The internet is a beautiful place. It allows us to connect to others in enumerable ways. The highway of connectivity also gives us access to the world’s information whenever we want it. And this brings us at an interesting question: how does the instantaneous access to information influence us?
The interesting part is that the medium that influences us, is also a means to research the influence it has on us. In this post, I will share some of the sources that have helped me get a better understanding of what the internet is doing to us and my take on it.
Some sources about the internet
The sources are listed in order of publication.
- Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut (book, fiction, 1952): a vintage sci-fi book about a world where machines make decisions for humanity. Written from an inside view of someone working at the company that runs the machines.
- Understanding Media, by Marshall McLuhan (book, non-fiction, 1964): most famous for the quote “the medium is the message”. It also discusses how any medium reduces our dependency on what the medium extends. For example: a hammer reduces the need for muscle power. If we take this and look at modern social media, what would that do to us?
- Computing Power and Human Reason, by Joseph Weizenbaum (book, non-fiction, 1976): Someone made a chatbot in the seventies, noticed people attaching emotions to it, and decided to write a book about it. This is an essay about an important topic: it’s not about what decisions we can automate using computers, it’s about what decisions we should want to leave to computers. A question that is often ignored.
- Global Village or Cyber Balkans, by MIT (paper, 1997): this paper by MIT, contains an exploration of how the internet may connect us all in a global village, or drive us apart in dozens of cyber balkans.
- The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr (book, nonfiction, 2010): It explores the internet as a medium, how it is effecting us, and what it may mean for the future.
- The Ezra Klein Show: Is Big Tech Addictive?, by VOX (podcast, 2018): an interesting show about a very interesting question: is Big Tech addictive? I remember one the questions clearly: if you were not using [social media], what would you be doing in that time?
- The Social Dilemma, by Netflix (documentary, 2020): documentary with former employees of social media companies on how it’s designed to distract & influence us.
- Rabbit Hole, by The New York Times (podcast series, 2020): a good podcast series on how the internet and recommendation engines started influencing people. With clear examples of how this happens, interviews with people that experienced it first-hand, and some important moments in recent history that are related to it.
Now let me add a small note on what I make of all this.
Positive feedback systems on the internet
I have recently read a book on evolution. It discusses how positive feedback systems generate extreme results. It uses a basic example of a mill to explain it. Here’s the section (paraphrased):
If you want to have a mill run a steady speed, you need a feedback system. When the mill runs faster than the desired speed, you want it to slow down and feed it with negative (opposite) feedback. If it is running slower than desired, you want it to speed it and feed it with, again, negative (opposite) feedback. In a positive feedback system, if the mill runs too fast, you tell to run faster. And faster. And faster.
It is easy to imagine how a positive feedback system can result in extremities.
Now how does this relate to the internet? The internet makes us connected to all the information at any time we want it. Recommendation engines are programs that filter that information, often in a way that we find something we like. We consume the content suggested by the program (e.g. blog posts, videos, and social media posts) and by doing so, give positive feedback to the (recommendation engine) system. The system thinks “hey, this content works, let’s look for similar stuff” and the process starts over again. And over again. And over again.
You will find what you want to find
The internet is a medium that grants us access to the world’s information (and this is beautiful). Recommendation engines filter that information, so we mainly see what we want to see. This is a positive feedback system that, as the paper of MIT mentions, gives anyone access to more homogenous content. More homogenous than the physical world. Therefore, the system generates ‘the cyber balkans’ (the more common term for it these days is ‘filter bubbles’). A world in which more and more of the information you seek online is filtered to make sure you find something you like. A system that makes sure you will find what you want to find.
Where will this lead us? You tell me.