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Claustrophobia in the Collective Superbrain

Living in the now is a thing of the past.

The digital landscape has shifted our perception from that of the individual to that of the collective. Because of this we find ourselves once removed from our own thoughts and impressions. We no longer look to ourselves as primary sources of information about the world around us. Instead we rely on the almighty “super-brain” for answers.

If someone says that the sky is red and their friend doesn’t believe them, they will no longer look up. They will look up the answer from their device and with a snide “told you so” validate themselves. The super-brain doesn’t have to be correct. The sky could be red if the first search result says so.

The super-brain contains information that extends as far as human history, digitally compiled by millions of people over the course of roughly a decade. It holds more information than any other database in on Earth. With the click of a button we are given the answer to whatever question we can conceivably ponder. It is rare, if not impossible, to be unable to find what you are looking for.

This TED Talk with Eli Pariser talks about online filter bubbles, and the way algorithms skew the way we receive information.

Algorithms deliver information by relying on data that has been gathered about an individual’s purchasing habits and past searches. The results are picked based on what the algorithm thinks you are most likely to click (more clicks means more revenue), which presents a massive problem for those who desire to have a well rounded worldview. We are given what we want, and not what we need. We need opposing views in order to grow as individuals. If we are spoon fed our own thoughts, we cannot understand the way others think, and we cannot expect them to understand us.

The super-brain has caused other major shifts in the way we deliver and consume “information.” Writers for digital articles now follow a new style of delivery in order to reach more people and draw them into the article. The most important thing is a headline. A catchy headline seduces readers and causes them to click the link to the rest of the article. The next most important thing is a lead paragraph. Writer and Fordham Professor Paul Levinson suggests that any lead paragraph over 30 words is automatically more likely to go unread than one under the magic 30. And God forbid you have a paragraph like this one that appears as a daunting brick of text. I mean, look at how many words there are!

Farhad Manjoo’s article from Slate, titled “You Won’t Finish This Article” describes the way online reading has transformed our grasp of information:

The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.

As readers, we now look for the quickest, most direct way of consuming information. As writers, we look for the quickest, most direct way of having this information consumed.

The fact that writers are implementing a specific new way of writing for the internet speaks volumes about the way the masses have chosen to consume information. We now look to maximize the quantity, and are not necessarily concerned with maximizing the quality, of our knowledge. We don’t feel the need to think critically about the information, just to have enough of it to seem informed. We are stuck in the super-brain, and it is increasingly harder to get out in order to use our own.

Social media websites encourage headline based consumer culture, intriguing people with sensational blurbs in hopes of getting a greater number of readers. The more readers that click the links, the more views the article gets. Twitter relies on tweets under 140 characters to entice readers. Facebook has a new sidebar with tiny blurbs about what news is trending. With these short headlines, and incomprehensive scraps of detail, we feel we already know the content issues without really getting to know them.

Neil Postman’s article “Informing Ourselves to Death” states, “The tie between information and action has been severed. Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

Another way in which writing has changed significantly is the prevalence of list articles, or “listicles.” People often get lost in the Buzzfeed abyss for hours, aimlessly sifting through “21 Fortune Cookies you Actually Need Right Now”  and “23 Things That Might Just Be Sadder Than Sad Zip-Lining Kanye” Everybody knows about Avril Lavigne’s awkward, arms-length, $400 fan photos, yet hardly anyone can accurately describe the Crimean crisis in firm detail (“uhh, I think, like, Russia’s being a huge di*k, or something”). Even large news outlets like BBC place bold snippets of mild description throughout their longer articles so people can scroll through and get a gist of what is happening. People read

Listicles are a prime example of the collective move towards quick, easy-to-chew, easier-to-digest writing. People want the ice cream, they don’t want the broccoli. Because of this we fail to properly nourish our brains. Michael Plugh’s article “Informing Ourselves to Death?” sheds an interesting light on people’s overindulgence in “junk” information:

In a world with little information shared amongst people, ignorance was a matter of lacking experience or data. In today’s world, ignorance is a matter of trust in technology to do the thinking for us, and the matter of meaning. With little information (order) any small bit means a whole lot. With a lot of information every small bit is equal in most ways and order flips into its reverse…chaos.

Being constantly surrounded by this chaotic whirlwind of information, we are stuck in room full of indistinct chatter, picking up bits and pieces of conversations, and incorporating them into our own. This noisy super-brain leaves us floating in a crowd, gasping for truth and finding it in an insubstantial form. With so much information pressing in around us, we have no room to form an appreciation for articulate understanding. There is no room for our thoughts to grow and deepen. No room for knowing.

The claustrophobia of living within an omnipresent super-brain is immense.

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