“The Internet Ate My Brain!” And Other Perils Of Big Tech

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The quote, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us,” is widely attributed to Marshall McLuhan, although some argue its origin began with Winston Churchill. Others say it goes back even further than that. Regardless of who said it first, the correctness of the assertion is beyond debate.

First the printing press, then radio, then television altered the way humans interact with each other. More recently, the further democratization of information by the internet and the smartphone have once again significantly altered our social structures.

Children riding in the back seat no longer converse. They text each other even though they are only a foot or two away. People at work don’t need coffee breaks anymore. They need time to check their Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, and social media sites. In restaurants, we are treated to the sight of people seated around a table all buried in their mobile devices instead of talking to each other.

Internet May Alter Brain Structure

Human beings are nothing if not adaptable. It’s how we got where we are today. Changes in the external environment create changes in many parts of the body, including the brain. Here’s the lead from a new study that focuses on how the internet affects neural functioning.

“An international team of researchers from Western Sydney University, Harvard University, Kings College, Oxford University and University of Manchester have found the Internet can produce both acute and sustained alterations in specific areas of cognition, which may reflect changes in the brain, affecting our attentional capacities, memory processes, and social interactions,” according to Science Daily. The full study was published recently by the journal World Psychiatry.

“The key findings of this report are that high levels of Internet use could indeed impact on many functions of the brain. For example, the limitless stream of prompts and notifications from the Internet encourages us towards constantly holding a divided attention — which then in turn may decrease our capacity for maintaining concentration on a single task,” says Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at the NICM Health Research Institute of Western Sydney University, who lead the research.

“Additionally, the online world now presents us with a uniquely large and constantly-accessible resource for facts and information, which is never more than a few taps and swipes away. Given we now have most of the world’s factual information literally at our fingertips, this appears to have the potential to begin changing the ways in which we store, and even value, facts and knowledge in society, and in the brain.”

Professor Jerome Sarris is the director of research at NICM Health Research Institute and lead author of the report. He is concerned about some of the potential impacts of increasing internet use on the brain. “The bombardment of stimuli via the Internet, and the resultant divided attention commonly experienced, presents a range of concerns. I believe that this, along with the increasing Instagramification of society, has the ability to alter both the structure and functioning of the brain, while potentially also altering our social fabric.

Co-author Dr. John Torous is the director of the digital psychiatry program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. He  says, “The findings from this paper highlight how much more we have to learn about the impact of our digital world on mental health and brain health. There are certainly new potential benefits for some aspects of health, but we need to balance them against potential risks.”

Oxford research fellow and study co-author Dr. Josh Firth (no relation to Joseph Firth, so far as we know) has this comment on the study. “It’s clear the internet has drastically altered the opportunity for social interactions, and the contexts within which social relationships can take place. So, it’s now critical to understand the potential for the online world to actually alter our social functioning, and determine which aspects of our social behavior will change and which won’t.”

The researchers recommend — wait for it — further research to identify precisely what changes occur in our brains with increased internet use.

Breaking Up Big Tech

History does seem to repeat itself. A century ago, the railroads and oil companies ran roughshod over the American economy. Their behavior finally became so egregious that antitrust legislation was required to limit the worst of their abuses. Now it is big tech’s turn. The Congress has suddenly developed a keen interest in breaking up companies like Facebook and Google and replacing them with smaller entities that would compete with one another. If that sounds like a reprise of breaking up the phone company, that’s because it is.

Kara Swisher, editor-at-large for Recode, the technology news website, has an interesting piece in the New York Times in which she urges Congress to do its job, but not to conduct a full frontal assault on the tech industry. She says intelligent regulation would have been easy to do a decade or so ago, but because politicians really don’t understand new technology, they abdicated their responsibility. Now the task is infinitely more difficult.

“Look, I strongly support the need to regulate tech and put up solid guardrails,” she says, “especially since the sector has had pretty much no oversight ever. So far, there has been only self-interested self-regulation that looks like a mishmash of reactive and haphazard decisions by executives who seem to remain ignorant of human nature. These are people who still don’t get the fact that neo-Nazis are not just nice guys who want to use their platforms to chat about the best tiki torches and how to get your whites whiter.”

But she worries that “Justice Department investigations could be the harbinger of a disorganized and possibly draconian crusade that could reduce this industry, one of our national treasures, to a pile of rubble. If regulators had applied some pointed pressure only a decade ago, when all the same warning signs were there, we could have prevented the mess we find ourselves in now, with rampant disinformation, egregious privacy breaches and in-plain-sight addictive elements built right into the medium. Was Uber’s follow-no-rules approach not enough of a clue that the ‘move fast and break things’ mentality that pervaded tech was a problem?” she asks.

Instead of taking a sledgehammer to tech industries, Swisher counsels some intelligent rules to protect citizens now and in the future. While the recent interest in dismantling these giant companies is robust, “In other ways the regulators are being too feeble,” Swisher says.

“Sure, the endless grabbing of data by tech companies is offensive. But our government not even trying to pass a national privacy bill to protect users is more so.

“Instead of just reacting, we need our government to be creatively proactive. Regulators should be thinking about how to use federal incentives to spur small business creation to bring meaningful jobs and new innovations to this country; how to persuade investors to spread more venture capital beyond the three states (California, Massachusetts and New York) that get most of it; how to push for a more diverse work force and fund ambitious education programs.”

Legislators need to consider “how to anticipate the human impact of the next group of technologies like artificial intelligence and advanced robotics; how to create the most forward-thinking infrastructure plan to modernize our cities; and how to encourage tech to focus on innovations to combat existential issues like climate change, and food and water shortages.”

In other words, government should govern, wisely, honestly, and fairly, just like the umpires who call balls and strikes in baseball or the referees who keep 350 lb linemen from crushing the legs of quarterbacks in football.

What Swisher fails to realize is the very changes the internet has wrought in the brains of humans have affected legislators and regulators as well. The technology that allows foreign governments to influence elections in the US also makes it harder for the umpires and referees of society to function effectively.

The torrent of information available today is not bringing us together, it is driving us further apart. Google and Facebook are making billions by separating us into enclaves that only permit data we have pre-approved to penetrate. The most dangerous aspect of the internet is not distraction, it is enabling the decline in reasonable debate by separating us all into walled communities where all contrary opinions are banned.

The tech companies need competition, surely. Facebook shouldn’t be allowed to simply buy up competitors so it can rule the vast majority of the social media universe. But ideas need competition as well. The internet has not set information free, it has made it a prisoner. What regulators and lawmakers need to do is empower the free exchange of information. Just breaking tech companies into smaller, discrete units will not serve the best interests of society.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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