The Cognitive Costs of Online Convenience

I woke up this morning, flipped over, and reached out to feel for the hard edges of my rectangular device.

My eyes were scanning for the glaringly red bubbles of notification. My fingers were swift, acting on strong muscle memories to swipe and tap on the usual social media, news feed, and messaging apps.

I was not even sure if I was fully awake.

I scrolled aimlessly on my content feed until I landed on a post by a favorite celebrity advertising a pop grip.

50% of the proceeds go to an organization that saves baby elephants.

What’s a pop grip?popgrip picture

Before I knew it, I’ve purchased something I learned about an hour and a half before from Youtube videos and Amazon reviews and I still haven’t gotten out of bed.

The user experience of my customer journey was flawless, but my morning was spent masking my face with the blue light of my phone screen.

Is this scary or convenient?

I’ve never really questioned it much before. I am a typical millennial who was inducted into the digital era at a young age. I’ve lived through the expansion of the internet and its drastic and undoubtedly positive effects on our lives.

Anyone can get information on anything from anywhere. It is liberating, empowering and satisfying. Digital companies of all shapes and sizes mushroomed along with it. They are keen to design digital products that would improve every imaginable aspect of our lives and experiences. They are eager to invent the needs that we didn’t even know existed.

‘User-centricity’ is the chief principle they would adopt, and ‘customer engagement’ is the main KPI they would measure success on.

I would willingly and wholeheartedly eat it all up forever if I did not feel so tired.

I am tired of my desk-bound lifestyle, my lost time, my digital addiction, and my struggle…to think.internet drug addictions

As I try to actively understand what was happening to me, I realized that it may not just be debilitating my health, but also breaking down my patience for the offline world.

Failing memory

Maybe there are many other reasons, and I could sound like a crazy person if I blamed my own incompetence and goldfish brain on his majesty the internet. But, I really do remember a time when it wasn’t so hard for me to remember, even though that is also fading away. And I’ve spoken to many who share the same experience.

It’s not just little things like not being able to recall a name or phone number. It is also the passages that I have read, vocabulary that I have learned, or facts that I came across.

Without properly storing these seemingly insignificant bits of detail in my brain, I sound like a broken radio player when I am trying to explain a concept or tell a story, switching among different faint frequency signals to produce jumbled and confused noises.

 

broken radio

 

Weakened retention

We overwhelm our brains when we consume online content. It’s not a relaxing experience where we have a simple piece of text to take in, freeing up mental space for reflection, association, and inspiration. We are bombarded with decisions on whether we should pay attention to this customized ad, that suggested-post, or these reference hyperlinks littered throughout an article. It is a highly engaging experience, but it’s also decreasing the chance of us soaking up a topic in a profound and meaningful way.

On top of that, we are reading more through our phones, which means more interruption in the form of text messages, app notifications, and pop-ups. A friend of mine told me that she couldn’t scroll past two screens on her phone. By the time she gets there and if the article is still not finished, a wave of inexplicable anger gets triggered inside of her.

We are so efficient now. Articles need to be short, to the point, listed, so no time is wasted. Time is too precious for prolonged and undistracted reading on a single topic, it must be reserved for more decision making and as many topics as the tabs our web browsers can open. We are busy, and we demand absolute relevance.

We read in sporadic, bite-sized, keyword-optimized chunks, without giving enough time to contemplate and construct a coherent flow of meaningful thought.

We cannot count on information to be absorbed properly, and it becomes difficult to transfer it into our long-term memory, the vault for knowledge, perception, and intellection, where we draw upon for imagination and creativity.

 

 

internet content information consumption

 

Weakened recall

We become very good at googling on the internet, but we are getting worse at googling our own brains. Humans invented cars, reducing the effort to use their legs to travel; they invented drills, reducing the effort to use their arm muscles for hammering; then they invented digital technology, reducing the effort to use their brains to store and remember. Like a muscle we don’t train, our ability to retrieve knowledge from the depths of our minds could atrophy. 

Our intelligence is linked to what we know. We use what we know to solve problems, to share information, and to generate new insight. And what we know is stored in our memory. So maybe the internet is also chipping away at our intelligence as we rely on it as a storage for our intelligence.

Intellection requires knowledge and input, it requires raw materials in the form of information, which the internet abundantly provides. But it also requires immersion and rumination, which the internet distracts us from.

Failing sensitivity to the real world

I will not bore you with how my eyesight is getting worse or how my back is hurting from sitting and staring at screens all day.

What’s more unsettling is that I don’t bother to really look at the real world anymore. It’s not even that exciting. It’s just the real world.

It’s not interesting enough, productive enough, sociable enough, fast enough, personalized enough, and [insert app benefit] enough.

Just being in the real world is not even practical anymore because everybody is in the digital world. And I am just not fitting in if I opted out. Luckily, the portability of the digital world, made available by smartphones, conveniently fills my need to be digitally stimulated at all times.

Even when I’m crossing the street, I cannot deal with how dull the zebra crossing is and prefer to read about Chinas latest 5G network rollout or catch up via text with a good friend from another continent, at the risk of my own safety.

 

real world vs pokemon go

 

I would love to be more mindful. All the blog posts and videos tell me how meditation and being present will change my life and what apps I can download to achieve it.

But I can’t seem to meditate, work out, or meet up with a friend without my phone around me. Because I need the time, I need Google maps, I need that app, and I need that messenger. Ironically, I am connected and distracted from my ‘mindfulness’ activities.

‘This is on me, I let myself. I lack self-control and I should do better. Because I have the choice to put down the phone and unplug anytime.’

This self-blame replays on a daily basis. I hate myself while I fight the urge to use the services and products from these digital companies that understand me so well. They want me to be happy, amused, efficient, connected, well-informed and most importantly, to have higher aspirations and greater desires. They tell me every day with targeted advertising and through my friends’ amazing life experiences through Facebook Instagram or whatever trending social media app there is.

Hitting a balance

The internet is of course not innately evil, its success is not even attributed to any one person or group of people that could have the intention to be evil.

To say it is out to get us and we must escape from its influence by going against it or refusing to use it sounds naive and unreasonable, especially for those who have already involved it in their lives so intimately. But we for sure can’t let it take over our lives without being aware of the consequences.

It is going to be a long hard battle against the temptation of digital perfection, vanity, and instant gratification.

But that’s the real world we are living in now.

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