How the internet causes shallowness
You are using facebook, facebook customizes your feed according to your belief system. You are a Trump supporter, you see a post about how a Clinton supporter belongs to a radical Islamic group. This confirms your belief system, Clinton is evil, a feel-good endorphin rush hits you. You then scan the news feeds for similar posts. You are using social media exactly how it was designed. Let’s look at things from a hardcore feminist point of view. You are a hardcore feminist, you see an article in Huffington post about how the female shadow cabinet minister for domestic violence is accused of physical violence against her husband. You read the Huffington post article, you find out that she was allegedly provoked by her husband, men even when they are victims are at fault. The article spins it so the female shadow cabinet minister is actually the victim, evil patriarchal men are calling for this minister to resign. As a hardcore feminist, you view of the world is affirmed, you feel a massive rush of feel-good endorphins. You then scan your news feed for more articles about evil men. Social media is changing the structure of your brain, causing you to lose valuable skills. Before you get rid of your internet connection and all your electronic gadgets, let’s explore what the purpose of automation is.
Human beings have a limited amount of mental energy. Your brain is similar to your muscles in that they both become fatigued when doing strenuous work. Thinking too much causes your brain to become fatigued. Originally automation was seen as a way to offload strenuous, routine, mental tasks.
Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead wasn’t writing about machinery. He was writing about the use of mathematical symbols to represent ideas or logical processes—an early example of how intellectual work can be encapsulated in code. But he intended his observation to be taken generally. The common notion that “we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing,” he wrote, is “profoundly erroneous.” The more we can relieve our minds of routine chores, offloading the tasks to technological aids, the more mental power we’ll be able to store up for the deepest, most creative kinds of reasoning and conjecture. “Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.” The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us
Alfred North Whitehead (15 February 1861 – 30 December 1947) was a mathematician, the first forms of automation occurred in the field of mathematics. An abacus could be seen as an automation tool, this later developed into adding machines and mechanical calculating machines. When Charles Babbage attempted to construct an analog computer, its intended use was to create mathematical tables and nautical tables. Once a person knows how to multiply or divide by hand, repeated the task is mental drudgery. For Whitehead, early calculators saved him from this drudgery, this is why he saw it as beneficial. If automation was beneficial for Whitehead, why is it potentially harmful now?
I asked a visible minority female who was employed by the government as system administrator how a database program she was using worked. She told me, first I click on this icon, up pops a selection menu, I then click input entry etc. I repeated myself, how does the database work? She replied, I already told you how the database works.
I replied, no you are describing how to use the database program. I told her, I asked how does the database program work: what type of database does it use? how is the data stored in the database? etc. She told me she didn’t know. After further questioning, despite having an Information Technology degree, I determined she didn’t know how a computer worked either. But she assured me that her job as system administrator was secure, probably because she is a visible minority female in STEM. No wonder the government needs to hire uneducated contractors like Edward Snowden to get things done.
This change in human behavior was first noticed by Adam Smith. The distribution of labor requires each person to have fewer skills or knowledge to complete their task. Later these ideas were expanded up by Karl Marx. Research how traditional furniture makes builds a chair. He first goes to the forest and selects a mahogany tree and cuts it down. He then takes the log back to his workshop, waits 6 months for the log to dry. Then he will cut the log into planks and construct the chair. Often he will carve into the chair elaborate carvings with nothing else besides a chisel. By contrast, a worker on a furniture assembly line just needs to know how to join two precut pieces of wood together. To perform his job, he doesn’t even need to know what the finished product will be. But does this behavior change how our brains function?
Until recently, most scientists believed that the human brain stopped changing or developing after a person reached adulthood.
Neuroplasticity - The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment.
In 1923, Karl Lashley conducted experiments on rhesus monkeys provided evidence of neuroplasticity, at the time his results were disregarded. Despite overwhelming evidence, it isn’t until recently that neuroplasticity has been accepted by mainstream scientists. Stroke victims have part of their brain destroyed. With therapy they can learn to create new pathways in the brain, this means other parts of the brain are replacing the function of the replaced parts of the brain.
To become a taxi driver, one must be able to memorize large maps and then use these maps to navigate. Studies have shown that gaining this ability changes the structure of the taxi driver’s brain. Similar experiments with professional musicians and chess players show that by learning these talents, also changes their brain structure. This proves that behavior changes brain structure. What happens if a person stops using the skills they have learned?
Flying airplanes used to be extremely dangerous. First, the pilot must be able to keep the airplane traveling the correct path in three-dimensional space. He must be constantly correcting for outside forces, he must be constantly alert. The high probability of Mechanical breakdown added to this risk. Most early airplanes have few failsafe devices. Due to weight concerns, most WW1 fighter pilots did not use parachutes. One of the first areas where true automation was with the invention of autopilot. Early autopilots were primitive but they increased airplane safety since the pilot could delegate the problem of flying a set course to the autopilot. As a result, he would be less mentally fatigued.
With modern autopilots, the airplane can take off and land itself. Additional automation devices automatically monitor the aircraft. The pilot on most flights has been reduced to a person whose job is to look after the machine which flies the airplane. Autopilots have made air travel the safest form of travel. Ironically the majority of airplane accidents are caused by the autopilot shutting down due to a malfunction. The pilot when he takes over control of the airplane has forgotten how to fly an airplane which often ends in disaster.
Studies conducted since then have linked many accidents and near misses to breakdowns of automated systems or to “automation-induced errors” on the part of flight crews.21 In 2010, the FAA released preliminary results of a major study of airline flights over the preceding ten years which showed that pilot errors had been involved in nearly two-thirds of all crashes. The research further indicated, according to FAA scientist Kathy Abbott, that automation has made such errors more likely. Pilots can be distracted by their interactions with onboard computers, Abbott said, and they can “abdicate too much responsibility to the automated systems.”22 An extensive 2013 government report on cockpit automation, compiled by an expert panel and drawing on the same FAA data, implicated automation-related problems, such as degraded situational awareness and weakened hand-flying skills, in more than half of recent accidents. The Glass Cage: How Our Computers Are Changing Us
This doesn’t mean, autopilots should be removed from airplanes. Instead, it means that pilots should spend some time during each flight actually flying the airplane to retain their skills. Just like airplane pilots are losing their skills due to automation, many people are losing their critical thinking skills due to the Internet.
Religion is the opium of the people - Karl Marx
This is an interesting statement by Marx, on a simplistic level, it is interpreted that Marx was against religion. On a deeper level, did Marx actually say that? Marx did not actually say religion is bad, instead, he compares it to opium. Opium during Marx’s era didn’t have the negative connotations it has today. During Marx’s era, there no anesthetics and few pain killers, opium was a common painkiller. For a soldier having his leg amputated in an era when general anesthetic did not exist, opium would be a blessing. On the other hand, when opium is misused, one can result in addiction. One could conclude that Marx was concerned about how religion could be misused. What do some modern agnostic or atheistic scholar have to say about religion?
Some agnostics like Niall Ferguson realize that religion can have either a positive or negative impact on society. One of the killer apps in his book Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power is Protestantism. The positive aspects of Protestantism outweighed the negative aspects and allowed countries like Britain, Holland and later the USA to gain an advantage. Some of the positive aspect of Protestantism where increased literacy and use of the printing press. It also encourages a good work ethic. By contrast, some religions can stop a society from progressing. Whether Marx was right or wrong, he usually was direct. Since Marx didn’t directly say religion was bad, I think he meant that it depends on how religion is used. The Internet, when used incorrectly, is similar to opium.
Before the discovery of neuroplasticity, it was believed that people could only get addicted to chemical substances. This didn’t explain how people could get addicted to things like washing their hands, nasal inhalers etc. The brain rewards what it considers good behavior with feel-good endorphins. The path to opium addiction and internet addiction are actually quite similar. When you discover new information or information that confirms your beliefs, your brain releases feel-good endorphins which cause an effect similar to many narcotics. At the start of the post, I described how reading or liking articles that fit your beliefs releases these endorphins. Every time you do this behavior, a deeper neural pathway is worn in your brain. Your brain then associates this activity with feeling good. The only difference between you are the opium addict, is you click on a like button, instead of taking a hit on a pipe.
Using Google incorrectly for research can result in similar behavior. In the past when researching, you would have to go to the library. You then would need to search for books which might be applicable to what you were researching. You then would need to actually read or browse the entire book to find the parts you could cite. To research the benefits of gun control, you need to discover articles or books which support your viewpoint, in the process, you would be forced to read articles which do not support your viewpoint. This would result in your knowledge becoming deeper and more well rounded.
Today, if I wanted to research, the benefits of gun control. I just type into google, the benefits of gun control. Hit the search button, and I now have countless experts who support this viewpoint. Instead of having to develop my own reason why gun control is beneficial, I can just copy the view of an expert. If I wanted to research the negative aspects of gun control, I go through the reverse procedure. This type of research results in shallow thinking.
To paraphrase Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, ask a police officer, teacher, accountant, and lawyer how to reduce crime. You will get answers similar to these ones.
- Police Officer - the police need a budget increase, we need to hire more police officers and get new equipment.
- Teacher - education is the key. Increase the budget for education, build more schools, hire more teachers, expand the curriculum.
- Accountant - stricter tax laws to prevent criminals from laundering money. Hire more accountants to audit companies and individuals.
- Lawyer - have people file more cases. Build more courthouses, hire more judges.
The point Nassim Nicholas Taleb is making that people will look out for their own self-interests. Each of the solutions will reduce crime. Probably to reduce crime effectively, a combination of the above factors should be used. The point I am making is that with google, you will just be exposed to one solution.
The Internet is changing how people think. Instead of people thinking for themselves, it causes them to find simplistic, shallow solutions which verify their belief systems. This isn’t my opinion, it is the opinion of Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. He provides countless neurological studies to back up his point.
You might be tempted to become a Luddite, these where the textile craftsman who destroyed textile mills during the industrial revolution. The correctly saw that textile mills would make their craft obsolete. As history has shown, inevitably they lost. No, don’t rip your internet connection out of the wall and smash your tablet and laptop. Instead, learn how to use the internet and social media correctly. As Alfred North Whitehead proved automation, in this case, the internet, and social media, can relieve of the drudgery of research.
I can find relevant books on the subject I desire, I can find out the views of other people immediately. But it is important to get views from a variety of perspectives, even if you disagree with the person. Earlier I quoted Marx. Common consensus, Marx was an evil or a fool. What areas was Marx possibly correct in? Chomsky is a hard core leftist, what areas is Chomsky correct in? On the other end of the spectrum, reading the Bible can be a learning experience. Narrow-minded atheists and agnostics will claim it is a false history. All history is slanted, as I showed in Myths - reflections of our cultural subconscious, myths continue to affect our decisions today.
In what areas was Marx correct? Marx was one of the few economists who realized that social class affected people’s consumer decisions. He also realized that people from the upper classes do not give up power willingly. This begs the question, what is economics?
Economics is a social science concerned with the factors that determine the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
In layman’s terms, economics is the study of transactions. Something that impacts all of us. As a kid, when you exchanged 5 marbles for a baseball card, you were practicing a form of economics. Both of you agreed the baseball card was worth 5 marbles. Considering those economics affects every one of us, we are extremely ignorant about it. The controversial Korean Economist Ha-Joon Chang intentionally kept that way. Economics isn’t as much of a science as politicians claim, there are differing views on major economic principles. To correct this problem he wrote a book called Economics: The User’s Guide which give an overview of all the major economic philosophies. This is where I learned that Marx that takes into account, social classes. Marx also realized that upper social classes do not willingly give up power. I am not saying that Marx was right in all his beliefs but he is correct that social class affects economic decisions. Is there a reason other economists ignore this fact?
I mentioned Noam Chomsky, mainly because his book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media was where I first learned how consent is manufactured using media. Noam Chomsky also pioneered many areas of linguistics. I disagree with Chomsky’s political views, many of his linguistic ideas are being proven wrong. When many people accuse him of being an antique, I am inclined to agree. There are more modern books on media manipulation, I am just mentioning him because he was the first person who provided evidence how it was happening. So I have a bit of soft spot for Chomsky despite him being a hardcore leftist.
Another problem with social media and email, it interrupts you thought process constantly. You are reading a book, writing an article, just relaxing outside etc. Your cellphone, laptop etc beeps, someone has updated their social media feed, an email has arrived etc. The moment you hear the beep, you instinctively reach for your cellphone to check the message. Your brain then has to switch from what you are doing now to checking the cell phone after you checked the cell phone, you then need to switch back to your previous task. This causes you to lose information on the current task which you are working on and mental fatigue.
Another problem is you start to anticipate updates in the same way Pavlov’s dog would anticipate food when a whistle was blown. Upon hearing the beep of your cell phone, you anticipate a reward. Due to your brain’s neuroplasticity, a neural pathway has been worn into your brain just like Pavlov’s dog. Myself, I would start to anticipate messages, sometimes I thought I heard my cell phone beep, I would instinctively check it. Consciously I understand the cause of this behavior but I can’t stop my subconscious behavior. I find my irrational behavior amusing, despite having a larger brain than my dog, in many ways I act the same.
The internet and social media are useful tools. They just need to be used correctly. With social media, I am able to get numerous viewpoints from around the world almost instantly. With the click of a button, I can research any topic instantly. With social media, I put aside my cell phone, turn off the ringer, and only check it every hour during breaks. When I read information that disagrees with my viewpoint, I attempt to research on a deeper level. In my posts, I attempt to provoke thought and encourage people to research topics in depth and draw their own conclusions. Simple solutions are appealing but unfortunately they are usually incorrect.
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