Did you know that last year, the average person spent 456 minutes per day consuming media? That’s made up of almost equal parts television and internet, but television use is declining, while internet use is growing. Television viewers report that they are often doing something else at the same time, whereas internet use tends to be more focused and is more likely to be information-dense. This is changing the way we experience the world, the way we relate to each other, and the way we think.
Traditional news reporting hasn’t gone away because of the internet, but it has changed in form. It’s now easy to access the top bulletins at any time of day and prioritize them according to personal preferences, whether you want to know what the president is up to, find out the latest information about your favorite football team, or just check out the latest lottery news and stories. The news appears online much more quickly after events have happened than they ever did before, but the flip side of this is that hasty reporting can lead to errors, so it’s a good idea to keep following a story to be sure of the facts. There is also the now notorious phenomenon of fake news – sometimes, if a story looks too bizarre to be true, that’s because it isn’t true.
Access to information means access to education, and this is having a revolutionary effect on society. Though unstructured learning is prone to errors, there are lots of free courses available from institutions such as edX – everything from introductory biology to university-level statistics. This means that people who never dreamed of being able to afford college can now work hard and gain real expertise in whichever subjects most appeal to them. It’s particularly important in countries where very few people ever succeed in accessing further education, because there it’s enlightening whole communities and giving people routes out of poverty.
The hive mind
What about when you want to know just one little thing and you can’t find it anywhere? It might be the rest of the lyrics to a song that’s annoying you, or it might be how to fix a leak in a pipe that is dripping through your bedroom ceiling. This is where crowdsourced information comes in useful. The internet means that you’re only ever a few connections away from somebody with real expertise. You can ask your question on your favorite social media platforms or in a more specialized space. As long as you’re careful to root out the silly responses, you can usually learn what you need pretty fast.
Things that are better not to know
Are there some things that are better not to know? The internet has certainly demonstrated that there are some pictures that you should not look at, no matter how curious you might be, because you will never be able to unsee them. More worryingly, it can provide all-too-easy access to information on how to make weapons or drugs and engage in risky home experiments. If you’re tempted, you should be cautious – a lot of this information is inaccurate, and you could hurt yourself if you try to use it, or find that you’ve been tracked down by the authorities.
How can you tell whether the information that you find online is accurate or not? This is easier in some contexts than others, but it’s really worth taking the time to develop effective research skills, learning which sources are most reliable and how to cross-reference them. Among other things, this is an important part of cyber security, helping you to avoid downloading malicious software or falling for scams. Good research skills will enrich your experience of the internet and enable you to do a lot more with the information that comes your way.
Consuming so much information on a daily basis is changing the way we think. Human brains have two attention systems – one for taking in information rapidly and another for processing information slowly. Using the internet a lot brings the former to the fore and can make it harder to pay attention over long periods, such as when you’re listening to a speech or reading a book – but it does make you better at effectively processing information quickly. To ensure that you retain your capacity for both, take time away from your computer to do things that require you to slow down your thinking.
The internet is a wonderful tool and gives us opportunities that we’ve never had before, but like all tools, it’s more effective if you learn how to use it. When you take control of the way that you’re receiving information, you’ll gain a lot more.