Maybe more than you think.
Canadian interactive media and search engine specialist extraordinaire Gord Hotchkiss is one of my favorite columnists who write regularly on marketing topics. Invariably he does a fine job “connecting the dots” between seemingly disparate points — often drawing thought-provoking conclusions from them.
In short, a Hotchkiss column is one that is always worth reading. In his latest piece he starts out with a bold pronouncement:
“When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid-to late-1990s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter.
What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.”
His point is that information technology has begun to change the time-honored ways humans are hard-wired to think, which is both fast and slow. In essence, two loops are required for mental processing: the “fast” loop pertains to our instinctive response to situations, whereas the “slow” loop is a more thoughtful processing of discerning reality.
[This line of thinking ties back to theories laid out in a book published in 2011 by psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman titled Thinking, Fast and Slow.]
In Hotchkiss’ view, people need both loops – especially now, considering the complexity of the world.
A more complex world requires more time to absorb and come to terms with that complexity. But when the focus is only on thinking “fast,” the results aren’t pretty. As he observes:
“If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution, and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in a Hobbesian State of Nature [where] the ‘natural condition of mankind’ is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature.
The state of nature is a ‘war of all against all’ in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”
Do any of us wish to live in a world like that? One would think not.
But here’s where Hotchkiss feels like things have gone off the rails in recent times. The Internet and social media have delivered to us the speed of connection and reaction that is faster than ever before in our lives and in our culture:
“The Internet lures us into thinking with half a brain … and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half … We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.”
In such an environment, can we be all that surprised at the sorry result? Hotchkiss, for one, isn’t, noting:
“With its dense interconnectedness, the Internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of ‘cancel and ‘callout’ culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.”
Not that every interaction is like that, of course. If you think of social media posts, there are many — perhaps more — that are wonderfully charming, even cloyingly affectionate.
Most people are quick to point out that there’s this good side to social media, too – and in that sense, social media merely reflects the best and worst of human nature.
But regardless of whether it’s negative or positive, pretty much all interactive media lives in the realm of “thinking fast.” All of it is digested too quickly. Too often it’s empty calories – the nutritional equivalent of salt-and-vinegar potato chips or cotton candy.
Hotchkiss’ point is that interactive communications and media have effectively hijacked what’s necessary for humans to properly pause and reflect in the “slow thinking” lane, and he leaves us with this warning:
“It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.”
Hyperbole? Perhaps not.
2 thoughts on “What’s “wrong” with the Internet and social media?”
A contrarian view might point out, according to Steven Pinker’s study of death records, that Hobbesian Man had a 14% chance of a violent death. Even after WWII and the atomic bombs were dropped, this danger had been reduced to 1-1/2%. Today, anyone in the world faces, on average a 0.25% chance of dying violently.
I would argue that we have become better ping-pong players. The Internet reflects our quicker ability to reach conclusions from information, because we have so much more of it. We are far more completely informed now about almost everything, and make good decisions in the same way we respond to traffic lights instantly — precisely because we have already thought through the issue of who should precede whom on the road. We don’t need to sit at a light reading a book about intersections or call a tribal meeting to decide it.
The ego trap we always fall into is to assume that “everyone else is dumb and getting dumber.” Not true. If the average Joe with an IQ test took today the test given in 1919, he’d have a score of 130.
People aren’t getting more off-the-cuff about thought. They just know more answers. Many topics which used to puzzle people have been solved in their lives and they can respond almost automatically — like using a door key without reflection.
Statements like “the Internet lures us into thinking with half a brain” falsely blame the Internet instead of social media for what’s wrong with discourse these days.
Just like the difference between the “printing press” and “print media,” the “Internet” and “social media” are completely different things.
Print and social media define content (i.e. what is communicated) whereas printing presses and the Internet define the transmission mechanism (i.e. how content is communicated).
It is plainly obvious that content may consist of nothing more than simple “talking points” or “callouts” no matter how it is communicated. If printed, that content might look like a newspaper having only headlines and block quotes, but no articles — and would be no more relevant for our “slow” loop than a Tweet or your garden-variety Facebook post.
It is equally obvious that content could comprise enormous mountains of information that would be no more relevant for our “fast” loop than a copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace bought as a printed book from the bookseller instead of a PDF file over the Internet.
In this context “fast” and “slow” refer to the time it takes someone to read and digest the content, not the time it takes to transmit it.