2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Senior Lecturer in Behavioural Biology School, University of Bristol
BY CHANGING MY BEHAVIOUR, OVER AND OVER AGAIN

I was rather stumped by this question because I have little experience of work or play without the Internet. My interests and the way I think, work and play have evolved alongside the Internet. Perhaps it would help if I could work out what life would be like for me without the Internet. Abstaining from the Internet is not a feasible experiment even on a personal level! Instead, I exploited the very resource we are evaluating, and asked my friends on Facebook what they thought their lives would be like without the Internet. If I could empathize with my alter-ego in a parallel 'offline' universe where there was no Internet, perhaps I can understand how the Internet has influenced the way I think.

Initial impressions of an Internet-free life from my Facebook friends were of general horror. The Internet plays a crucial role in our personal lives: my friends said they would be 'lost', 'stressed', 'anxious' and 'isolated' without it. They were concerned about 'No 24-7 chats?'; 'How would I make new friends/meet new people?'; 'How would I keep in touch with my friends abroad?'; 'I'd actually have to buy things in person from real people!'. We depend on the Internet as our social network, to connect with friends, strangers and to access resources. Sitting at my computer, I am one of the millions of 'nodes' making up the network. Whilst physical interactions with other nodes in the network is largely impossible, I am potentially connected to them all.

Caution and suspicion of the unfamiliar are ancestral traits of humans, ensuring survival by protecting against usurpation and theft of resources. A peculiar thing about the Internet is that it makes us highly receptive and indiscriminate in our interactions with complete strangers. The other day I received a message inviting me to join a Facebook group for people sharing 'Seirian' as their first name. Can I resist? Of course not! I'll probably never meet the other 17 Seirians, but I am now a 'node' connected to a virtual network of Seirians. Why did I join? Because I had nothing to lose, there were no real consequences, and I was curious to tap into a group of people wholly unconnected with my current social network. The more friendly connections I engage in, the greater the rewards I can potentially reap. If the 'Facebook Seirians' had knocked on my real front door instead of my virtual one, would I have signed up? No, of course not — too invasive, personal and potentially costly (they'd know where I live and I can't unplug them!). Contrary to our ancestral behaviours, we tolerate invasion of privacy online, and the success of the Internet relies on this.

Connectivity comes at the cost of privacy, but it does promote information acquisition and transfer. Although the initial response from my Facebook friends was fear of disconnection, more considered responses appreciated the Internet for the incredible resource it is, and that it could never be replaced with traditional modes of information storage and transfer. 'How do I find things out?'; 'Impossible to access information'; 'You mean I have to physically go shopping/visit the library?'; 'So slow..'; 'Small life'. The Internet relies on our greed for knowledge and connections, but also on our astonishing online generosity. We show inordinate levels of altruism on the Internet, wasting hours on chat room sites giving advice to complete strangers, or contributing anonymously to Wikipedia just to enrich other people's knowledge. There is no guarantee or expectation of reciprocation. Making friends and trusting strangers with personal information (be it your bank details or musical tastes) is an essential personality trait of an Internet user, despite being at odds with our ancestral natural caution. The data we happily give away on Facebook is exactly the sort of information that communist secret police sought through interrogation. By relaxing our suspicion (or perception) of strangers and behaving altruistically (indiscriminately) we share our own resources and gain access to a whole lot more.

I thought I had too little pre-Internet experience to be able to answer this question. But now I realize that we undergo rapid evolution into a different organism every time we log on. The Internet may not necessarily change the way we think, but it certainly shapes and directs our thoughts by changing our behaviour. Offline, we may be secretive, miserly, private, suspicious and self-centered. Online, we become philanthropic, generous, approachable, friendly, and dangerously unwary of strangers. Online behaviour would be selected out in an offline world because no-one would cooperate — people don't want unprompted friendship and generosity from complete strangers. Likewise, offline behaviour does badly in an online world — unless you give a little of yourself, you get restricted access to resources. The reason for our personality change is that the Internet is a portal to lazy escapism: at the twitch of the mouse we enter a world where the consequences of our actions don't seem real. The degree to which our online and offline personas differ will of course vary from one person to another. At the most extreme, online life is literally one of care-free fantasy — Live vicariously through your flawless avatar in the fantastical world of Second Life! What better way to escape the tedium and struggles of reality that confront our offline-selves?

Is the change from offline to online behaviour adaptive? We ultimately strive to maximise our individual inclusive fitness. We can do this using our communication skills (verbal and written) to persuade other people to alter their behaviour for mutual benefits. Early hominid verbal communication and hieroglyphs were the tools of persuasion used by our ancestors. The Internet is the third great breakthrough in human communication, and our behavioural plasticity is a necessary means for exploiting it. Do we need to moderate these shifts in behaviour? One of my Facebook friends said it would be 'relaxing' without the Internet. Is our addiction to the Internet leaving us no time or space to think and process the complex stream of interactions and knowledge we get from it? Sleep is essential for 'brain sorting' — maybe offline life (behaviour) is too.

To conclude my answer to the question, the Internet changes my behaviour every time I log on and in doing so influences how I think. My daring, cheeky, spontaneous, and interactive online persona, makes me quicker-thinking and encourages me to think further outside my offline box. I think in tandem with the Internet, using its knowledge to inspire and challenge my thoughts. My essay is a testament to this – Facebook inspired my thoughts and provoked this essay, so I couldn't have done it without the Internet.