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Reports of a Baleful Internet Are Greatly Exaggerated

Our digital technologies can in fact be cognitive aids.

It’s now fashionable, when something has you mildly obsessed, to say that it is “living rent-free in your head.” Well, in my…By Brian Gallagher

It’s now fashionable, when something has you mildly obsessed, to say that it is “living rent-free in your head.” Well, in my case, that something is an earworm—Bo Burnham’s catchy, creepy, poignantly acidic song “Welcome to the Internet.”

I can’t be alone. The song, part of Burnham’s new hour-plus Netflix special, Inside, has been consumed on YouTube and Spotify more than 54 million times. The Internet’s near-utopian promise of speedily disseminating knowledge has, for Burnham, revealed itself to be a cartoonishly bad deal. We’re not enlightened as a result of this; we’re addicted, distracted, and motivated, much of the time, by the wrong things. We’re suckers in a pitilessly profiteering world. In Burnham’s song, during which he dons the persona of a sort of psychopathic P.T. Barnum beckoning you from behind a keyboard, the delightful and useful stuff you can find online are juxtaposed with the traumatic and malicious.

The earworm-y part captures the ethos of the Internet:

Could I interest you in everything
All of the time?
A little bit of everything
All of the time
Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time

To get this out of my system, I thought I’d talk about the song—particularly its portrayal of the Internet as something pervasive and enticing that messes with our cognition—with a scientist. Specifically, I asked Lorenzo Cecutti if he would watch and react to Inside’s centerpiece track. He’d just published a conveniently germane article in Nature Human Behavior, the title of which aroused my curiosity: “Technology may change cognition without necessarily harming it.”

Cecutti co-authored the article with Anthony Chemero, a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Cincinnati, and Spike Lee (not that Spike Lee), a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto. Cecutti is a doctoral student in Lee’s Mind and Body Lab. “We critically examine relevant findings,” they write, “and argue that there is no clear evidence for detrimental lasting effects of digital technology on cognitive abilities.” A Burnham-sympathetic part of me found that intriguing but unlikely.

Cecutti was game for the discussion. As I listened to him speak in his somewhat muted Italian accent (he left Italy for Hong Kong when he was 16, and spent the next nine years in Asia before moving to Canada), I began to appreciate how flexible and robust human cognition might be. Cecutti was a great guide into the nuance of how the online world interfaces with our offline minds. “I have to be always mindful to draw a line between how digital technology usually affects things like our well-being, versus how it actually impacts our cognition,” he told me.

Before I brought up “Welcome to the Internet,” I asked him to lay out the argument in his latest paper.


You say it’s tempting to believe that, as digital tech becomes smarter and more pervasive in our lives, it’ll worsen our cognitive abilities. What’s the temptation, exactly?

It’s tempting for two reasons. There is an intergenerational discourse that looks at the next new thing—be it digital technology, the telephone, radio, TV, even way back to Socrates’ time, when he talked about the invention of writing as bringing about the end of memory—and worry. There’s also a discourse in the literature in academia. There’s an interpretation of this literature that points out how digital technology seemed to have had a negative effect on cognition. This assumption usually is based on looking at the effects, which are temporary, and extrapolating them, thinking they’re long term. These effects were made just about cognition. But when we think about things like attention, the smartphone has a strong motivational pull, and detracts our attention from other activities. The effects are not purely cognitive.

What studies show that the bad cognitive effects arising from digital technology are only short term?

One paper that we thought about was from 2011, called “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips.” One of the central theories in that paper is about transactional memory, which is an idea that doesn’t necessarily involve technology. It looks at how people share information, and how sometimes we rely on others as being the information receptacle. We can, in that way, extend our cognition, or extend our memory.

Imagine you know you have a colleague at work who is a wiz when using Excel spreadsheets and can help you out with anything involving Excel. The authors argue that Google works in the same way. It seems to reduce our capacity to memorize a certain concept in the short term.

Being deprived of your smartphone could be as if you were deprived of part of your cognition.

One of the things that’s interesting is that it’s likely their entire sample had used search engines, or Google, before they came into the lab for the experiment. The researchers gave participants trivia statements to type and remember and told them that the computer would delete, or save, their typed statements. The researchers also explicitly asked them—or did not ask them, depending on the group—to remember the statements. Participants who thought the computer had deleted, versus saved, the statements recalled more statements, regardless of whether they were explicitly asked to remember them or not. So lacking, versus having, access to information stored on a computer increased, versus decreased, deliberate and spontaneous remembering of the information.

This suggests, as the researchers argue, that we use technology as a source of transactive memory, meaning that when we intend to retain this information internally, we can. This kind of effect on memory is likely to be short term and circumscribed to the information the subjects saved onto the device. If people are unable to remember facts because search engines have worsened our memory in the long term, we should have observed people in both conditions—save versus not save—struggling to remember the statements, because the entire sample is likely to have smartphones and PCs and tablets and have used them in the past. So, it’s possible that when technology is present, yes, we can make use of it, but when technology is not there, then we have no choice—we have to rely on our naked brains, so to speak.

You also argue that digital technology likely is changing our cognition, but not in any way that harms or degrades it.

Yes, I often think about it as changing the cognitive strategy, how we go about completing tasks. If your view of cognition is not necessarily just what’s happening in the brain, then to us, it’s clear that technology does change how cognition works. If you think about the uses that we associate mostly with our smartphones—we use it to chat with friends or loved ones, to respond to emails for work—it is normal that we associate important motivations with our digital tools. There will always be a part of our mind that is attuned to these tools with this motivational pull, which then translates into probably some lower cognitive capacity. But the origin is not from the technology itself diminishing our cognitive capacity. It’s from these important goals being associated with the technology. It’s possible that a lot of people have these types of motivational pulls that are distracting them, especially when their smartphone is right next to them.

The presence of a smartphone can affect our cognition in the moment, in the short term, just because we’re aware of it and what it can do for us.

Right. The goal of connecting to others is something that is constantly with us. Even if our smartphones were not associated with these goals, these goals may exercise a motivational pull that could lower our cognitive resources or cognitive capacity temporarily.

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Would our motivations to constantly connect with people be the same distraction if we didn’t have the tool to encourage it? Digital tech is almost like a gun, isn’t it? It’s there. It almost wants to be fired, to get a little dark. That accessibility is an attractor, right?

You’re on point there. That’s exactly what smartphones can do. They can remind us of these goals, and keep pulling our attention away. Anecdotally, people seem to be aware that we need to exercise self-control. If not for cognitive reasons, then at least for well-being and lifestyle reasons.

How is Andy Clark, a well known philosopher of mind, informing some of your ideas about what cognition can be, and how it can change?

One of the things he talks about in his book, Being There, is how, when you look at smartphones having the ability to store memory, if someone robs you of your smartphone, it is almost as if they rob you of your memories. Being deprived of your smartphone could be as if you were deprived of part of your cognition. The closest thing to this idea in the literature currently being studied is the idea of cognitive offload. The idea is, you can offload certain tasks onto digital devices, and this, we speculate, can free up cognitive capacity, changing the strategy, or the approach, you might have for solving cognitive problems.

Has the ability to offload tasks to digital devices made our lives easier and better?

It’s made our cognitive lives easier, better. One way is simplifying. We rely on notification settings to remember calendar appointments. Not having to do this frees up capacity. It also enables us to do tasks that normally would be beyond our limits mathematically or computationally. Complicated equations can be very challenging to work with, but computers are very good at doing that. Of course, they cannot provide all of the solutions. They cannot think for us, or interpret and present findings for us.

It’s possible that when technology is present, we can make use of it, but when technology is not there, then we have to rely on our naked brains.

Is there any good evidence that using digital technology worsens cognition in the long term?

Not really. A lot of the literature on digital technology and cognition are correlational studies looking at the effect of multitasking. A lot of the studies on long-term effects are mostly coming out now. We talk about one, “The Negative Effect of Smartphone Use on Academic Performance May Be Overestimated: Evidence From a 2-Year Panel Study.” It was published last year in Psychological Science.

In that study, the researchers find the effects of using smartphones during classes are negatively affecting their grades. But, when they control for more stable characteristics—things like student impulsivity, socioeconomic status, class size, course difficulty—these effects aren’t significant. So the longitudinal evidence does seem to point toward smartphones not affecting us in the long run. I wouldn’t say this is definitive evidence. More studies need to be done. But saying that digital technology definitely negatively affects our cognition may be too premature.

You are concerned now, though, about what digital tech, and the streams of novel, algorithm-driven stimuli that come with it, might do to children. You’re “worried,” you write, “that the younger generation whose self-controlled capacity and skills are still developing, risks becoming increasingly needy for ongoing rewarding stimulation.” Would you consider that a cognitive or an emotional threat?

I would say it can lead to a cognitive deficit. It’s a motivational issue. One needs to have a certain extent of self-control when using smartphones. Part of what we mean by that is that, most of the time, you know when to use digital technology and when not to rely on it. So it’s not necessarily resisting impulses, although it can be. It’s more about planning ahead. This is something that we think parenting has a big role in, teaching children when to use digital technology. We may not want our children to always rely on a calculator, for instance. Or digital storage for memory. We need to make sure that they have the ability, the self-control, to make this choice. You can use algorithms to inform you of your preferences, to expand. But you should have the ability to inform your own preferences and learn, over time, what things you like and dislike.

I’m eager to ask, what do you make of Bo Burnham’s song, “Welcome to the Internet?”

I really liked it. He describes this hope that the Internet would be wonderful and make a lot of information available, particularly for the young. But maybe this digital experiment has gone bad. He talks about how we have everything online. Whatever you prefer. Just sit back and enjoy and consume. You can see it as a drawback, people being motivationally absorbed, completely enslaved by a mountain of things—pornography, entertainment, news—that may be interesting to them. When I was writing the Nature Human Behavior article, one of the things I was thinking about was the other side of this constant accessibility—the reliability. The Internet is, at least for many of us, 24/7, and it’s widely available. If your phone is out of battery, you can use a computer.

When he says, “Boredom is a crime,” I think, well, do people think less because of digital media? Is digital media so readily available, and so much more entertaining than a book, say, that now, when the choice we have is read and think versus watch a video on YouTube, we would just watch a video on YouTube? I suspect that it is more motivationally potent. That’s one factor that makes digital media so distracting. It can make you waste a lot of time. On a large scale, the Internet reminds me a bit of the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Harry’s discovered this magic mirror in the attic of Hogwarts that shows him whatever his deepest desire is. He becomes controlled by the mirror. It shows him that his dead parents are still alive and with him. The substance of the story is that people can get lost in it. That is what resonates with me. That would be my answer to the dangers of the Internet—to treat it as the magic mirror.

Was the song overly bleak about what the Internet is doing to us?

It accurately described the danger of it. But I suspect most people don’t live in that reality, where they’re completely impulsive creatures that cannot exercise control over their emotions. Children are the more impulsive creatures. A child doesn’t know that they have to stop playing with an iPad unless their parents tell them to. But limited use of digital technology, regulated by parents, can actually benefit the child, in my opinion. And that is because they learn how to interface with digital technology, be familiar with it. It helps them learn how to solve daily problems more easily than people that did not grow up with such technology. But again, everything with regulation. That’s precisely because of the things that this song talks about, the dangers of overindulging in our entertainment and our fantasies and the need to come back to reality.


Brian Gallagher is an associate editor at Nautilus. Follow him on Twitter @bsgallagher.

Lead art: Studiostoks / Shutterstock

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