The Internet as a Shared Brain
Do social media appeal to the rational or the emotional brain?
Posted January 31, 2023 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- With the Internet, each content creator and user is analogous to the sensory and motor functions of nervous systems.
- Internet pioneers assumed the cognitive brain would come out on top thanks to the flood of new ideas and information-stimulating thought.
- The Internet is a haven for scholarship and at the same time a panacea for all manner of criminals and dictators.
The brain is a sophisticated information-processing machine that combines rational and emotional data. Today, much of that information is derived from the Internet, which functions like a shared brain.
With the Internet, each content creator and user is analogous to the sensory and motor functions of nervous systems. There is incoming information, and there is an impact on users. That impact can be very beneficial or very dangerous, particularly in a wild-west environment of minimal regulation.
Utopia Meets Dystopia: Wikipedia vs. Myanmar
Founders of the Internet, like Tim Berners-Lee, were inspired by a utopian vision in which all information would be made available to users for free, but the Internet is not actually free, of course, and some groups, and geographies, have difficulty accessing broadband.
With these limitations, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia provides fairly reliable accounts of a vast range of topics, making it orders of magnitude larger than any print encyclopedia could ever be. This enterprise is supported by donations from grateful users. Its reliability, and objectivity, are guarded by a zealous army of unpaid editors who labor for the benefit of their fellow human beings.
Wikipedia fulfills some of the utopian goals of its founders, and there are many other online reference works and open-source software that function on similar principles. Such projects vindicate the hopeful ambitions of the founders.
Unfortunately, the Internet is a multi-headed monster with its malevolent face showing up in social media that may foment political strife and violence. This phenomenon is typified by the 2016–2017 genocide in Myanmar. This genocide would likely not have happened if residents had not received access to the Internet.
In the early days, the Internet in Myanmar was synonymous with access to Facebook. Unsophisticated users there read hateful propaganda against the Rohingya minority, much of it spread by the military leaders. Seeing the information on Facebook, users assumed it was reliable and were riled up against the minority. This sentiment contributed to atrocities against Rohingya villages that resulted in the entire community attempting to flee the country and endure the many hardships of exile.
So, the Internet has proved the best of new technologies and the worst of new technologies in terms of human well-being. It is a haven for scholarship and at the same time a panacea for all manner of criminals and dictators.
This contradiction is not just peculiar to the digital revolution. It is also built into the architecture of the human brain. The most important distinction here is that between the rational brain and the emotional brain. Internet pioneers assumed that the cognitive brain would come out on top thanks to the flood of new ideas and information-stimulating thought. They could not have imagined that the emotional brain would come to the fore in the ways that it has. The Myanmar Facebook fiasco suggests that unfiltered propaganda can feed violent impulses.
Why the Reptilian Brain May Get Stronger, not Weaker
The evolution of the brain can be described in terms of a recent addition—the neocortex—that sits atop the older layers of the brain stem and inhibits them. If one counts to 10 before responding in a tense situation, the cognitive act of enumeration suppresses the angry impulse from the limbic system lower in the brain.
This struggle between cognition and emotion may be the central drama of our interior lives, but it also plays out in the group brain of the Internet, sometimes in surprising ways. One might imagine that the Internet would be biased toward rational processing because so much communication is language-based. Yet, some social media groups are fueled by hostility and anger.
In that fraught environment, extremism prospers and voices of moderation get shouted down. At present, there is minimal content moderation of online chat communities, and absurd claims go unchallenged. Moreover, anger promotes engagement, and algorithms deliver up more hateful content to keep users online. In this way, social media companies monetize hatred.
They also profit from supplying pornography to teens and children. When a youngster receives a cell phone, they are soon exposed to hard-core pornography. British lawmakers are so incensed by this fact that they want to pass a law wherein Internet executives who fail to protect children from harmful content can be imprisoned. For the moment, the reptilian brain often prevails over reason on the Internet.