Distraction and Action – The Internet and Your Brain

It’s very unusual for Michael not to show up to work. My guess, he’s either deeply depressed or an icicle has snapped off his roof and impaled his brain.  – The Office


The Boy, praising the giant stone head which holds the entirety of the Internet, at an undisclosed location in Texas.

“The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived.” – Someone Dead, Probably a Roman

You have to be there to win.

You can’t achieve, or even focus, if not present. I’ll not define achievement or focus, you can probably figure out what I mean by those, but I will speak a bit about being present.

Being present is having your focus here, right in the place that you are at, and now, as in focusing on the present moment.  It implies both locality and attention.  If you are truly 100% present, generally there is nothing wrong with the world, no worries.  You are where you are, doing what you’re doing.

It’s been my experience that right now, at this moment in time, there are very few things that concern me or bother me to the point that it pulls away my attention.  The sun is shining, Pugsley is mowing the lawn with the push mower, The Boy is concocting a new app that combines AirBNB and Twitter (BedWitter) so you pay for your room rental with witty comments, The Mrs. is doing some work on a novel, and the pork chops are marinating on the counter prior to their encounter with the grill tonight.

So, in this moment in time, as Rainbow talks about a Man on the Silver Mountain (it’s a song), I sit and type in utter peace – I’m stuck here in the present, fully focused on the moment, and at this point in time, there’s nothing wrong in the world.  Well, my beer might be low, but I know where another one is.

The content on the Internet is evolving, and its sole purpose is to pull in more and more of your attention.  Why?  That’s what funds it.  It’s been that way for a while – media is funded by that which grabs your attention – good ratings=high attention and that results in more products like that.  But the Internet has allowed measurements that are to the millisecond – how long has your attention been taken, what did you buy later, what did you click on?  The technology exists today to understand who you are through a fairly small number of clicks, even on a browser you’ve never been on, and to understand what drives you are as an individual.  Maybe even better than you do.

What are the apps that do this very well?

You know them, and many of you interact with them daily:

  • Google – The big dog – probably knows what you’re going to search after a character or two. I was shocked to find out (in 2005) that a search on my work computer gave a different list than on my home computer.  Now, 12 years later?  I imagine each individual gets tailored results, by device and location.  Thankfully they’re not evil, right?
  • Youtube – I’m listening to music on it right now as I type this. And it picks the next song, so when I get in a writing haze, really focused on the work, seven songs that I love can blend seamlessly into the background, without me noticing.  And I get different Youtube content suggestions on my phone, because I listen differently on it.
  • Facebook – I’ll admit that this is an application that I’m not on, and it’s one I never really got. The Mrs. got on to promote her book, but I don’t think she uses it all that much.  But, boy, when I say I don’t Facebook I get funny looks.  It’s like I’m not exactly human, some sort of pre-technology throwback.  I figure if my friends want to talk, they’ll call.
  • Reddit – Been there, but it’s not even weekly that I visit. Good concept.
  • Twitter – This is one that seems to be the real wave of the future, but people can’t figure out how to make money owning Twitter – it’s like owning that kiosk where everyone puts up random notices. It would be way better real estate if you could get the hippys out.

What drives your behavior?

I hate to tell you, but the Internet is driven by your brain, specifically your amygdala.  Your amygdala is where your strong emotions come from, and the internet is evolved to stroke those emotions to get you to take action based upon what your amygdala wants:

  • Sex – This goes beyond porn sites, but also includes the sidebar ads on the sites you visit with girls in bikinis with a headline “You won’t believe what happened to the cast of Malcolm in the Middle!” It’s a primary psychological driver, and (really) has resulted in some of the most significant technological advancements in information technology, like streaming video.  You like YouTube?  Shake a porn star’s hand (but wear a glove, really).
  • Outrage – OMG! What did Trump do?  OMG!  Did you see what Obama did?  These sorts of stories are intended to drive you into an emotional frenzy, based upon something you care about.  Its stories like Cecil the lion that feed this side of the Internet, creating a frenzy that burns itself out when the new frenzy appears.  Just think about what Jimmy Kimmel is crying about this week, and you have a good idea what the latest frenzy is.  This outrage feeds your amygdala, and, let’s face it, sometimes you just want to fight.  (Hint: that’s your amygdala.)  The internet drives you (along with other people that think like you) straight to the fire so you can pour gasoline on it.
  • Trivia – The shear amount of information that exists on the Internet is enough to keep you swimming in it for hours if you let the current drag you away. Ever look up “Dogs” on Wikipedia and end up in an engrossing article about 17th century French bottle manufacturing techniques?  Yeah, me too.
  • Fear – Hacking at your brain – see the adds that say “here are the three things your doctor doesn’t know about the CANCER THAT IS EATING YOUR BRAIN RIGHT NOW” alongside a picture of a forearm that has hair on it.   Feeding your brain.
  • Envy – Facebook is awesome at this one – your friends don’t show you pictures of the monthly bills for that new Porsche®, but they sure do post pictures of the car. When living in Houston, I would be sitting at a stoplight and see a beautiful Mercedes pull up next to the Wildercar.  I tried to pull up a statistic about the number of new Mercedes that were bought with a loan.  I can’t find it now, so I’ll make it up – 87% of Mercedes purchased are bought by someone with less than a million net worth and they owe money on it.
  • Desire – Envy’s brother. See a nice bauble on Amazon?  You’ve lived your entire life without it.  But now it’s your precious, and you’re its Gollum.  Hint: avoid hobbits – it won’t end well.
  • Pride – You really want put that picture of you and your new Porsche© on Facebook. That’ll show ‘em!

So, essentially the internet has evolved to focus all of your presence and attention on the seven deadly sins.  And this is what we’re teaching the vast artificial intelligence that we’re creating.  And we’re feeding it with our behaviors and attention constantly.

It also dulls our sense of wonder.  On the Internet, you can see the best and most extreme of everything, all at your fingertips.  So, seeing a guy jump off a 25’ cliff into a pool of water below?  Yawn, but on the Internet, you’re staring at a little square screen that is where you are giving precious minutes of your life, but it’s so distracting!

Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is a truly amazing servant.  It provides great venues for learning, specific fact finding, this blog, comparison and quality shopping, this blog, low cost instant communication, this blog, real time storm warnings, this blog, long distance work collaboration and, of course, this blog.

On a recent vacation we stopped for breakfast at a Denny’s® (little known fact: La Quinta is Spanish for “Next to Denny’s”) and had to wait about five minutes.  As I scanned the crowd of other potential pancake patrons, I noticed that EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM (including parents) was head down in a phone.  Not a single person was legitimately present.

After noting the Wilder fam following into a similar pattern, I decreed a ban on cell phones at dinner.  They stayed home or we weren’t going to go out to eat.  Pop ‘em on the table, folks.  Likewise, at home, at dinner – nope.

Although I would dearly love for the family to take their phones into the hot tub, they leave them out.  So, dinner, hot tubbing, board games, patio days (going outside and just hanging on the patio all day) and cooking barbeque are all times where we have miniature Internet breaks.  The result I’ve seen is those are the closest and most genuine moments that we have as a family.  We’re genuinely happier when we cut out Zuckerberg and Brin.

But right now I just have to see what Chelsea Clinton said to Trump on Twitter®!

Chime in below on how you rule your brain in a world of distraction  . . .

Author: John

Nobel-Prize Winning, MacArthur Genius Grant Near Recipient writing to you regularly about Fitness, Wealth, and Wisdom - How to be happy and how to be healthy. Oh, and rich.

2 thoughts on “Distraction and Action – The Internet and Your Brain”

  1. John

    Being a full on geek, it like having three encyclopedias in my pocket plus a full research library. Soldier experience in the Meuse Argonne in World War I. one million references in 0.15 seconds. Then the real work begins, figuring out which of those are useful….

    My particular rabbit hole is following historical links until I am buried in a Reginald Wingate’s battle against German propaganda campaigns in Ethiopia or something as obscure. Or Civil War generals serving in the Egyptian Khedive’s army. I can research geophysics or early American history from anywhere in the world.

    On the other side my business patterns have completely changed. I spent the last 30 years in close first name relationships with favorite travel agents. They were on my speed dial. When was the last time I used a travel agent? Do they still exist?

    Yes, they are giant time sucks designed to draw you into advertising, the particular weirdness that you enjoy or mind numbing brainless states that we used to depend on television or alcohol to fully enjoy. The other activity that sucks time is the daily hamster wheel of checking sites. Mine is flipping through each of the world regions on BBC, the scanning Al Jazeera to see the same news in another light. Then my local news page. Then a scan through the tech and science newsletters. That is followed by the oil business newsletters and finally with a sigh of contented false accomplishment, I reward myself with a scan of Smithsonian.

    Oh yeah, now three days a week, you are the last stop on my hamster wheel so I can linger

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