Over the course of the year 2017, big internet companies like Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have been scrutinized like never before. To some extent, it is quite surprising that more attention is being paid to where these internet giants are paying their corporate taxes than to what really lies behind their colossal revenues. For sure, Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple are providing us with product and services that carry great advantages. Access to information and entertaining content, communication, and social interactions have never been easier. However, it would be a great mistake to overlook the costs at which these advantages come. There are growing concerns regarding not only our data privacy, but also the impact of new technologies and of the internet on our lives and on our brains. Nicholas Carr’s claim that Google is making us stupid has been a source of heated debates on the benefits and drawbacks of Google, Facebook, and of the internet in general. This essay is my contribution to the “Google trial” that Carr initiated, and which will likely keep on gaining momentum as the capacities of artificial intelligence increase and as the internet of things makes internet even more omnipresent and intrusive in our daily lives.
Google, Facebook and others are taking time and cognitive capacities away from us, designing software that make us dependent and making big money from this time theft and triggered dependence. I will argue that the internet is taking time away from us, and that it is also altering how we think and behave in a negative manner, making us “stupid” as Carr puts it. In my argumentation, I will rely on the definitions of the Cambridge dictionary of “smart” and “stupid”, that are respectively the “ability to think and understand” and the act of “showing poor judgement”. Research and essays from Nicholas Carr, Sherry Turkle, Douglas Rushkoff and Katherine Hayles will be discussed.
Google, Facebook and the internet are supplying users with an endless stream of information, flooding webpages and interfaces with hyperlinks. Their business activities are about providing users with content, but also about encouraging them to generate additional content, supporting the never-ending process of information and content diffusion.
Besides supplying internet users with an endless stream of information, the internet giants are also behind the process of insuring that there is demand for all of this content. This can be seen, for example, through the massive investments that Google are undertaking to bring high-speed, fiber-powered internet connection to Kansas City, or that Facebook are making to connect developing countries to the internet. These efforts are made with the will to increase the fluidity of the products and the number of webpages that can be visited within a defined time span, in the case of Google, and to increase the number of users of their services, in the case of Facebook.
But what is worrisome is the addictive aspects of the internet services provided by Google, Facebook and others. In an effort to grow the demand for their services, software engineers design the internet products in order to hook the users and to make them addicted. Sherry Turkle, MIT professor in social studies of science and technology, warns that technology addiction is more and more resembling the food addiction symptoms of obesity (Weller, 2017). Turkle draws a parallel between the way the food industry adds chemical and sugar to processed meals to make people keen on eating them and the way internet corporations design their applications and webpages to maximize the time that is spent on them. Mechanisms exploiting the cognitive properties of the human brain are incorporated into the technological products and services. As a consequence, these products or websites become too powerful for our brains, and users are progressively losing control over how much time they dedicate to these internet services. This is backed by a number of scientific research that discovered that likes and notifications have our brains release dopamine, a chemical that has a rewarding function and which promotes repeated behavior. Knowing that, it is no wonder to learn, in an analysis that was conducted by the research firm dscout, that an average smartphone user touches it more than 2’600 times per day, with the upper decile reaching out to their devices more than 5’400 times a day (Winnick, 2016). In the same research, it was found that about half of these tactile interactions with smartphones were either with Facebook, or with applications developed by Google (Gmail, Chrome or YouTube). This is fair to say that these high numbers are beyond what is required for a natural and controlled used of a device, and shows the compulsive nature of the use of Google and Facebook among others.
To illustrate the addiction triggered by the intensive use of the internet and by the likes of Google and Facebook, I would like to share a personal experience. Reflecting on the issues of distraction, inefficient use of time because of meaningless online activities, and dependence to the internet, I committed to a Facebook-free month. I logged out all of the devices that were connected to my profile and installed a sophisticated, three-steps connection process to make any temptation of logging-in as tedious as possible. While I was expecting to have a hard time for the first few days, I expected the difficulty to be of a similar magnitude as when changing habits or routines. When after three weeks, my fingers were still mechanically typing facebook.com in the search bar of my browser without any conscious intention, I became self-aware of the addiction to Facebook I had unconsciously developed.
By contrast with the food or the tobacco industry, addiction mechanisms embedded in the software of the popular internet companies are not dissimulated. Such techniques are the subject of courses in elite universities and of best-selling books. The addiction of users to their services is an inherent part of the activities of companies like Google and Facebook, as their business model consists in selling as much of their users’ attention to advertisers as they can. As American columnist and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff remarks, their purpose is to centralize the interactions that were decentralized at the origins of the web, to be able to concentrate these interactions in a single marketplace and to sell the data generated by these interactions. In the new, digital economy, attention is money, and it is in the interest of the monopolistic internet giants to keep us constantly distracted, and to make us addicted to their services to maximize the value they can extract from our data.
In the new digital, attention-based economy, time has become a coveted and pricey resource. After the monopolization of free time, technological service providers are now going after time spent working or sleeping. Google, Facebook and the internet in general organize the addiction of users to their services to maximize the attention time they can sell. Consequently, this decreases the amount of time that we can spend on important projects, on learning new skills or concepts, and increases the time that is devoted to meaningless activities. In that sense, it can be affirmed that an intensive use of the internet decreases our ability to think and understand and makes us more likely to show poor judgements. Valuable time, carrying an opportunity cost of new knowledge or skills acquisition, is stolen away from us, sold for advertising money to the highest bidders. Over time, this carries a risk of a degradation in the overall intelligence of populations.
Not only do we have less time to get smarter and do we spend more time on meaningless activities, our whole neural and thinking process is being affected by the presence and our intensive usage of internet in the course of our daily lives. Nicholas Carr argues that he “is not thinking the way he used to think” and that Google has altered his capacity to “deep-read” and thereby to “deep-think”. On parallel, Katherine Hayles, Professor at Duke University, explains that new technologies and connected devices induce a shift in cognitive styles, from what she calls deep attention to hyper attention. She defines deep attention as the capacity to “concentrate on a single subject for a long period of time”, while hyper attention as the ability to “switch focus rapidly between different tasks”. In the light of Katherine Hayles arguments, it should be understood that Nicholas Carr claim is that Google deteriorates the capacity to focus at length on complex readings and thinking activities, and favors a thinking process which is more oriented towards multi-tasking and fragmented attention. Carr is seeing this as problematic, and argues that his concentration capacity is being diminished permanently as a consequence of his recurrent usage of Google and the internet. On the other hand, Kevin Kelly, founding executive director of Wired Magazine, argues that while we might be losing 20 points of IQ when we are off Google, we are gaining 40 IQ points by being on Google virtually all the time. However, as Carr argues, using Google extensively to the extent that it becomes an extension of our memory and of our brains flattens our intelligence towards artificial intelligence. This leads to a Taylorization of the thinking process, which breaks down our reflections into small, discrete steps involving the use of Google search engines. This is a major issue, and Carr’s argument that our intelligence is flattening to artificial intelligence has to be understood in the sense that an intensive use of technology gets our brains used to functioning like machines. The problem with this is that machines are better are being machines than humans are, and the flattening of our intelligence makes us worse at doing things and thinking in ways for which we are better than machines, at least for the moment.
To conclude, Google, Facebook, and other big internet corporations are designing their software in a way that takes time away from their users, and exploits the cognitive and neural circuits flaws of the human brain in order to distract their users towards their services and sell their attention to advertisers. The intensive use of the internet triggers a shift in attention style, from deep to hyper attention, with cognitive processes that are more and more taylorized, and that make the human brain functioning more like an algorithm. The risks of flattening of the overall intelligence of populations are real, and this would trigger immense challenges as technology and artificial intelligence is only going to get smarter with time. The solutions will have to be twofold: on the individual level, awareness needs to be raised, through personal experiences, or through applications that measure one’s activity and provide users with a state of play on the actual usage and time spent on their devices. But the problem will only be solved if individual awareness and initiatives are completed by public policies. It was shown in this paper that internet big players such as Google and Facebook are actively and deliberately designing their products in a way that makes the users addicted. With this in mind, there is a fair ground to argue that internet companies whose business model is to distract their users to sell their attention should be strictly regulated in the manner of tobacco companies. The importance of a strong awareness and debates on this issue cannot be understated. It is about regaining the control of our brains and limiting the influence of the internet giants on their users. It is about reflecting on the aspects that make us inherently human.