There is a key distinction between access to knowledge and intelligence.
The internet has been an amazing revolution in opening the access to knowledge, but its design fundamentally distracts and interrupts our thinking to the point of making us stupid.
Designed to inhibit abstract thought, reasoning and problem solving, the internet encourages us to seek answers, rather than focus on creating them. The holy grail of learning, any teacher will tell you, is attention.
The internet destroys it.
In some ways, the internet drives us back to the evolutionary era of human thinking when cave-dwelling Cro-magnon worried about predatory animals, falling rocks and beating Neanderthals into extinction. Our brains at that time developed a highly active hypothalamus that--when sensing danger or movement--overrode other brain functions to quickly decide between fight or flight.
Reflective and contemplative thinking developed over time, with the oral story tradition, era of writing and finally the Gutenberg era of printed books. Human intelligence evolved greatly as humans learned to experience and live through books.
Similar to a high-performance athlete visualizing the perfect pole-vault, brain scans show that an immersive reading session brings the reader's mind close to actually experiencing the narrative as reality. With the internet, however, distraction has undercut the expansion of this contemplative and reflective intelligence.
Web pages are carefully crafted to draw readers away from the content of the page they are reading. Distractions come in the form of videos beside the text, embedded links or flags "For more information click here." These distractions send readers into a cycle of surf, read, forget, repeat.
How many times have you Googled the same information several times in one day?
The problem is cognitive overload. This is what happens when the small buckets of our short-term memory are overwhelmed by a firehose of information from the internet. The human mind can only hold about half a dozen items in short-term memory at once. Our mind needs time to transfer knowledge into longer-term memory to make it intellectually useful.
What about multi-tasking? Isn't this the new superhuman-internet-enabled trait? Study after study shows that multi-tasking is a myth for the vast majority of the population. Multi-tasking fractures thinking, divides focus and even creates a multi-tasking hangover that prevents concentrated work for up to 15 minutes. Multi-tasking also helps highlight how the internet pushes users towards completing processes rather than focusing on content.
Read a good book about a princess trapped in a castle by a dragon and you may develop empathy for her plight and situation. Play a related video game and you will focus on the process of killing the dragon. The video game drives our subconscious mind to accomplish a task--rescue the princess--without deeper thoughts about her plight, character and situation.
In other words, as we surf the internet we revert to behavior reminiscent of cave dwelling Cro-magnon, driven by the fear and pleasure instinct.
The pleasure comes in the form of a dopamine squirt from the hypothalamus as we click on each novel new link. "Wow! This is fun." Fear comes in the form of the fight or flight instinct called into action as we react to moving images on the screen. (The hypothalamus' role overriding high thought processes is why we find it so hard to avoid looking away from the video screens embedded in taxi seats.) In sum, the internet distracts us and it is no accident.
In fact, it is science. Research companies, user interface experts and neuroscientists use every tool in their arsenal from functional magnetic resonance imaging to eye-tracking studies in order to find ways to draw us away from the content we actually went online to find. (Additional information on the research is available here.)
In programming circles the hijacking of the subconscious mind is sometimes known as engaging the user's "Monkey Mind.".
Another way to put it: The internet is making us stupid.
Return to the Ad Age China home page here