?
Bias, Bias, Everywhere
Things get worse when we consider that most media has a distinct political, social or ideological bias.
This is all too clear in the printed media. Newspapers are overt in their support of chosen political parties. As a result, the stories they run and their presentation adheres to a certain socio-political narrative.
The news isn’t created only to inform. It’s created to shape opinion and mould people’s minds. We’re not only told what’s happening, we’re told what to think about what’s happening.
Sometimes this bias is blatant. Other times, it can be more subtle. But it’s almost always there.
Again, the bias isn’t only in the media — it’s operating in us, too.
We filter the information we receive, whether consciously or not. We seek what interests us and what tallies with our existing worldview. Because the internet offers us so much choice of information, this is pretty easy to do.
Let’s say I have Republican political viewpoint. It’s unlikely I’m going to spend my time reading media outlets with Democrat leanings. Why? Because I already think my viewpoint is correct.
What happens if I encounter new information that conflicts with my belief system? Well, my mind will most likely ignore, distort or misapprehend that new information.
Again, Chamorro-Premuzic says:
“Who cares about how many knowledge sources we have, if we only consume a limited amount of information? Yes, the internet has exponentially increased the choice of alternatives, especially when it comes to sources of information, but we can only deal with this overwhelming range of choices by ignoring most of them.”
One of the dangers of the internet age is we end up believing we’re well-informed and objective when in actual fact, all we’re doing is gravitating to material that reinforces our existing beliefs.
This doesn’t make us smarter and it doesn’t make us better informed. It only strengthens our ego-driven sense of self and reality.
Considering things from multiple viewpoints leads to better understanding and greater insight. It increases both creativity and empathy while reducing prejudice and narrow-thinking.
The internet provides us with the opportunity to expand our minds and become better more rounded human beings.
Many people don’t use it that way, however.
With information freely accessible to all, it’s believed we’re now relying less on critical thinking and logic to find answers.
Instead, we key a few words into Google or Wikipedia and the thinking is already done for us.
The Internet is Changing Our Brains
Nicholas Carr is the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”.
He points out that we are subject to a dizzying amount of online content and a plethora of distractions.
Bombarded with options to click this, like that, watch this, share that, it’s becoming increasingly harder for us to absorb and retain information.
Our brains are being forced to learn how to process information differently.
Brain scans have confirmed that internet usage heightens activity in the prefrontal cortex. The internet is rewiring our brains, and it may not be for the better.
It takes attentiveness and focus to convert information into knowledge and memory.
If we’re too busy figuring out where to click next and whether to like or share something, we have less mental bandwidth available to process information. As a result, our ability to read and comprehend becomes superficial and shallow.
Carr likens our brains to refrigerators. There’s only so much they can store at one time. If we stuff it too full, there’s no room left over.
He makes the sobering claim:
“Technology is making us shallow thinkers — multi-tasking, unable to digest speeches, even songs, perpetually flicking.”
We become, as Carr says, “mindless consumers of data.”
We often end up doing a number of different tasks at once, flicking through browser tabs or flitting between apps, catching up on emails, tweets or Facebook posts. We can even do this while walking down the street or watching television, or even while having a conversation with someone.
The problem with multitasking is it’s actually a bit of an illusion. Neuroscientist Earl Miller, one of the world’s experts on divided attention, explains that “when people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
Are We Dopamine Junkies?
Video games creators have spent decades learning to hack the brain to get us hooked on their product. We sit like monkeys in a lab pressing buttons to get a reward. The reward, in this case, is a dopamine hit each time we hit our target: to beat the bad guys and progress to the next level.
It would have been hard to get too hooked on the internet when it first came along.
In the days before broadband, it was a hassle even getting logged on. Even once you did, the connection was often slow and temperamental. It could take an age to load the simplest of pages. And then you always had your mum always complaining at you to get off the phone line.
It’s a different story now. The internet is accessible pretty much anywhere, around the clock. All we need to do is reach into our pocket and take our phone.
It’s little wonder that smartphone, internet and social media addiction has become a real and recognised problem.
Some scientists consider the internet a digital drug.
Brain scans show that continual use of smartphones, laptops and iPads affects the brain much the same way as cocaine does. Dr Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, even calls digital screens “electronic cocaine”.
Mandy Saligari, of Harley Street rehab clinic, warns people that giving a child a smartphone is like “giving them a gram of coke.” She says, “why do we pay so much less attention to those things than we do to drugs and alcohol when they work on the same brain impulses?” Indeed, it’s reported that children as young as 13 are now attending ‘smartphone rehab’.
According to a former Google product manager, programmers are engaged in “brain hacking”.
Our electronic devices are being engineered to be as addictive as possible.
A neuro-chemical carrot and stick mechanism keeps us addicted. Facebook and Twitter timelines use a continuous scroll because it’s shown to keep us searching longer.
As we’re scrolling, we receive rewards via a dopamine feedback loop each time we find a piece of information that interests us. Rewards also come when someone ‘likes’ or shares something we’ve posted on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.
When the brain’s prefrontal is cortex active, we’re wired to seek external stimulation. It’s also very novelty-driven, so our attention is easily diverted to new things. This makes it hard to focus as the brain gets distracted by constant bombardment of data.
According to neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin:
“We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.”
Things get worse.
When we do put our phone down, the brain releases bursts of anxiety-generating cortisol and adrenaline. This might explain why people check their phones an average of every 15 minutes. The feeling we could be missing out on something generates noticeable anxiety.
The triggering of these stress hormones can overstimulate the brain. This results in mental fatigue and poor concentration.
The fact that, for many, internet usage has all the hallmarks of neurological addiction, is a worrying one. This is an addiction on a mass scale, the likes of which we’ve never before known. No one knows what the implications might be down the line.
How to Use Technology and Not be Used by it
The internet is one of the most paradigm shattering inventions in the history of mankind. It has the potential to bring out the best in people. It provides means to help us learn, grow and expand our knowledge and horizons. We can learn about other cultures and grow in understanding and empathy.
It remains the most powerful tool ever created for learning and sharing information. It’s a means of communication, commerce and sharing art and entertainment. It provides a voice for groups otherwise marginalised by the mainstream.
It can also initiate change in the world. The role of social and digital media in the ‘Arab Spring’ is well documented.
Like anything in life, it’s all a matter of how we use it.
Many people, afflicted by confirmation bias and the Dunning-Kruger effect, use it to entrench their already blinkered perspective. At the extreme end of the spectrum, these are the people who spend their free time trolling in comments sections and getting into flame wars with strangers.
Such people serve as a warning to us all. Use the technology foolishly and you’ll never be more than a fool. Use it well and you have a source of real power at your fingertips.
1. Be aware of the potentially addictive nature of smartphones and digital devices.
Experts call them “digital crack” for a reason.
Whenever I find myself spending too much time online, I try to cut back my usage. It’s all too easy to zone out while browsing mindless trash online.
But life isn’t something to be lived behind a computer or phone screen. It’s a participatory experience, not a virtual one.
It’s easy to get pulled down the online rabbit hole. You might find an hour or more has passed while doing nothing but scrolling through newsfeeds, clicking shiny links or smiling at silly pictures of cats.
That’s an hour of your life you’ll never get back, so make sure there’s nothing better you wouldn’t rather be doing.
It’s essential that we use technology rather than be used by it. Is the dog wagging the tail or is the tail wagging the dog?
As we’ve learned, product developers are deliberately trying to ‘brain hack’ us. There’s a battle being waged for control of our minds. It’s psychological warfare.
The only person who ought to be in control of your mind is YOU. It pays to keep that in mind and side-step any potential manipulation and tendency toward addiction.
Unplug every so often.
Forget social media.
Do stuff in the real world instead. Connect with people in person and fully engage in each moment. No one, absolutely no one, will ever get to the end of their life and wish they’d spent more time on Facebook.
Read the old-fashioned way.
Studies have shown that reading books is good for the brain. It aids focus and comprehension. Free from online distraction, the brain is receiving a continuous and coherent stream of information from a single source.
2. Learn to think critically.
Now that we’re drowning in so much information, misinformation and blatant lies, critical thinking is a necessity. We can no longer rely on journalists to do the work for us. We have to learn to critically evaluate information for ourselves.
When reading any kind of content, it’s essential to be aware of who wrote it and why. Does the website or media outlet have certain biases or agendas? If I was to go to an ‘alt-right’ website, for instance, it’s a safe bet that what is reported and the way it is reported will be slanted toward far-right ideology.
The same story can be reported in hugely different ways depending on who is reporting it and the narrative they’re attempting to convey. Even concrete facts can easily be distorted or misrepresented.
Often the most ‘reliable’ and mainstream outlets are operating from subtle agendas, mindsets or ideological assumptions. Always be aware of the agenda behind what you’re reading. Very often things are reported in a way that encourages you to draw certain conclusions.
It’s wise to get your news and information from multiple sources. Reporting is often sensationalist and black and white. There are always different sides to every story. Never unquestioningly believe anything until you’ve corroborated it as widely as possible.
Come to your own conclusions. That’s your job. Don’t let anyone else do it for you.
3. Recognise your cognitive biases.
Don’t forget the mind is wired to reinforce what we already believe to be true. We seek out information that backs up our existing conclusions and assumptions.
By learning to recognise our cognitive biases, we can be open to new ways of thinking.
Why cling to our beliefs and viewpoints when they change all the time, anyway? When I was five, I believed in Santa Claus and tooth fairies. I don’t now. A flexible, adaptive mindset is necessary in life. We should be open to learning all the time.
It pays to consider things from multiple perspectives. We don’t have to agree with them, but trying to understand how others think gives us a great advantage. It helps us better navigate an ever-more complex world. It can lead to insight and creativity. It helps us become more intelligent and compassionate human beings.
The internet is the greatest tool ever created for learning.
If we can avoid the pitfalls listed above, it offers a portal to personal and planetary transformation. Free access to knowledge can help us create a more unified, intelligent, peaceful and cooperative world.
Let’s take this gift and use this gift for the betterment of ourselves and the world around us.