The internet is not infantilising us – unless we let it

Is the internet reducing us to tribes of attention-seeking, short attention span children? No. But the decisions we make on how we use the internet might be…

Our brains are complex machines – and while we live in them, we don’t entirely control them. In many ways, our brain control us more than we control them.

What, you could very reasonable ask, does this have to do with digital business? Well, many of the core concepts of the web today, from social network to ramification, are actually targeted as much at our unconcious brains as they are to us.

A recent CNN article highlighted two ways this can be harmful:

On the one hand, there’s the concept of immediate satisfaction. It’s in the very core of our lizard brains, the cries of “Act now!” and “Just do it,” the things that give us a squirt of dopamine and keep us coming back again and again. Marketers and media people have always known its value, and the Internet — in the form of catchy headlines and eye-grabbing, multi-frame galleries — does this very well.

All those flashing notifications, update icons and constantly scrolling lists of updates are actually addictive. They generate that sweet, sweet dopamine that our brains love so very, very much.

The other hand?

And then there’s the stuff that appeals to us on a gut level, whether it’s graphic images, blunt language or a longing for attention. Perversely, it sometimes creates an antagonistic response: A recent Pew survey noted that a distinguishing aspect of Twitter chatter is its “overall negativity.”

The article goes on to conclude that the internet is, basically, infantilising us. It’s making us behave like children in their early teenage years, whose behaviour is far more driven by impulses than the behaviour of an adult is:

Web users are still figuring out whom to trust, how to communicate, what this new (and it IS still new) technology can do. They’re like a bunch of kids getting their first surge of hormones. They won’t always be bouncing off the walls.

That’s where I part company with the article. I think the neuroscience is fascinating – and something that is either ill-considered in digital design, or sometimes exploited rather cynically. But at the core of the infantalising argument is the idea that we can’t make good decisions for ourselves – that we are such slaves of our brain that we are being transformed against our will. And I don’t agree.

There’s a choice. We can be mindful and aware of the risks. We can take a step back. And we can make a decision to turn away. We can garden our social groups and not join in on the most relentless negativity.

We don’t have to respond to all of these insistent, dopamine-generating signals. I’ve actually turned the vast majority of notifications off on my iPhone and iPad because I realised that they weren’t conducive or useful in my work or personal life. They were just making me feel connected and productive because I was always responding to stuff.

There are two balancing issues here: we need to be both mindful of how we create technology, and then how we use it. There is nothing inevitable about the form it takes now, and the decisions we make shape out collective futures. The technology does not define us, we define it. If we abdicate that responsibility, well, here be dragons…

(To be continued on Friday…)