Let’s do a thought experiment. We’ll go back in time and find someone from 1990. Let’s pull them aside and tell them everything about the internet in the modern day - about instant messages, email, blogs, Amazon, Wikipedia. About how everyone carries a smartphone in their pocket. About how everyone can talk to anyone and look up anything. Let’s then ask them how they’d expect such a technology to affect society. What would they predict?
They might predict an explosion of new things. They might say that giving everyone instant access to information would increase general knowledge tenfold. That the ability to communicate with anyone, instantly, would work wonders for efficiency. They might think being networked to all other public entities in existence would, in theory, multiply new ideas and usher in a new age of peace and understanding. And they might predict that the result of all of this would be an amazing surplus of new businesses and technologies, and that productivity and progress would grow at an even more exponential rate - not just in computing, but in all fields. That’s what optimistic internet pioneers like Tim Berners-Lee envisioned.
But that wasn’t exactly how things turned out. That’s not to say the internet wasn’t helpful - the internet has resulted in very real improvements in quality of life. Being able to instantly book a car or hotel is great. Twitter, for all its flaws, can be a magical thing. Access to any public knowledge, anywhere, is a marvel. But while the internet has resulted in many improvements, it didn’t necessarily cause an explosion of progress in the material world.
For example, the internet should have made it easier to start a business. But the number of new startups was declining before the internet and is still declining after. In aggregate measures, GDP growth and productivity growth has remained about the same as in the pre-internet days - in aggregate measures, progress may not have gone super-exponential because of the internet.1
This might not be a completely fair observation. The internet could be what’s responsible for any progress at all. Perhaps if not for the internet, the number of startups would’ve decreased even more and GDP growth and labor productivity would have been stagnant. The internet could have just been the latest invention responsible for progress, just as the car, electrification, and computers were responsible for progress in decades past. Scott Alexander explains a related idea.
That being said, it doesn’t feel like a fully satisfying answer. Surely something as transformative as the internet and smartphones - the ability to literally talk to anyone and learn anything - would have dramatically increased the number of new ideas and productive businesses. And quantitatively, why is it that GDP growth has to be locked in at around 2.5%, and productivity has to be locked in at around 3%?
I argue that the internet can still do what it was envisioned to, and it will in the long run.2 But I believe that the current manifestation of how we use the internet - as manifested through smartphones, social media, and aggregators - are not perfect, and need to be improved to move the internet towards its idealized potential.
Let me be clear: the internet has many, many positive effects. But I think in its current design lends itself to some side effects - side effects that make it much more difficult to use it meaningfully. While it’s possible to avoid them, it’s really, really hard for the average user at the bottom, which leads to the unrealized potential at the top.
The side effects I’ll discuss are particularly relevant to creators: the people that deal most with thinking about new ideas and building new things. The most obvious audiences are people that rely on the internet on a heavy basis - programmers and creative artists come to mind - but the effects generally extend to everyone that uses the internet.
Meaningful creation is affected by several elements. These are (among others):
Downtime: The time to wander, reflect, and come up with new ideas.
Focus: The ability to concentrate for long periods on a single idea or task.
Motivation: The desire to put work into new but uncertain endeavours without concern for opportunity cost.
Community: An environment that facilitates encountering a novel set of viewpoints and ideas, and propagates high-quality, thoughtful ideas while suppressing low-quality ones.
I make the case that the internet has had a net negative effect on all of these, and that counteracting this essential to move the internet towards the enabling tool it was meant to be.
Taking breaks from mental tasks helps creativity. That’s because coming up with new ideas takes downtime - time away from commitments and distractions to let thoughts wander. Time away from stimulus lets us subconsciously reflect on new ideas, analyze the past, and think about the future. It’s why some of our most interesting ideas are in the shower, or right before falling asleep.
Downtime is so helpful that many creative people structure their routines around maximizing it. Benjamin Franklin loved to keep his days simple to allow him to better focus on creative work, and Charles Darwin also liked to avoid commitments in his daily routine. Paul Graham indirectly argues for a similar process when it comes to startup ideas.
Unfortunately, internet-related products have made this sort of downtime less frequent. They’ve done so by subtly eating up bits of time that would have normally led to boredom - bits of time in which we’d usually be forced to have our mind wander.
Many of us pull out our phones to check Facebook when we go to the toilet, or bring up a podcast when going for a long walk. Waiting in line at a restaurant or on a subway on the commute to work would historically be time to think, but it has now become occupied time. Even if we consciously try to set aside free time, we often can’t - email and Slack keep us connected to our work after we go home.
The result is many people can’t remember the last time they were bored. As a kid, I remember the feeling of being truly bored - but that rarely happens now, because there’s always something new I can give my attention to.
This isn’t all bad. Idle time is often unproductive. But these little bits of boredom - 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there - might be helpful for new ideas and novel beliefs. How many of your most interesting thoughts have you had in the shower, or doing some menial task? Missing out on them might mean less room for quality thinking.
Free time lets us think understand the past, learn from it, and envision what we want the future to be. Unfortunately, time-sensitive news and social media keeps us perpetually in a never-ending now, caught up with what’s going on in the present moment. Constantly pelted by distractions - many of which are of things that don’t directly affect our lives - it’s harder to find this downtime. It’s harder to find the boredom that enables the thoughts we normally wouldn’t have, or the actions we wouldn’t normally take. That might mean less interesting art, fewer new businesses or less frequent high-quality ideas.
Anything difficult requires focus. In particular, the high value, difficult to replicate work - what’s known as “deep work” needs distraction-free, high-concentration time. This contrasts with “shallower work”: things like checking email, responding to notifications, or going on Twitter.
Almost all of us recognize on some level that the internet makes it harder to do deep work. Constant Slack notifications aren’t good for uninterrupted focus. Responding to barrages of email feels productive, but takes away from doing more concentrated work. And everyone has felt the urge to check Facebook or go on YouTube.
But my argument isn’t just that the internet is distracting. That’s obvious, and everyone uses the internet to procrastinate. And distractions have existed for a long time: before the internet, it was TV.
Rather, the design of the internet is particularly conducive towards making it difficult to do deep work, even outside of working time. Specifically, being able to hear from anyone, and instantly browse to something interesting, is a relatively new phenomenon - and it may adversely affect our ability to focus. The little hits of dopamine that come from constantly scrolling through feeds or clicking links might be having a serious effect on shortening our attention spans or ability to dwell deeply on topics. The internet is changing the way we think.
Anecdotally, I feel that it’s eroded my attention abilities. Even as I write this paragraph, I have to fight the urge to check my phone, go on YouTube, walk around, find something - anything - to give me something new and interesting to do. Not only does it make it harder to write this when I’m on the computer, but that urge stays even after I get off my computer: it’s present when reading a long book, watching a movie, or even a focused conversation.
It wasn’t always like this. It coincided with when I started using the internet heavily and got a smartphone. This could be anecdotal on my part, but everyone I’ve talked to, as well as other internet users, have noticed it too.
These effects may be minor - they’re nowhere near life threatening - but I wonder what the cumulative effect is when everyone suffers from them. We may be seeing them already: the breakneck, rapidly increasing news cycle seems to be a direct response to our decreasing public attention spans. I worry about the effect this has on creators - people who must focus in order to make long-term things that improve the future.
Creating new things is difficult and risky. It often requires extended periods of time of putting one’s head down, ignoring the outside world, and pushing forward on something that may not pan out. Contributing meaningfully to an established scientific field requires investing decades of education and practice, often into something obscure. Becoming an impactful artist or entrepreneur can involve years of hard work on something no one respects before any payout. Most startups begin as ideas that aren’t considered prestigious or popular at the time.
Putting your head down for ten years to go pursue something obscure would be a tough decision at any time. But it may be harder to make that choice now, because it’s harder to ignore the outside world.
The increased connectedness of the internet means we’re more aware of all the other things we could be doing instead. Social media gives us the highlight reels of all of our friends, without mentioning the accompanying downsides. That increased fear of missing out means we more often feel more tangibly bad when we see someone doing something that we had to give up. Every Instagram post, every LinkedIn update, and post from your Facebook friend’s highlight reel becomes another opportunity missed out on. That might make it more difficult to stay motivated on your obscure, risky little project. How many of the geniuses of the past would have been dissuaded during hard times if they’d been constantly seeing their friends moving up while they were appearing to stagnate?
The internet exaggerates mimetic desire. We’re better connected to our friends, which means we see more of what they do - we see them go to the same jobs, pursue the same hobbies, the same things that are socially valid and acceptable.3 That may mean less taking unconventional, uncertain paths - the ones most likely to push the boundary of what’s currently conventional.
Until twenty years ago, who we met was highly dependent on geography. We were generally limited to communicating with our neighbors within our city streets. And since we maybe only moved a couple times in a lifetime, that meant a much narrower band of who we might meet.
The internet has removed that barrier by letting us connect to anyone, anywhere. On one side of the coin, that means a much greater diversity of viewpoints and ideas to be exposed to. That’s a great thing, and plays a big part in pushing social progress forward - the quick acceleration of gay rights and the Arab Spring may not have been possible without the internet.
But the diversity of ideas, the sheer amount of content that came from reaching everyone, quickly became too much. With so much content, so many stories, ideas, posts, people, viewpoints of varying quality, it became necessary to filter some of it out. Internet products have responded with curation - filtering what we see through recommendation algorithms and newsfeeds. While perhaps initially well-meaning, it’s also led to things like echo chambers and polarizing recommendation systems, which has mitigated a lot of what made connectedness so great in the first place. It’s harder, not easier, to be exposed to novel ideas and differing viewpoints, unless they’re explicitly sought out. Now, instead of stumbling across new ideas outside of our local community, the internet lets us jump past the diversity of our local community and directly connect with people already like us.
The best ideas come from pockets of people of differing viewpoints mixing together, but many of the largest platforms on the internet - social media, news - make it more difficult to reach this model. Even though it’s probably better to spend a lot of time with ten interesting and differing people than a little bit of time with a thousand similar ones, current platforms move us towards the latter. It means our conversations happen impersonally, in larger public spaces - like Facebook walls - with increased social judgement that doesn’t allow for pockets of ideas.
The increased social judgement may also mean less comfort in individuality. In the past, if you went off and did something crazy for five years, no one would know. But now, your life updates are often public. The effect of this social proof, coupled with curation - Facebook likes, Instagram stories, news that emphasizes a specific narrative - may mean a more collective mindset, which doesn’t lend itself as well to novel things.
For every statement I made above, there’s a valid argument that can be made claiming exactly the opposite. You could argue that instead of eroding the ability to focus, the internet has given us an abundance of long-form content and productivity tools to help with just that. Instead of pulling people away from unconventional paths and ideas, it’s made it easier for people to pursue them by exposing them to people outside of their local circle.
This is true. It’s possible for both arguments - for both the positive and negative effects - to be true. That’s because the internet’s effects don’t apply to everyone equally. For people that have stumbled into using it correctly - who know how to avoid being pulled into attention-grabbing black holes, social validation, and Twitter wars - the internet has probably been a dramatic boost to new ideas, productivity, and general well-being. But I’d wager that many, maybe even the majority, of internet users haven’t had that experience, because the current manifestations of internet products - smartphones, frequent notifications, news feeds, recommendation engines, dark patterns - are not by default oriented towards those sort of usage patterns. To avoid the negative side effects of the internet, the internet must be used in a very thoughtful and deliberate way. That’s hard.
You could also make the argument that these sorts of negative side effects aren’t unique to the internet. After all, TV has the same problems: it distracts us, makes it harder to focus, and only showcases a mainstream set of ideas and community.
This is also true, though I would argue two things. Firstly, the internet’s deficiencies are particularly impactful because of their accessibility. Unlike our TVs, each of us has a smartphone in our pocket which we can access at any time, which makes these effects much more pervasive. And secondly, the fundamental design of the technology makes it harder to address these sorts of effects for TV. On the other hand, however, it’s still possible to change the internet to counteract these side effects - which makes it more worth talking about.
Why the design of the internet evolved in a way that causes these side effects is another topic. It’s likely closely tied to the history of how the internet developed - the mix of emerging technology, venture capital funding, and rapid growth and product iteration that meant no time to think about the eventual consequences.
What we can do, however, is speculate on how we could change things. There are almost certainly tweaks we can make to make the internet a better tool for everyone. And this isn’t just good for creators; it’s also probably good for our overall well-being as well.
For example, we could invest in teaching people how to thoughtfully use the internet. Right now, how we use the internet is determined by how we happen to stumble into it - whether that’s through recommended friends on Facebook or advertisements for TikTok. That’s good for quickly growing a user base, but it may not be the best way to lead people to meaningful interactions with the internet - interactions that allow for downtime, focus, and positive community. Maybe we could lead people more explicitly: After all, we don’t let people stumble their way through learning about nutrition or drugs. Why should the internet be different? In elementary school, I remember being taught about the importance of good nutrition and the risks of smoking. Perhaps the classrooms of the future could more explicitly teach healthy internet usage, too. Just as nutrition and smoking were problems of earlier generations that had to be addressed through education, learning to use the internet may be our challenge.
There may be a meaningful startup here: one focused on helping people better use the internet and find the communities important to them. The challenging part seems to be how you would quantify “better”: how do you measure if that service was working well? It obviously wouldn’t be correlated with something like usage time or any other typical internet metric.
We could also tweak internet platforms to deemphasize social validation. Instead of showing off the “highlight reel” results at the of the tunnel, maybe there’s a way to better connect people with others on unconventional paths that can encourage smaller constructive steps - motivating improvement in the very short term, day after day. By doing so, we could build communities that inspire others over doable goals of days or weeks, rather than unbreachable years.
A re-emphasis on shifting towards private, rather than public communities, may also be a good first step. Meaningful conversations seem to exist more often in small pockets - pockets where people feel comfortable saying things that might be questionable or controversial. It seems that existing platforms are realizing this: Facebook believes the future of the platform is oriented around private communities, and Snapchat may have been successful because they realized this first.
Increasing the communication bandwidth of the internet - in other words, making it more like communicating in real life - could also help. Perhaps spaces enabled by VR would let us have more meaningful engagement with other people, such as full conversations. This might be better for communication and ideation than the lower-bandwidth, high-stimulus networks so popular in the past decade.
On the more radical side of things, maybe we could fundamentally redesign how the internet works so that it doesn’t have these effects on our attention and focus. Maybe that could be an abstraction layer that gets rid of hyperlinks: instead of schizophrenically clicking links to jump around, we move around spatially in a virtual environment to explore new sites, in a way more analogous to exploring in the real world. Or perhaps instead of having newsfeeds of interesting but disjointed information, we can build smarter systems that present information in a more long-form, focused way more akin to conversations or documentaries. That might have less of an effect on fragmenting our attention.
These ideas may not work at all. Even if they did, it’d be difficult to quantify their effects. But as creators and users of the internet, we can think about how we can address the side effects of what we’ve built so far. That’s an incredibly exciting opportunity: it’s the opportunity to move the internet towards being the amazing tool of progress that it was envisioned to be.
This is a favorite paradox of people like Peter Thiel and Tyler Cowen - who argue that technological progress isn’t just not speeding up, but it’s actually slowing. Reasons vary - some say that we’ve eaten all the low-hanging technological fruit and productivity gains. Others say that too much emphasis on globalization, to over-regulation of businesses, to systemic exploitation of workers through late-stage capitalism, to fragmentation of interests are responsible. ↩
As Tim Berners-Lee says, “the future [of the web] is still so much bigger than the past.”. ↩
It might be why so many business grads go into consulting or so many software grads work for big tech companies - they see their friends doing it, which makes it prestigious, so more people do it, causing a positive feedback loop. The internet exaggerates these feedback loops. ↩
Thanks to Ehsan Asdar for reading drafts of this.