• entries
    627
  • comments
    1447
  • views
    1008369

The Internet is Stealing Your Brains

Sign in to follow this  

134 views

So I was doing the rounds of the blogs and such that I follow regularly, and an interesting question arose. I'm really tempted to make a joke about a train of thought hitting me, or something like that, so I'd probably best shut up and get to the thought itself.


The question is deceptively simple: what makes these blog thingies so attractive? Why are they fun to read? The obvious answer, of course, is that they provide us a way to hear the opinions and musings of other people, who (in all probability) we will never meet in real life. But that inherently is nothing novel; various media have been doing that for centuries. The potency of the Internet as a communications forum is that it lets us choose who we listen to - and gives us a tremendous selection.

Consider a newspaper 20 years ago. In all but a small percentage of the larger urban areas of the country, if you didn't like the editorial slant of your local paper, you had two options: bitch about it every morning over your coffee and bagel, or stop reading the paper. The choice was pretty limited. Compare that to the almost ludicrous proliferation of blogs and other personal web outlets of that ilk.


What blogging has done for us is provide a way to pool tremendous amounts of stuff that various people are burbling. This gives us a giant puddle of burble, which we then filter to find stuff that interests us (purportedly this is done by pouring the burble into a series of tubes). Once we locate compatible burbles, we deliver them intravenously using something called an RSS feed. It's all gloriously technological and very trendy.

It may be tempting to suppose that, in this era of informational overflow, we are somehow more educated, open-minded, well-read, or sexy for having read a dozen blogs each morning. I mean, if reading one newspaper gives you X points in the well-read/open-minded/sexy game, reading a dozen blogs must be at least five times better, right? There's bound to be more diversity of opinion and subject matter. Replace "newspaper" with "television news channel" and the factor might spike as high as... well, my calculator crapped out with some error about "infinity", but we'll assume the factor is pretty high.


But is that really true? Are we actually increasing our knowledgeability? Are we genuinely broadening our horizons? Or are we actually doing ourselves a disservice by simultaneously narrowing our views and convincing ourselves that we're doing just the opposite?

Try a quick thought experiment. Suppose you're surfing, say, Reddit, and find a link to Foo's Blog and Grill. It's got a high score, so it must be pretty good, right? You click over to Foo's and start reading. The first entry strikes you a bit odd, but hey, everyone has off days, and this was ranked #5 on Reddit, so it must be good. The second entry is no improvement. By the fifth entry in the archives, you're totally offended - not just offended, but genuinely pissed, and you've already dug out your knife collection and sharpened half of them before you realize that you have no way to find out where Foo lives.

So, do you: (A) bookmark Foo's Bar and Grill as an outlet for conflicting opinions with your own, and a remarkably good way to expand your views on the world, or (B) close the site, rate it down on Reddit, and flame the shit out of everyone you can find who does not express extreme loathing for Foo?


If you're like me, your tendency is more towards (B) than (A). (Actually, if you're like me, you don't even get that far - you realize that you're a programmer, dammit, and you can find out where Foo lives. When you return from brutally murdering Foo three days later, you discover that the power went out while you were away. After rebooting, Foo's site is of course no longer displayed on your machine, and you promptly forget about it forever. But then again, I'm pretty screwed up, so I don't really expect you to be like me. I'd be flattered if you were, though.)


What does this reveal about us? Actually, it mostly just reveals that people are self-absorbed scum and prefer hearing things we agree with. That's not news, at least not to certified members of the Pessimistic Cynics Society. What's more interesting is the intellectual dishonesty.

Now, I'm going to go out on a limb here and just invent some stuff. I don't know this for sure, but it came to mind, and it seems plausible. More importantly, it makes for good reading, even though it's total fictional crap. So take it how you will. That said, I theorize that most (if not pretty much all) people spend at least part of their blog-reading time convinced that they're expanding their horizons, when in fact chances are they're doing the opposite.

What's more enjoyable, reading a blog full of stuff that sounds like ignorant drivel, or reading a blog from someone who has made themself appear to be very respectable, and finding (amazingly!) that you agree about all kinds of stuff? Aside from the occasional fun of flaming people who are clearly morons, I think it's far more rewarding on a fundamental level to experience the latter. Most successful bloggers have done a great job of overinflating themselves, and convincing people that they're important and have lots of important things to say. After all, that's why we snagged their RSS feed. So if you're reading Joe's blog, and you really respect Joe because he's just this incredibly awesome, smart, and good-looking guy, aren't you going to feel good when you discover that Joe happens to agree with your opinion?

It's a shot of happy-juice for the ego. In fact, it's an age-old human tradition. It comes in many forms, most of which are considered reprehensible by society, but pretty much everyone does it to some degree. It's nothing more or less than the same psychological reward of being a suckup.


When we agree with someone who we perceive to be respectable and/or influential, it earns us all kinds of points. We feel good about ourselves - it's the well-known confirmation bias. We look good to other people, too. Since human beings are mind-bendingly lazy, we find it much more convenient to form our opinions of people based on how closely they fit some ideal of ours, rather than actually basing our opinions on the person's real merits. This all happens in reverse, too: if we find out that someone agrees with some other person who we revile, our opinion of that first person drops a few notches. You know you've done it.



That's why I personally am a little scared of the Internet. I think it's stealing our brains. We talk about it as if it's going to liberate us from the overly biased, money-centric media of the 20th century. It'll set us free from those right-wing lunatics over at Fox News (see, lookit - I just earned points with a bunch of people). It'll finally cure the problem of being unable to connect with other people's views. The Internet will make war and conflict obsolete, because everyone can find out about the issue from many varying sides, and reach a mutually tolerable conclusion - or, at the very least, start an edit fight on Wikipedia.

Somehow, I don't think it'll play out that way. The urge of human beings to seek out information that agrees with pre-determined views is simply too powerful. Moreover, that tendency doesn't get nearly the respect it should from people who think they're being objective. To make it all worse, the Internet lets us deftly convince ourselves that we are being objective, when really all we're doing is making our confirmation bias more efficient - and more powerful, since we can feed it from the vast stores of agreeing information on Google.


The Internet is the new statistics - you can make it say anything you want. It is my personal fear that the Internet will not lead to a massively cooperative utopian society, but rather the opposite. People will polarize and congeal into cliques based on their predetermined ideas and opinions, and form increasingly segregated communities. Isolationism and bias will become increasingly potent. We've already seen the classic signs of feuds and turf wars from various online communities - hell, some of them started before "Internet" became a household word.


The next 20 years should lead to some interesting cultural problems. If you thought the raised-by-TV generation was messed up, you ain't seen nothing yet. The raised-by-Digg generation is coming.

Fear.
Sign in to follow this  


15 Comments


Recommended Comments

Quote:
Original post by Ainokea
Speaking of reddit, your on the front page of joel.reddit.com

He'd better be, he posted it.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Quote:
Original post by Ravuya
Quote:
Original post by Ainokea
Speaking of reddit, your on the front page of joel.reddit.com

He'd better be, he posted it.


Didn't notice that.

Share this comment


Link to comment
What can I say... I'm an anarchist. I thought the irony of complaining about Internet bias and then shamelessly linking my own rant was just too rich to pass up.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

Hey, nothing wrong with linking yourself on reddit. How else can you find other people to agree with you? :)

Regarding the article itself, it is funny how new media just makes us more ourselves. Some differences are just so fundamental words really can't hope to bridge the gap, and we certainly don't like to be challenged. Try as I might, reading articles on MSDN about ASP.net makes me feel dirty. There, I said it. So instead I read slashdot and wallow in my own crapulence.

Good obsevation.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

Cliques such as this can already be seen, and are part of some of the most reviled groups on the net. Furries, for example. There exists enough people that think anything, so that a positive feedback loop can be created to reinforce almost any meme. Anything from homosexuality, to objectivist, to feminist, to nazi and racist.

Here's a neat link to a Shirky piece that comes to some of the same conclusions:
http://www.shirky.com/writings/group_enemy.html

A quote:

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?

Endquote.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

^ that link is a good read. thanks.

and interesting first post. i can see how i've probably fallen into this trap. but i can sincerely say that i don't try to avoid reading opposing points of view. i'm all about gaining perspective, it just needs to be presented effectively. i wonder what kind of structure promotes broad perspectives like that?

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

Yes, *but*...

In the same vein, the internet, through blogs, community boards, chat rooms, and other communications, has allowed minority groups to congregate. As a gay man living mostly in a straight world, reading blogs from writers such as John Arivosis and Andrew Sullivan keep me connected to current thought in the community. The same can be said about libertarians, people holding minority views relative to their geography, and other ideas.

Consider the programmer in an infertile environment. Perhaps the programmer started as an access programmer out of necessity in his office, and hasn't heard about things like source control, much less best practices and wonderous, mystical techniques like closures!

Certainly, I agree that there's an element of self-congratulatory masturbation, but the mere existence of such information no more turns our brains into mush than consciously going to a liberal or conservative college - you may not have your original bias challenged directly, but the mere exposure to new ideas is worthwhile for its own sake, and can lead to novel and counter-groupthink conclusions.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

Answer is get rid of google analytics and such like. These SUPER sites if they remain up suck bandwidth, much more than the AD sites. Run your firewall monitor or some other to see who is sucking your packets :)

Share this comment


Link to comment
Guest Anonymous Poster

Posted

Here's a free idea. 'Personal Packet Preference' program. Usual no Ad/BS ware. No someone thieving from you. What your PC is and does is yours or is it? How DARE THEY assume they can impose on you and hijack with impunity like them at 61.238.244.86 ? And they grab you if you use Firefox. Funny that.

Fools are so stupid they think you won't notice the speed drop when they try to proxy hijack you.

Share this comment


Link to comment
Quote:
Original post by Anonymous Poster
Yes, *but*...

In the same vein, the internet, through blogs, community boards, chat rooms, and other communications, has allowed minority groups to congregate. As a gay man living mostly in a straight world, reading blogs from writers such as John Arivosis and Andrew Sullivan keep me connected to current thought in the community. The same can be said about libertarians, people holding minority views relative to their geography, and other ideas.

Consider the programmer in an infertile environment. Perhaps the programmer started as an access programmer out of necessity in his office, and hasn't heard about things like source control, much less best practices and wonderous, mystical techniques like closures!

Certainly, I agree that there's an element of self-congratulatory masturbation, but the mere existence of such information no more turns our brains into mush than consciously going to a liberal or conservative college - you may not have your original bias challenged directly, but the mere exposure to new ideas is worthwhile for its own sake, and can lead to novel and counter-groupthink conclusions.



Oh, there's no doubt that the Internet is an unprecedented tool for expanding peoples' perspectives. I just don't believe that it us used as such in the majority of cases. I think there tends to be a (natural) extension of confirmation bias for most people, which can lead to skewed perspectives.

For instance, try Googling "Java sucks." Hint: you don't find too many defenses of Java. There are a few, but they are vastly outweighed by sites that match the search terms literally. This can lead to the skewed impression that "most people on the Internet agree that Java sucks." This is clearly problematic since the conclusion is utter rubbish and in no way follows logically from the premises.


The reason this is such a serious problem is that we can only look for things we already know something about. If I don't know what a higher-order function is, but instinctively know I want to refactor some code to use one, I'm screwed. I have to hope that, by sheer luck, I find some term I can use to get me closer to my goal - or, even more against the odds, stumble across the actual solution someplace.

The structure of the Internet makes it very difficult to use it as a tool for gaining perspective, since we can't easily find perspectives that have no overlap with our own. What little we can find we tend to either over-represent (i.e. we believe we're getting more variety than we really are), or we dismiss it as noise and go about our business.

This is a problem of informational categorization and presenation, and it isn't being solved. In fact, the present-day web of Google and blogs is largely making it worse. It'll take quite the hefty paradigm shift to turn things around.

Share this comment


Link to comment
The difference between a yard and a pound is that a yard is, natuarally, associated with a house. Assumably, someone in that house loves the dog, whereas, at the pound, they are just being friendly to it.

Share this comment


Link to comment
I think my first reply may have been eaten. But I read the rest of your post; so...

Critical thinking skills cannot be taught in school. Yes, that's a very bold statement. I'm not saying they should not, nor that they actually could not - it's more of a will not. Lets face it; some people are just dumb. Critical or abstract thinking requires some form of intelligence to already be there, and usually when it is, it's already been smashed out by a complete neglect of early childhood learning. Teaching these skills will require the seperation of the grain from the flak. We already have this to a limited degree, but our politically correct society will only tolerate so much. The masses don't mind us calling some kids 'above average', but any sort of 'critical thinking' class would require more than that. By definition, it would mean some kids are 'smart' and some are 'dumb'.

Share this comment


Link to comment
I know what you're talking about, but I don't see it as an artifact of the Internet. Human beings seem to believe that things like research can be done quickly, especially research that has been assigned to them. Anyone who has procrastinated and done the work immediately before it is due has seen--perhaps even realized--that the quality of the work would have benefitted greatly from having been done sooner. Completion of projects requires reflection on the results, which in turn provides insight and allows for thoughtful evaluation of the sources of information involved.

It is my opinion that the current US administration does its work too quickly, and does not review its results before acting.

It's one thing to pull all-nighters to get through college. It's quite another to believe that one is doing meaningful work in this fashion.

Share this comment


Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now