Perhaps the truest thing ever said about the Internet is the axiom, “If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” Never has so broad a set of service and entertainment options been laid before humanity at little or no charge.
However, “no charge” does not mean at “no cost.” So many options can inhibit the ability of the human brain to work effectively.
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Douglas Rushkoff makes this point in his book Team Human. “We now know, beyond any doubt, that we are dumber when we are using smartphones and social media. We understand and retain less information, comprehend with less depth, and make decisions more impulsively than we do otherwise. This untethered mental state, in turn, makes us less capable of distinguishing the real from the fake, the compassionate from the cruel, and even the human from the nonhuman.“
Dr. Rushkoff studies human interaction with the Internet. He is Professor of Media Theory and Digital Economics at CUNY/Queens, where he founded the Laboratory for Digital Humanism.
The Selling Machine
The dumbing down of consumers through science and technology has a long history. Authors freely admit the need for companies to change people’s mentalities and habits.
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During the fifties, a pseudo-science called “behavioral research” was widely promoted. Its most successful proponent was Ernest Dichter. He applied Freudian psychoanalytical techniques to the the American marketplace. The National Broadcasting Company translated his insights into the language of commerce with its 1953 film, Strangers into Customers. “Our report details how advertising, through television, transforms strangers to your product into acquaintances, and acquaintances into friends, and friends into customers. You could almost say, as a result, that television puts into every living room a selling machine.”
Dr. Dichter’s work was bemoaned in the 1957 book, The Hidden Persuaders by Vance Packard, “The use of mass psychoanalysis to guide campaigns of persuasion has become the basis of a multimillion-dollar industry. Professional persuaders have seized upon it in their groping for more effective ways to sell us their wares.”
The advertising of the fifties looks very crude by today’s standards. Most people would claim that they would never be taken in by the amateurish animation, absurd jingles, and sonorous narration of those early commercials. However, don’t judge the fifties generation too harshly. Back then, critics condemn television for reducing the average attention span to a half-hour. Today, thirty minutes of focus is beyond the abilities of far too many people.
Too Much Information, Too Little Understanding
Indeed, Facebook is tailor-made to discourage concentration. It consists of a hodge-podge of old friends, political candidates, products for sale, shared interests, celebrity sightings, and quizzes that serve no purpose. A person views each message for a second or two and then scrolls to a new unrelated entry. Most posts are quickly forgotten. Facebook is so entrancing that many who glance at it at eight p.m. are still scrolling at midnight when their burning eyes can take no more.
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Unfocused as Facebook is, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat are much faster paced and more popular among the latest generations. Z-geners will frequently refer to Facebook as social media for “old people.”
In some homes, family members watch television in their living room, use the laptop to engage in social media, and play a video game on their smartphone – simultaneously. Such activity may look like multi-tasking, but it reflects an inability to focus on any one set of stimuli.
Who Controls the Information?
All the while, the purveyors of the movies, social media and video games are watching. Every click of the mouse is recorded and becomes part of an algorithm. The users are being weighed and measured so that the next ad they see will be more effective. Is the user young or old, athletic or sedentary, likely to dine out or eat in, willing to read a whole article or just the first paragraph?
This information is used to make predictions. Such data is valuable to retailers, industries and politicians. While the consumer is unfocused, the data buyers are extremely focused on getting the right subset of the groups to maximize their desired results. The algorithm predicts outcomes, and data mining companies are willing to sell information to those who will pay the right price.
The Implications of the “Pareto Principle”
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At the heart of much of this analysis is something called the “Pareto Principle,” also known as the 80/20 Rule. It is named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist from the turn of the twentieth century. He noticed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the wealth. He later observed a similar ratio relationship with other aspects of economic life. The Balance Careers Website cites other examples:
- 80% of a company’s revenues are generated by 20% of its customers.
- 80% of complaints come from 20% of customers.
- 20% of investors provide 80% of funding.
- 20% of employees use 80% of all sick days.
To oversimplify, data giants found that algorithms can accurately predict about eighty percent of human interactions. They are constantly tweaking the system since increasing the eighty percent to eighty-two can be immensely profitable.
The Organic and Virtual Worlds
Douglas Rushkoff believes that the digital world’s artificiality confuses the mind because the brain normally relies on “organic” information obtained from genuine interactions with the real world. The abusive use of the Internet, he speculates, makes people more machinelike and predictable. To the managers of the Internet, this is very good news.
As Dr. Rushkoff posits, “Team Human’s real enemies, if we can call them that, are not just the people who are trying to program us into submission but the algorithms they’ve unleashed to help them do it.”
Indeed, the Internet is free, but users must beware lest they become the product.