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The Internet is our Matrix, and it's killing us

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

The Internet is our Matrix, and it's killing us

Stephen H. Provost

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
— Morpheus to Neo in "The Matrix"

The Matrix has you.

Whether you know it or not – and if we stick with the film’s analogy, there’s a good chance you don’t, you’re in the process of becoming dependent upon a form of virtual reality that could just drive you nuts.

So, here’s your red pill.

If you’re reading this, you’re online, which means you’re hooked up to our 21st century approximation of the Matrix, a mechanism that has supplanted our traditional sources of … you name it: shopping, news, entertainment, information. You get the idea.

You’re more likely to find a newspaper – minus the paper – on your computer screen than on your front doorstep these days. You find movie times online now, too, along with the movies themselves. Netflix, anyone? YouTube? Who needs a TV weatherperson when you’ve got weather.com? And who needs a book when you can download the text to your Kindle?

Despite pockets of resistance, the Internet has become so pervasive that it’s starting to look like Standard Oil at the turn of the 20th century. That company became so powerful, and society so dependent upon it, that the Supreme Court ruled it was a monopoly and broke it up into 34 separate companies.

We can’t do that with the Internet, which unlike Standard Oil, isn’t a single company. And it doesn’t work exactly the way a monopoly does. Unlike a traditional monopoly, hasn’t limited our options, it’s broadened them exponentially, providing access to more streams of information and entertainment than ever before.

Growing dependence

I love that about the Internet, and a lot of other people do, too, which is why it’s become so successful.

Yet in doing so, it’s also become nearly indispensable, and there’s the rub. Even as it has broadened the number of options at our fingertips, it’s narrowed our means of accessing them. The more brick-and-mortar stores close, the more we’re reliant on Amazon and its brethren. The more newspapers shift their focus online, the more we have to shift our focus there, too. The more “streaming” video becomes a thing, the more we rely on it for our entertainment. And so it goes, right on down the line.

National security experts long ago started worrying about our growing dependence on the Internet. Back in the days when MySpace was still a thing, they began warning that even warfare would shift from traditional battlefields to online cyber-skirmishes involving black hats, white hats and a whole new form of espionage.

Turns out they were right. Russian interference in our political process is merely the most blatant example of a problem that’s been simmering for a long time involving hackers on the one hand and security experts on the other, each trying to stay one step ahead of the other.

This involves continual – and rapid – change, something human beings aren’t always comfortable with.

Information overload

Yes, change is good, but constant rapid change puts people in a continual state of anxiety, slaves to a fight-or-flight response that feels like it’s always on the verge of kicking in.

Ever wonder why so many people resist moving away from fossil fuels and toward alternative forms of energy? It’s not because they like pollution or want climate change. It’s not even just about jobs or industries, although that’s a part of it. Fundamentally, it’s about security. We develop habits and, no matter how much we strive to embrace innovation, there’s a part of us that resists it for no other reason than “we’ve always done it this way.”

More to the point, we know how to do it this way.

There’s a tendency to dismiss resistance to change as backward or ignorant, but there’s far more to it than that. It’s a natural human defense against the kind of upheaval we’ve experienced as we’ve become more and more dependent upon the Internet – where rapid change is the rule rather than the exception.

We’ve moved out of the information age and into the age of information overload. I’m not just talking about the proliferation of choices the Internet has offered us. Those are, after all, still choices. There might be millions or even billions of websites out there, but we tend to find those we like and stick to them (insulating ourselves in the process from opinions that don’t gibe with our own, but that’s another story).

Not-so-brave new world

Still, we don’t always have a choice to shield ourselves from information overload, or the anxiety it causes.

One simple example: The demand that we continually change (and remember) multiple passwords as a means of shielding ourselves from identity theft, computer viruses, etc. It’s not like the old days, when you taught your child to remember his home phone number, which never changed unless you moved to a different city.

That’s stressful, and it’s just the beginning.

Add to that the stress of staying on top of internet marketing techniques, whether you work for a major company or are in business for yourself. Google, Facebook and so forth are continually tweaking their algorithms, so marketers have no choice but to respond. A generation or two ago, you took out an ad in the newspaper, on radio or TV, then measured the results in terms of how many shoppers turned our and how big a sales boost you got. Simple cause and effect.

Now, you aren’t limited to those three marketing options, which are largely secondary anyway. Online, you have to market your product via Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And Snapchat. And Pinterest. And LinkedIn. And Amazon. And Goodreads. And on and on and on. Each of these platforms has different rules, different systems to learn and different ways of maximizing page views.

(As an author active in promoting my work on all those platforms except for Snapchat, I know what I'm talking about.)

Once you’ve mastered those rules, you’ve got to test them by figuring out where those clicks are coming from, along with the demographics of real and potential customers.

You’ve got to use the proper metadata and keywords. Then, once you’ve got all that in place, you’ll need to measure the performance of text vs. images vs. videos at attracting a user’s attention within a milieu of never-ending options. Are users staying engaged? Are they returning? You’ve got to measure those things, too.

We’re not built that way

Suddenly, you’re light years away from a relying on folks to page through the Sunday paper at their leisure, providing solid customer service when they visit your establishment and hoping they’ll spread the word.

Pretty soon, nearly all your time is being taken up adapting to ever-changing systems, processing information and analyzing the results. Then starting all over, virtually from scratch, when some algorithm-writer changes the rules.

In an atmosphere where marketing is king, queen, prince and pauper, there’s little time left for actually creating the product you’re supposed to be selling in the first place. The process is king, and the product takes second place. Heck, just getting through the process is a challenge – one that often demands a greater degree of multitasking.

Despite what this word might suggest, our brains aren’t built to multitask. If they were, texting and driving would be no big deal.

"If you have a complicated task, it requires all your attention, and if you're trying to spread your attention over multiple tasks, it's not going to work," David Meyer, cognitive scientist at the University of Michigan, said in an article by Joe Robinson titled The Myth of Multitasking.

The fact is, we can’t think straight when we try to process too many things at once. Our memories suffer. Our ability to think creatively – which involves things like daydreaming, brainstorming and joyfully exploring the world around us – is stifled. We're actually 40 percent less productive.

We become stressed-out automatons, more prone to breaking down thanks to hypertension, fatigue and burnout. But we've fashioned a world for ourselves where we seem to have little choice. It's a world of diminishing product value, increasing health problems and rising frustration – a world where style hasn’t merely surpassed substance, it’s supplanted it.

Welcome to the assembly line. Welcome to the future.

The Matrix has us all.

You ought to be setting aside large chunks of time where you just think. Einstein was not multitasking when he was dreaming up the special and general theories of relativity.
— David Meyer, University of Michigan cognitive scientist