The Internet and Us - Part 2Mon, 12th Nov '18, 12:55 am::

In Part 1, I argued that we humans as a collective are not ready for the exponential growth in technology and the resulting connectedness it has brought us. I ended it by saying that here in Part 2 I will write more about "The Internet" part and how we got to where we are today. It is easy to see where we are today in terms of technology and the social aspects so I will be succinct in my thoughts on both. What I'm more interested in though is the unseen, unpredictable effects of being part of a connected world and will wildly extemporize about things I have not heard being discussed elsewhere online.

The technical history of how the Internet came to be is covered quite well by Johnny Ryan in his 2013 book A History of the Internet and the Digital Future:

    It tells the story of the development of the Internet from the 1950s to the present and examines how the balance of power has shifted between the individual and the state in the areas of censorship, copyright infringement, intellectual freedom, and terrorism and warfare... how the Internet has revolutionized political campaigns... cloud computing, user-driven content, and the new global commons...

The only thing I can add to this is my personal opinion that from a technological standpoint, steady and significant progress is being made all over the world to make the Internet better. Every programmer or engineer has their own theory of what's wrong with how we code, communicate, or cooperate vs. how we should. However, since development is an iterative and generally additive process, i.e. we usually build new tools instead of completely throwing away old tools, if you do not buy into the latest fad, you can continue to use your 42-year-old battle-tested environment.

When I first started writing this series, I kept thinking about the effect that the Internet has had on all of us socially. From keeping in touch with family and friends to finding someone to marry, the Internet has drastically changed how we live. I was hoping to write a lot more on this but realized that it is unnecessary. If you're reading this, you know exactly the effect the Internet has had on us. You've heard about the thousand ways it is effecting our social interactions, sleeping-habits, family relations etc. But if you haven't, here are a few million academic papers on it. So let's move on to the fun thoughts that keep me up at night.

Fun thoughts like — what really is a thought? It can be an idea that can change our world. Or a concern that erodes our resolve. Or the noise in our brain that we filter out to achieve inner-peace. A thought is a force. It is the impetus for us to do something, anything — routine or extraordinary, good or evil, trivial or significant. We think about a lot of things, all of us. We even think about how we think. Thoughts shape our opinions, which form our beliefs, which fortify our ideologies, which direct our actions. In the long run, a thought has might.

But is the thought original or a replica? Why does it matter? It matters because the Internet has now become a decades-long experiment in planetary thought-replication. Our thoughts, which used to be our creations and possessions, are now being influenced and hijacked by others. Don't believe me? Ask yourself when was the last time you had an original thought. I don't mean things like "I should buy shampoo" or "I think it's going to rain tonight." I also don't mean novel inventions, new sandwich recipes, or odd-ball ideas like taping bread to cats. I mean simple, original thoughts, with little influence from anyone else.

Here's an example: "There are too many superhero movies." Maybe you had this thought after watching Justice League in 2017. Or after the second Spiderman reboot in 2012, or the third Superman movie in 1983. It is entirely possible for you to have had this thought without talking to anyone else and without reading a single film review. Even if you had this thought all on your own, you were most certainly not the only one thinking this. Original thought isn't the same as being the first person to have the thought. Original just means nobody told you how you should form your opinion.

Who cares if you had this thought originally? Because if you had it, then that means the conditions were ripe for others to have it too. A hundred others. A million others. That would give someone 17 billion reasons to prevent you from ever having that thought. Before the Internet, it took some serious amount of work to shape thoughts on a global scale. Today all you need is a photo with a phrase. So now if you think "I can't wait until the next superhero movie", is it an original thought?

Let me be clear, I am not against Internet's ability to influence thoughts and opinions. Without it we wouldn't have support for countless humanitarian causes, donations to an array of foundations and charities, and patronage of thousands of self-motivated creators. The Internet is awesome. But it has altered our thought process.

Ok, so the Internet influences us to buy things. Just like TV, radio, and newspapers have done for over a century. At least we can block online ads. What's the big deal? The big deal isn't about marketing or influence. The big deal is that now we have been trained to not form opinions without consulting the web first. On the surface, that's great. Everyone should form opinions after researching something in depth, not before. But this has had the side-effect of also training us to form opinions immediately after seeing anything online.

Before the Internet, we formed opinions based on our life experiences, years of knowledge, and gut feelings. That's how humanity evolved over a million years. We learned not to eat certain berries, drink standing water, or kill our own tribe members. We learned to form instincts and trust them because we knew what happens if we didn't. But now we instantly Google when a famous person says something to find out why they said it and whether we should support their stance or not. That means, although we didn't have an opinion of them ten minutes ago, we used the Internet to influence our thoughts to form an instantaneous opinion. Again, so what? Well, next time you come across a 15-second video or a 140-character sentence that sort of relates to this topic, your beliefs will strengthen instantly. You didn't ask your parent's neighbor's cousin to share that video with you, but now that they did, it reinforces some of your past instantly-formed beliefs, either in agreement or disagreement with the content being shared. Remember, these are not opinions and beliefs that you have formed after years of study and personal experience. These are prefabricated thoughts that were replicated from the mind of a single individual who shared content with someone else who shared content with someone else and so on until the idea got lodged in your mind.

For instance, you were not intentionally thinking about real-estate market in China but now that I told you that 70% of all new houses in China are bought as investment properties by people who already own a house, you are going to connect this dot to Vancouver's complicated relationship with Chinese money. Next time you cross a street and see a young, Asian male in an expensive car, you might end up thinking about his parents expatriating funds out of China, regardless of the actual truth. But thanks to me, you now have a crappy stereotype embedded in your head. What happens when the next person who fits this stereotype applies for a job under you? Or wants your vote? Or your help after an accident? Too bad, you will immediately have flashbacks of the terrible stereotype I infected you with.

Your only option is to fight it. Not fight the stereotype. That's just forming a contrarian opinion. You have to fight the innate human urge to think your thoughts through to a satisfying conclusion. You need to unnaturally force yourself not to form an opinion just because you read something online.

I know it's taken me a thousand more words than necessary to arrive at the lesson here but it's worth thinking about. And that lesson is to not think. I don't mean ignoring everything online as if it's all fake or shutting yourself off completely. I mean allowing yourself to learn new things but not forming an opinion on them.

Well that sounds completely impossible! How can you read about government corruption or medical fraud but not form an opinion on it? I don't know. If I did, I'd write a book about it. But I do know that we are letting everything we read or see online, influence us completely without questioning the medium or the messenger. And the more we do, the more we are cocksure that we are in fact the select few who are well-read, well-informed, and consistently rational.

In Part 3, I will write about the complex, hitherto unsolvable problems we face as a species.

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