Is the Internet Changing our Brains?

I have been involved in a debate about whether the internet has changed marketing. It began in an exchange between myself and Paul Feldwick in Market Leader, the UK Marketing Society’s journal, and then moved on-line. There have been, as we hoped, some great contributions, including one from Elen Lewis who referenced an article in The Guardian that features several very eminent scientists (and a novelist) debating whether and how the internet has changed our very brains. I was interested in this since a big part of my argument that marketing has fundamentally changed as a result of the internet is based on the fact that society and people have changed. To be able to show that our brains have changed is therefore a killer point.

The article is worth reading in its entirety and being given some quiet consideration rather than surfing this short post to get the gist – you will realize the relevance/irony of this recommendation if you do. However, if, as a child of the internet, it is gist you want then here it is. Yes the internet is changing our brains. Some argue that it is for the worse, some argue it is just different with pro’s and cons, others argue it is our choice whether or not we allow it to change our brains (reading more books would help us retain our intellectual reasoning apparently).

For me the most interesting comment in the Guardian piece comes from Ed Bullmore, Cambridge Professor of Psychiatry no less. He argues that the internet resembles a human brain and how it works and therefore we can learn a lot about how we think by studying it. He calls the internet “a prosthesis of our collective memory” that’s an artificial brain to you and me. I know extrapolation is a dangerous thing but it has struck me before that if, at some point in the near future (near being imminent in evolutionary terms) everything that has ever been written and conceived, everyone one of us, every artifact and idea is digitally coded and available on the internet, and if every person on the planet is uploading their thoughts and conversations in real time, and if there are search engines and social networks able to allow each and everyone of us to access and connect all of these things again in real time, that is in effect one global brain is it not? This sounds a bit far fetched I agree. So do the views of Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Far from being shame-faced that community information has leaked out he believes that everything should be transparent and publically available. He thinks – this is really crazy – that the world would be a better place, we would all behave better, if there were no secrets, if we were all honest with each other. Actually there must be a flaw in this argument since I have only one brain and I’m not honest with myself.

Anyway, the fact is that the big brains agree the internet is changing our brains and how they function as well as how we interact in our global cyber society. I think that means marketing must be changed fundamentally since at its heart it is about influencing how people think, behave and choose, individually and collectively, to the commercial benefit of a business. In fact I’d say that was game, set and match Paul! I’d now like to move on to a debate about the cult of celebrity and its role in our slide into destructive global decadence (aka Paris Hilton will be the death of all of us).

Any takers?

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