2017, man. Shit’s crazy, isn’t it?
Just the year alone makes it sound like we’re living in the future. It makes it feel like we should be living in the age of The Jetsons. Flying cars zipping around, nutritionally perfect pills that give us everything we need, robot dogs, and artificial intelligence.
And to be fair, some of those things are slowly becoming reality — or things that closely resemble the predictions made by that popular cartoon show.
But by far and away the most useful innovation of the 21st century, and something we depend on heavily in 2017, is the Internet.
This ubiquitous network of cables that runs all over the world and connects us to one another. A tool that allows us to talk to strangers on the complete another side of the world, look at dog memes, porn, and take Buzzfeed quizzes that tell you how old you really are.
Being a millennial, growing up alongside the Internet, has been an interesting experience as a whole. I can still remember things like rotary phones and having to memorize all of my friend’s phone numbers.
On the flip side, I remember how big MySpace was, and when Facebook still called each individual person’s page their wall.
So, yeah, we’ve seen the Internet grow up. It’s become a legitimate human right and something that most of us depend on for a number of things. Including using it as a source to get news.
And unless you’ve lived in Middle Earth for the past year, you might be aware that this has become a problem. A problem so vast and so infectious, that it has ruined the Internet experience for many people. Often times without them even knowing it.
The perils of the Internet and news.
News, by all accounts, is important. It’s how we feel like we’re keeping abreast of all that is going on in the world. It’s how we know what is happening both in the tiny town that we grew up in, along with what is going on in Yemen. Should we choose to care.
And to think, this wasn’t the case just two decades ago. You could get plenty of news from newspapers. You’d have a good idea of what was going on in the world, and a general temperature for the climate of all that was happening. But you wouldn’t know near as many obscure little details as you know today.
Which, I’m here to tell you, is actually a terrible thing. The knowing all the obscure details part, by the way.
Thanks to the access to information, we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking that being able to know the comings and goings of a congressional aide is a good thing. More information is not better, and our wealth of information in the age of the Internet is truly screwing with our ability to be happy individuals.
Sounds crazy, right? Because it is kind of crazy, but I’m not fucking around here. This is a very real issue, and it’s something that afflicts far more people than probably care to realize it. And what’s worse, they probably don’t even know it.
Ryan Holiday wrote an excellent article about the phenomenon he dubbed outrage porn. You should go read it. Essentially, the common thread of the Internet to get outraged over anything and everything that shows up.
I know you’ve seen this in action. You’ve probably noticed someone post a picture that someone else deems offensive, and they, in turn, start to get pissed off, and then someone else gets pissed off that they’re pissed off, and the chain just continues until it becomes this massive circle jerk of angry.
I’m here to tell you that I think this is a product of the information age. We do this because we’re so inundated with information, and we think we know everything thanks to all of this information that we can’t help but begin picking fights with people. So we do that.
We pick fights, we argue with total strangers — something that usually does very little good, and we read trashy clickbait until the wee hours of the morning, and then we wake up in the morning and do it all over again.
All because it brings us the faux sense of happiness and accomplishment. Like we’ve actually done something productive and worthwhile.
But it hasn’t. We haven’t done a damn thing to change our lives or ourselves. We just get the quick dopamine high from logging in, throwing around a few insults because we know we’re so right, and feeling like we’re so goddamn smart because we’ve read some article, and then repeat the process over and over.
And much of this harkens back to the fact that we just feel like we’re fucking geniuses thanks to all of the information that we come into contact with online. We feel so smart, but in reality, we’re running into a great breadth of information, but very little depth.
And there’s a major problem.
There’s no doubting that there’s plenty of great information and writing online. In fact, there are some seriously fantastic thinkers who put their work online for us to consume. But using the Internet the way we do has killed our attention span, so we now have trouble getting through a book, much less a 5,000-word article. Especially when there’s a new ad popping up every 21 seconds.
Except we can’t possibly make use of all the information that we come into contact with on a daily basis. It’s downright impossible, actually. For reference, in 2007 it was determined that we take in the rough equivalent of 174 eighty-five page newspapers in a day. Compared to 40 of those same newspapers in 1986. And that’s before Facebook was really even a thing.
It’s folly to think all of that information flowing into us on a daily basis is a productive thing. In fact, all of that information is the impetus for doing even less in our lives, because we know have a million variables we’re trying to juggle and consider.
But that’s not the only problem.
Do me a favor, will you? Google Donald Trump. Just open up a new tab and google that name really quickly. Pay attention to what pops up at the top of the search bar. Look at the sites, some of the headlines, and the overall feel.
Got it? Good.
Now open up a new tab, and go incognito, private, or whatever another version of that your browser uses. And google the exact same thing. What pops up? Is it completely different? Slightly different? Do the headlines that show up have a different feel to them?
If I were a betting man, which I am, I would say that there’s probably a difference in what you’re seeing right now. It may not be huge, but there’s probably a difference. And this is a cruel truth of the Internet that not many people are aware of.
Your search results on Google, Facebook, Amazon, and other places are carefully curated to fit your interests. So if you’re clicking on websites that have a strong left leaning tone from Facebook, Google is more likely to show you those things when you search for similar terms.
And Amazon is more likely to show you books that have a similar term. Similarly, if you constantly click on links from Breitbart, you’re probably going to see more of their stuff show up in your Facebook feed.
This is a major problem for people who like to think they’re smart.
You probably view yourself as a smart person, right? Of reasonable levels of intelligence, correct? Someone who can look at opposing viewpoints, and doesn’t get too worked up about most things? Of course you do.
But here’s a dirty trick that’s being played on you by the Internet. Your likes and clicks have determined what shows up in your Google and Facebook feeds. This means you tend to look at and read things that you agree with more often than not, and this creates a very strong feedback loop.
You start reading things that you agree with and that affirm your beliefs, and over time those beliefs become even more pervasive, and when someone comes along with a link that you mildly disagree with you rain hellfire upon them, because you’ve been so conditioned by things that you only agree with that slight disagreements seem like the most egregious things in the world.
So what should you start doing? I certainly don’t think you should quit the Internet. That would be absurd. After all, how can you read my writing if you do? But I do think that we can all gain value from being smarter about our usage of the Internet.
So instead of hanging out all day on Facebook, set certain times of the day in which you check social media. This sounds crazy, but social media usage is linked with depression. It stands to reason that cutting down on the time you spend online could certainly do wonders for your mental health, and in turn, your critical thinking abilities.
But please, don’t stop there. Just because you’re probably clicking on fewer articles doesn’t mean you should stop reading. In fact, start reading more.
Pick up whole books on topics that fascinate you, and then read them. Learn things. Experience the joy that comes with reading a great book, and recognize that it makes you far more interesting and useful to a person than someone who just reads clickbait articles.
Oh, and lastly, shift your focus on putting more good out into the world. Easy, right? Provide help to those who are in need. Call out injustices when you see them and do everything in your power to make sure you’re giving more to this world than you’re taking from it.
The Internet will go down in time as one of the most paradigm shifting innovations in history. Up until the robots take over, of course. But until then, be smarter about your Internet usage. Chances are you’ll hate life a little less.