Does the internet control our minds?

As some of you may have noticed, I get a lot of my ideas for posts from the New York Times. I like to think that it is a relatively unbiased source of information, and I believe that it has several interesting news articles or opinion pieces every week. However, even my beloved NYT is guilty of a potentially dangerous trend towards self-fulfilling bias, regurgitating back opinions to me that I already agree with and information I know to be true. (Though in their defense they did publish a great op-ed piece recently calling this phenomenon to our attention.) Everyone is guilty of cognitive bias and selective attention. Quite simply, we prefer to read things that confirm what we already believe. Both the sources that we choose to consume, as well as the information we retain from these sources, will more than likely further cement our own original views. It is very difficult to change one's opinion on an important topic, not only because we rarely seek out conflicting beliefs, but because even when we do we are prone to misinterpret, disregard or even forget anything that disagrees with us. While ideally we would all make unbiased decisions about the content and media we consume, clearly this is not the case; it is no big secret that conservatives watch Fox News while liberals prefer MSNBC or the Daily Show. However, nowadays search engines and online news sources are further filtering down the selection of content for us to consume by crafting search and recommendation results based on previous articles or links selected. With these algorithms, even if you wanted to branch out from your usual media content you might be unable to, or it would at least involve more in-depth clicking or search terms.

We covet and praise the use of personalized prediction models on sites like Netflix and last.fm to recommend music and movies similar to what we already know and like.  But when the decisions made by mathematics and computers affect not only our artistic tastes but also our world views and political opinions a dangerous line begins to blur. Nowadays, it is no longer the government censoring information and ideas, it is our brains and the information readily available to us.

This also brings up the scary question of how reliant we actually are on the internet and technology at large, not only for our news and celebrity gossip, but more importantly for the ability to work, communicate and connect with people personally and professionally. In a rather bizarre survey conducted by the McCann WorldGroup, 53% of youth would rather sacrifice their sense of smell than give up their computer or smart phone. To put it bluntly, our society is obsessed with technology; we have become addicted to the internet. As someone who researches drug addiction, I do not use this term lightly, but really the comparisons are telling. Escalation of use, inability to cut back when attempted, a feeling of urgency or craving to get online after prolonged periods of abstinence, persisted use even in the face of negative consequences, not to mention the surge in rewarding dopamine we experience when our iPhones "ping" with a new email or text message.

In the spirit of true Pavlovian conditioning, that noise, that pervasive ping, has taken on the ability to arouse us in the way that a natural reward would. It has become associated with the news that someone has reached out and contacted us, and thus has achieved the same rewarding significance. The excitement or joy you get when you hear that ping and anticipate opening an email (is it a letter from a friend? a Facebook invite? or the ever disappointing listserv update), increases your arousal and causes dopamine to be released into the basal ganglia (particularly the nucleus accumbens), just as seeing a friend or being invited to a party would in real life. Over time, this ping has become associated with social interaction, and the feeling of reward this evokes has gradually been transferred from the email content to the cue itself. So now this ping, whether it's from your own phone or the hundreds of others like it, creates this same state of arousal and surge of dopamine that anticipation of intimate interaction in real life might elicit. If you're like me, you are also hyper-sensitive to this sound, assuming you've heard it in a song or ambient noise. Greater attention is allocated to perceiving the ping from the cacophony of sounds we are inundated with every day, just as a drug user has greater vigilance to perceive cues associated with drugs and their related paraphernalia from a vast array of sensory stimuli.

The internet is an invaluable tool in our arsenal and without a doubt no one would advocate returning to a time before it. However, we should keep in mind just how much time and energy we spend on it, and how reliant we have become. The uprisings in the Middle East and Northern Africa and the resulting internet shut downs protesters in Egypt and Syria were subjected to should remind us that the internet is not necessarily a constant, and perhaps it is important to keep our reliance on it, both personally and intellectually, in check.

(Thanks to Emily Barnet for the McCann survey.)

Dana Smith

PhD student in Experimental Psychology at the University of Cambridge