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.”
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.
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.