My Impotent Online Brain

Photo by That’s Her Business on Unsplash

While reading something on Wikipedia’s app the other day, I noticed a little box in the top right corner with the number 173 in it. Curious, I clicked on it, and was presented with 173 Wikipedia pages that I’d viewed since installing the app.

I casually flicked through them—Jake LaMotta, the Regency Era, Troy Newman, Somebody Feed Phil—and wondered how much information I could remember from them. I chose the Regency Era and tried to recall its defining characteristic—nope. I tried to remember why Troy Newman was famous enough to have his own Wikipedia page—no chance. As I went through the pages and tried to recall information about them, I realised just how absent my online brain had been while reading the pages, and how little effort I make to remember information on the internet.

Having been an internet user for a quarter of a century, my online brain is no longer just a squelching orb of jello in my head, but also a million miles of copper cable, connecting billions of computers with trillions of ideas. My knowledge has transformed from the physical to the technological, where I no longer need to slip and strain to learn something, but just need to conjure the right keywords. The internet has become an informational crutch, which if swatted away, would send me plummeting into a confused fog with only my paltry knowledge to guide me.

But what’s wrong with using the internet as a transactive extension of my brain? Why bother going through the arduous process of learning something when it can be instantly accessed online? There’s a few good reasons.

First, we need knowledge to think critically. For example, we cannot watch a single documentary on nutrition and expect to be experts. As with most subjects, nutrition has incredible nuance and depth that can only be accessed through sustained focus and a motivation to learn. Unless you put in the hours to learn about the core ideas of nutrition, you can’t confidently claim that saturated fat is the main reason for your jiggly arse. When the internet replaces your brain as the go-to storage method, you no longer have the knowledge to think critically, or the ability to make fruitful judgments. On the critical thinking scale, you’re less Socrates and more Flat Earther.

“Having information stored in your memory is what enables you to think critically.”

Natalie Wexler

Second, we need knowledge to think analytically—to solve problems. This involves identifying the problems themselves, extracting key information from our memories, and developing creative solutions. You can’t identify problems if you can’t recognise them, you can’t extract key information you don’t remember, and you certainly can’t develop a solution to something you have no clue about. You can use the internet for this process, but it’s like wallowing in a puddle instead of plunging into the ocean. Without knowledge, you don’t have the neurological depth to solve problems effectively. The more we rely on the internet for information, the more stupid we become.

Third, we need knowledge to accelerate learning. Learning something new requires the use of your working memory, which can quickly become overwhelmed. But if you already have knowledge of similar subjects, you can pull this information from your long-term memory, reducing the cognitive load on your working memory, and making learning the new thing easier. Someone who has a basic foundation of psychology will be able to learn the ideas of criminology much more quickly, because despite being different fields, the two concepts deal with how people think, feel, and behave. By understanding the core ideas of psychology, the burden on your working memory is lightened, allowing you to absorb and analyse the new information more easily. If you make the internet a permanent informational crutch, you damage your ability to learn.

For me, online reading has become a way to satisfy my idle curiosity, nothing more. When I read a book, I delve into thousands of words that cover a single coherent topic, some of which consolidates in my brain. When I read online, I skim a few articles and cherry-pick the information that seems the most interesting, most of which instantly leaves me.

What a tragic waste of time.

Are Managers Getting Smarter?

Smarmy man
Photo by Icons8 team on Unsplash

Is it just me, or are the managers of the world getting smarter? I’m constantly dazzled by a glut of long and complicated sentences, often needing careful analysis. Intelligence seems to be the most important currency in the modern workplace, and our bosses want to give as much of it away as possible.

This trend towards higher intelligence has been happening for years. I once worked with a shy blonde lad called Tim, who had narrow shoulders and was unable to hold a gaze. He sidled into the office each morning, worked for eight hours, and then left. He was obviously stupid because unlike our managers, he didn’t give away his intelligence. When forced to speak, he used words like “use” instead of “leverage,” “range” instead of “bandwidth,” and “complete” instead of “holistic.” We wondered how anyone so simple-minded got the job in the first place. His one saving grace was that he was easy to understand, but we scoffed at this too, because we didn’t want to side with someone with his affliction. Big words meant big brains.

Our direct boss Jakob, on the other hand, was clearly a genius. He wore expensive silk shirts and impossibly shiny shoes, and drove a new Mercedes. He would ask questions such as “how are we leveraging our existing pipeline?” and “what’s the projected ballpark figure for our 2nd-quarter strategy?” He was a real big thinker—a man rubbing shoulders with the Gods. He was success personified. We aspired to dress like him, to talk like him, to act like him; to live in a home like his, to play with a dog like his, to sleep with a wife like his. When Jakob went to the pub on a Friday evening, we followed him like rats to a piper, even though we were committing to hours of confusion as he went into great detail about how he was going to drastically curtail the company’s long-term pain points, by proposing a unique paradigm shift to the CEO.

After a few months of working for the company, the pedestal on which we’ve placed Jakob began to crack. The first time we noticed it was when he brazenly declared that our market scope for the last 12 months had been unequivocally myopic, and that going forward, we were going to penetrate not one, but two major markets. Double penetration. Who did this guy think he was? Elon Musk? But he spoke with such confidence, and such an impressive vocabulary, that we continued to trust him. If he thought it possible to penetrate two countries at the same time, we’d be right beside him, tools in hand.

Inserting ourselves ruthlessly into a second market proved to be a lot harder than Jakob made out. The first phase of his master plan was aggressive circulation and assimilation in the market’s most efficacious associations. I thought this meant that we were going to bribe our way in, but Tim explained that we were just going to get chummy with industry experts. Despite being so stupid that he only used one and two syllable words, Tim had a knack for interpreting Jakob.

Once we’d aggressively assimilated, the second phase of the plan was disruptive innovation. I was certain that this meant we were going to come up with new ideas somewhere that would put people out, like the middle of the kitchen area, but Tim quietly explained that the disrupting part just meant that we were going to do things better than our competitors.

The third phase was pure brilliance. Once we’d aggressively assimilated ourselves in the market’s most vigorous social groups, then disrupted the industry with inconceivable innovation, we were going to achieve full penetration by synergising our departments to establish a single unitary contingent. As Jakob guided us through this part of his presentation, we all looked at each other in awe. Apart from Tim, who was quietly shaking his head. He asked what phase three meant. We sniggered at his idiocy, but listened intently. Jakob explained that it meant we were going to merge all departments into one—a solitary assemblage of collaborators—which would minimise the prevailing friction that had incapacitated the company until this immediate juncture in time.

Jakob was fired a couple of weeks after that meeting, so never achieved his master plan. He had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from a “severe and incurable habit of verbal diarrhoea,” which Tim explained as “he couldn’t stop talking shit.” Despite Tim’s obvious stupidity, he somehow ended up taking his place as boss, and his ability to hold a gaze improved dramatically. 

Though nobody admitted it, we were all much happier working for Tim.

It Sucks Being Average in a Meritocracy

Dunce cat
Image from Kidkanevil

In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.

He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.

A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.

“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”

Michael Young, The Rise of the Meritocracy

I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.

In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.

Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.

The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.

Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.

The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.

Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.

How to Gain Deep Understanding

Rubix cube
Photo by Olav Ahrens Røtne on Unsplash

If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.

In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.

The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.

There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.

Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.

Active learning.png
The effectiveness of active learning, from the University of South Australia

Ways to promote deep understanding

Do the thing

Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.

You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.

Apply it to problems in your life

Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.

“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

John Dewey

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”

John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam

Discuss and debate

Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.

Analyse and evaluate

Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.

Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.

Screen Shot 2018-11-25 at 8.08.02 am
The difference between surface and deep understanding, from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University


There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.

All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist

Write it down

Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.


It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.

Stop mocking stupid people

No stupid people beyond this point sign

1_ZlARZfqv1GrsBKLu5ZGZBwPhoto by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Humans are diverse, and it’s a magnificent thing. Our inconsequential blue and green planet, tiny against the backdrop of an unfathomable universe, is a marvel of spectacular variety; a multi-threaded stream of colour and light, bound up in a ball of swirling, bubbling energy. The divergent nature of the universe, and the creatures within it, is what makes it beautiful and endlessly surprising.

Human intelligence is also diverse. The mind of a genius appears to travel at light speed, effortlessly skipping from one creative galaxy to the next, while at the other end of the scale, a slower person might struggle to understand a simple everyday problem. One has been blessed, and the other cursed; their natural born abilities are not of their own making. So why do people living in the West treat a lack of intelligence with such appalling ridicule and disdain? Even the most morally-inclined among us don’t hesitate to declare somebody stupid, attacking something that the target has little control over. It’s tantamount to mocking somebody for the colour of their skin, or their sex.

We can, of course, make ourselves smarter. It’s wonderful that we’re able to work hard and improve our capabilities, but this is only possible for the privileged among us. Not everyone has access to good schools and education, or an upbringing that develops a passion to pursue them. The link between poverty and educational performance makes it almost impossible for a poor person lacking in natural intelligence to stand a chance in today’s world, while the fortunate stand on the sidelines and throw rotten vegetables at them, as punishment for something completely outside of their control.

In addition to being regularly mocked, less intelligent people have an increased chance of suffering from mental illness, obesity, and heart disease. They’re also more likely to end up in prison, being drawn towards violence as a likely consequence of being derided their entire lives. It’s said that you can tell a lot about a society by how it treats its elderly. The same could be said for those lacking in intelligence.

Both Theresa May and Donald Trump are supporters of a meritocratic society, the notion that those with merit deserve to climb the economic hierarchy. The idea is similar in many ways to the American Dream – work hard, and you can succeed. Gone are the days of a stale and worn-out aristocracy; advancement is open to all, regardless of the family that you were born into. But this seemingly valuable system has a dark side – if those who succeed have done so by their own merit, then those who have failed only have themselves to blame. They are, in a meritocratic society, operating within the same system as the winners, and therefore owe their low position to their own stupidity. This kind of system just serves to place poorer and less intelligent people even lower on the economic scale, while instilling the mistaken idea that they have the exact same opportunities as wealthier, smarter people. Expectations are inflated, and inevitable heartbreak ensues. Egalitarianism, while undeniably good, must respect differing intelligences and the natural hierarchies that come out of that. Capitalism relies on less intelligent people to carry out lower paid jobs.

The concept of intelligence is also a lot murkier than one might think. American psychologist Howard Gardener believes that there’s nine different types of intelligence, including interpersonal, musical, spatial, and existential. The divide isn’t between numbers and language, as many people suppose. A mechanic might be terrible at reading Shakespeare (linguistic), but an absolute gun at putting an engine together (spatial and bodily-kinesthetic). That doesn’t make the mechanic more stupid than the scholar, they just have a different skill set, and have probably chosen the careers appropriate to them. Research shows that sophisticated reasoning depends on the situation – someone can be a dunce in the stock market, and a genius at the racetrack, even though they require similar types of thinking. Stupidity isn’t black and white.

Perhaps most importantly, intelligence doesn’t equate to worth. Someone with fewer brain cells than most could be brimming with kindness, honesty and loyalty, and deserves to be treated with just as much patience and respect as everyone else. We must curb our frustration and develop a more compassionate mindset, reminding ourselves that not everyone was fortunate to be blessed with dazzling brilliance. The misinformed aren’t necessarily stupid, they just haven’t learned yet. The next time a misguided soul irritates you, remember that you may once have been in their position.


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