Internet Brain

Internet Brain

If our brains, or at least our cognitive processes, truly have changed and are changing ever faster, understanding how and why is key to mastering our future and creating desperately needed freedom, control, and time to adjust for the benefit of humankind.

I’ve watched all four seasons of “Black Mirror” on Netflix.  The vaguely connected stories are about technology gone right, sideways, and wrong. Mostly wrong.  Technology itself is the star of the series and the connective tissue between episodes. The stories explore how artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics, the cloud, computer vision, and gamified systems could impact identity, consciousness, ethics, relationships, and our notions of mortality. 

Science fiction is usually cautionary.  In Black Mirror we see frightening outcomes that could happen if we are not careful. Some of the stories, combined with our real experiences, feel depressingly inevitable.  When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, many shocked voters referenced “Black Mirror” or “The Twilight Zone.”  Some even wondered whether we could be living out a vast computer simulation.  What is clear is that technology is changing our world in ways we are struggling to understand and master.

“Generation X” and “Microserfs”author Douglas Coupland is profiled in CNN’s article “Douglas Coupland: ‘I no longer remember my pre-internet brain.”  Coupland outlines “a sort of unified theory of everything detailing our ever-escalating, almost invariably out-of-synch relationship with the technologies we create, and how their largely unintended side effects have molded our societies and our era.”

Coupland is thinking deeply about challenges that technology poses – challenges to democracy, society, personal relationships, art, business, and other areas.

The most interesting part of Coupland’s “unified theory” to me is our experience of time.  Coupland says “We have a new relationship with time. Time now moves far too quickly, and everything feels like it happened either 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago. We’ve hollowed out medium-range memory. I postulate that this is because we no longer experience time in terms of real, everyday experiences. Time now registers in our brain with online data intake and the microscopic dopamine hits it generates. Data is the new time. The cloud is the new infinity.”

I think this is generally on target and has a deep effect on our daily experience and behavior.  Facebook makes you feel like high school was both “10 minutes ago” or “10 years ago” (or 30 years ago).  How has our changing sense of time impacted business? Does it partly explain how our technology driven stock market races to higher highs in record speed.  Has it contributed to the cryptocurrency craze, which no one seems to really understand?  Does it, in part, explain why Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and, to some extent Netflix are running so far ahead of our economy?

Consider this:

  • Google:  Immediate answers to any question plus a store of the history of the world and it’s knowledge;
  • Amazon: Immediate commerce gratification plus access to almost anything ever made;
  • Facebook/Instagram:  Immediate updates and dopamine hits plus access to people I’ve known my whole life;
  • Apple: Immediate dopamine driven access to all of the above and more plus a feeling of luxury and living in the future;
  • Netflix:  Immediate access to entertainment, including binge viewing, which provides escape and relief from all of the above and a respite from the speed of the world.

Each company seems to contribute and benefit from the sense that “everything feels like it happened either 10 minutes ago or 10 years ago”.

A key part of forming effective strategy in business, politics/policy, international relations, and everywhere else, is anticipation of the future based on current trends plus things that have already happened.  

If our brains, or at least our cognitive processes, truly have changed and are changing ever faster, understanding how and why is key to mastering our future and creating desperately needed freedom, control, and time to adjust for the benefit of humankind.

With the companies above investing billions in artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, virtual reality and more, and already showing a predisposition to placing activity and profit ahead of society or ethical concerns, we can’t afford as a society, or as individuals, to wait or we will be staring at our reflection in The Black Mirror.

Citizens must open their eyes to how technology is effecting their thinking and behavior, and we should demand that our leaders – in business and government – do a better job of channeling innovation with responsibility and accountability, and making sure that this is part of the profit equation.