339 – Internet’s silent and hidden effects

Posted on August 25, 2015 by


Conviction without experience makes for harshness

Flannery O’CONNOR

The internet is an enabler. Arguably, the internet has been the most transforming event in the last thousand years – akin, in its impact, to writing, or the domestication of the horse.

The horse enabled large-scale herding and nomadism. It was a new and great way of life on the Eurasian prairies. Going beyond the horse’s original use for herding, the horse enabled long-distance war, replacing local affrays as the major source of inter-group violence. Warfare was the horse’s silent and hidden effects. By the time humans realized this, it was too late.

At the moment, we foreground the internet’s uses. Like children, we enthuse about its possibilities. We should also explore internet’s silent and hidden – backgrounded – effects. Their effects are unintended – yet dramatic (or so they seem to me). I call these silent and hidden effects the internet’s “original sin.” Contrary to the religious belief about original sin, the internet’s flaws are not willful or malefic.

The internet originally was a closed system

The internet arose in a well-defined military or scientific context. We spread its use to other fields. In so doing, the boundary conditions or the context for its original use changed.

At the outset, the internet was a closed system. Whether it was a dispersed communication system for the military, or a distributed information system within CERN, access to the net was restricted to a select group. Access was by accreditation only. The internet as we know it, however, is an open system. It allows everyone to communicate anything to everyone else. This capacity creates i. a. two inter-connected problems:

  • Lack of reliable user identification

The closed system could rely on self-identification, backed by accreditation. The roster of participants was vetted and the individuals known. The accreditation system ensured a secure level of trust (i.e. it was meant to keep spies out). Identity was known, or easily verifiable.

In an open system, there is no accreditation. Self-identification replaces it, for we want everyone to participate. Participants may hide behind nicknames, or give false identities, assume different personae. Anonymity is the outcome.

Hiding behind anonymity, the actor can ignore the reaction of the addressee of his words. He can be as harsh as he wishes, for he does not experience the social consequences of his words. Psychologists tell us that under conditions of anonymity individuals (or groups) tend to become extreme.[1]

A social system stands and falls on the trust among its members, for it allows previsibility.[2] With the internet, we know everyone and trust nobody (unless we insert a private system of accreditation). Extremism too weakens social trust, particularly if it leads to ostracism.[3] The internet has the capacity to weaken or even subvert social trust.

  • Lack of content verification

In a closed system, information circulates on a “need to know” basis, i.e. it is intended to be useful. Both the originator and recipient verify it at once for usefulness and discard rumor. A corollary of anonymity and wholesale openness is inadequate content verification. We can’t check it all; we can’t use it all. We drown in unverified information.

Psychologically,[4] we tend to replace “need to know” by “need to shock.” When news goes viral on the internet, its driver is often the “shock value” rather than content. Emotional shocks tend to destabilize social groups.

I would conjecture that there is a tendency for the internet to destabilize a social system. The mass of participants and information that moves freely on the internet tends to overtax the experience filter with which we treated knowledge so far. Relationships become harsh as they become fleeting.

The internet and mentalizing

The internet also uses a specific medium of communication – the screen. It relies on sight (words and images) and sound. The internet excludes three senses, and uses the other two in a rudimentary manner. It privileges the explicit and rational over the implicit. Our brain is far more attuned to the latter than the former. The result is a dramatic loss of experience.

Conventionally, we acknowledge five senses. In fact, we have six.  We are just beginning to grasp the function of our sixth sense: mentalizing[5] – our ability to read other people’s mind and intentions.

A sense is an interface to the outside world we cannot switch off. We can’t stop smelling, sensing with our skin, or seeing. In the same way, we cannot stop reading people’s minds – ever so roughly – and adjusting to the infinite silent signals we convey each other. It takes a lot of absentmindedness to bump into a person in the street. Automatically, we’ll try to avoid the other. The car traffic flows because, in addition to following traffic rules, we all read each other’s’ intentions and correct our trajectory accordingly.

The signals we exchange with one another and the context are infinite, and insignificant in themselves, but effective in making day to day social relations work[6] (we all have different abilities in this respect, but unlike sight, we can’t measure its quality). As a social group, we can live together because of our ability to mentalize. Critical is the immediate experience of the other, the rapid exchange of signals followed by the implicit setting of evolving reciprocal rules.

Mentalizing integrates the input of our five senses. The internet interposes the screen between people. The price we pay for communicating with anyone on the planet is a severe sensorial drop in the experience of interchange. The internet replaces the complex face to face experience with a symbolic text and/or a visual ersatz.

As we commodified products, we replaced quantity for quality. As we commodify social relations through the internet, we narrow the vast flow of sensory perception to a trickle. The drift of movies from actors to animations is telling: animations replace the real feeling on a face of the actor by the symbolic expression on the toon’s mug. Viewers do not experience a new emotion; they just recall one they already know. It is sensory and mentalizing anorexia. Without social experience some will become petulant (and jealous) godlets; many will become docile executants.

For us to use our senses, we need to experience them. The same, even more so, applies to mentalizing. Users of the internet may have new skills, but they are losing some if not most of their mentalizing abilities: the term “geek” captures this observation. It is akin to replacing a mind map by a GPS. We may mostly get to our intended destination – but the system is not resilient to error, or the unexpected roadworks.

I shall not waste anyone’s time by passing judgment on the internet. We urgently need to study both its overt and covert effects, lest we are swept away by the tsunami force of this enabler. Beyond its obvious advantages, the internet’s impacts may affect resilience and sustainability of society, and its social diversity.

The issues are complex. One thing is clear to me from the outset. Targets and instruments must be matched. The complexity of the silent and hidden effects we contemplate and recognize demands a corresponding complexity in institutions we create to harness its silent and hidden effects. Coral reefs are an analogy from nature. Simplistic solutions are of no interest – but to special interests.


[1]               See: Cass A. SUNSTEIN (2011): Going to extremes. How like minds unite and divide. Oxford University Press, Oxford. Anonymity is a “group of one.”

[2]           The market system, which is not a social system but a system of exchange, is based on the principle of caveat emptor. The difference is fundamental.

[3]           Ostracism is rampant on the net. I’ll blog about it soon.

[4]           Our psychological make-up is such that we experience changes rather than levels. In addition, we dread negative changes twice as much as we appreciate positive ones. This is set in the “value function.” See E.g. Richard H. THALER (2015): Misbehaving. The making of behavioral economics. Allen Lane, London, pg. 30ff. This set-up is probably genetically based, as we encounter the same laws in all kinds of animals (see. Giorgio VALLORTIGARA – Nicla PANCIERA (2014): Cervelli che contano. Adelphi, Milano).

[5]           The literature here is vast, but “unsettled.” There is no canonic terminology for this sense. We do not know how this process works, except to suspect that it is a distributed function of our brain as a whole.

[6]           As we know from dogs – masters in reading our moods and adapting to them – mentalizing is not limited to humans. It is just highly developed with us. The more we study life, the more we see how animals and plants signal to each other, and interact within the group, but also across groups, species or genera. The term “gaia,” which Lovelock developed, resumes poorly this phenomenon.

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