Google Owns 28% of Your Brain
We’re in the middle of an Attention War – where big tech battle it out to win over our eyeballs. Our attention spans are considered a precious—and scarce—commodity. So what is the price of your attention? In this mini-series, we'll explore the psychology, design and impact of tech and social media on both ourselves and society.
Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I don’t hear a traditional chime – rather, my Amazon
Echo plays motivational music to encourage me to actually get out of bed.
Then it plays a video news briefing, suggests what I should wear based on the weather and
then hands it over to my Google Assistant.
Hey Google, what’s on my calendar today?
“You have a meeting with Bahar at 11am”
I venture out of the familiar terrains of my home guided by Google maps.
I follow its recommendations as to where I should get coffee as I use its suggestions
for how I should respond to my emails.
We now live in a digital universe where different pieces of technology compete for our attention
and some others take care of tasks I used to use my brain for.
Some say this means our brains can work more efficiently, while others say we’re just
becoming distracted and lazy.
The reality is, now algorithms can make endless daily decisions for me, based on how I and
others have acted before.
So, what does it mean to be human if a bunch of algorithms guide me through my day?
And if companies are owning my decisions, can they then own my brain?
We delegate a lot of our basic mental skills to gadgets.
Here’s one way to look at it:
Our internal navigation system is housed in the hippocampus, which has a volume of 6 cubic
centimetres, roughly—as compared to 600 cubic centimeters of the cortex.
So let’s take a bit of the hippocampus and hand it over to Google Maps.
Decision making processes happen in the Prefrontal cortex, with a volume of about 150 cubic centimetres.
Let’s say a portion of those decisions are taken care of by a Google assistant
Your working memory, which you use for holding things like telephone numbers and contact
info are now readily accessible in Gmail.
And your short-term memory is stored on Google Calendar and Keep.
Long term memory for facts is pretty much distributed all over the web and accessible
through Search I’m gonna say 28% of your brain actually
runs on Google servers.
Give or take.
This sounds like a radical idea but in fact philosophers introduced it before any of these
personalised and daily technologies were invented--Coincidentally the same year as Google launched.
What do you think you do your thinking with?
Maybe you think you do your thinking with your brain.
I suggest to you that a whole lot of your thinking these days actually goes on in your
tools, your smartphones, the Internet and so on.
Those are actually doing your navigating, your reasoning, your planning, your remembering
This idea is called “the extended mind thesis.”
The extended mind thesis is the idea that the tools that we use become parts of our
So when I used my iPhone for navigating or for remembering phone numbers or for looking
something up, it's not just a tool, it's actually part of my mind, like a part of my brain.
So, no matter what tool you use for say, navigation-- a paper map, your smartphone’s app, or a
voice assistant -- it becomes a part of your mind.
But what does it mean for my good old brain when some of these tools guide my thoughts
So, does this mean you give up thinking on your own and start to take in AI recommendations
as your own thought?
We actually never totally think on our own right.
We're all influenced by things we see.
So what ai is doing is changing the game around you.
Like what are you seeing?
How would you be affected?
What's the best way to influence you?
So you were still thinking on your own, but you're seeing a bunch of different things.
So what AI does is to be able to manipulate your environment, your information environment,
and as it gets embedded into everything is it gets embedded into our cars.
Our kitchens are things.
It's going to change a lot of things too.
It is nudging you, right?
It's not hitting you over the head.
We want to put up with it.
It's not necessarily making decisions for you either, but it's getting in your head.
Would you like this?
Maybe like more of this.
Or um, if you're in your car, it might be like, Huh, this is the kind of place this
person goes to and give the coupons.
All of a sudden you're more incentivised so you can look at it as this architecture that
creates a maze for you and that you make your decisions.
And with artificial intelligence, the trick is that maze isn't visible or you don't see
all the thinking that's going behind the screen.
That results in you seeing exactly what you're seeing.
And as these technologies become integrated into the everyday devices, you're not going
to see exactly what they're doing either, but they'll be there doing that kind of thinking.
And they're not thinking with us most of the assignment, which is the problem.
Otherwise I think they're really great uses for it.
But the way they're employed right now is a couple of corporations that have a very
different agenda than what I want to do with my life.
So that's the problem.
They're thinking about me on behalf of someone else.
So, if these algorithms continue to suggest these subtle changes to our behaviour…
Does this change our psychology?
So...is this new technology changing our brains?
I’m sure you’ve heard this question a million times.
-- it’s always been raised during any technological revolution.
When it comes to this question people broadly fall into two camps: some say yes, tech changes
us -- we take on what we do and consume.
It’s sort of like the intellectual version of you are what you eat.
The other camp says this is just panic.
The effects of what we do in one domain are limited to that domain.
That is, if you give short bits of attention to Twitter, that doesn’t diminish your basic
attention span elsewhere.
But even if tech doesn’t change the building blocks of how our brains process and compute,
it can push the brain into various modes of operation.
After being in those modes for too long, it may be difficult to break out.
You might even forget how to.
So the more you reinforce the habit of watching Netflix and YouTube, the harder it becomes
to drop that and read a book.
One of these problematic habits of thinking has been called “distraction sickness.”
Many have observed how we’ve become unable to read anything longer than three paragraphs.
Data backs this up.
One survey showed the percentage of American adults who read literature fell to at least
a three-decade low in 2015.
A possible explanation, researchers said, is that there are more platforms competing
for our attention than ever before.
Not being able to sink into a novel points to a broader problem: inability to sustain
attention on a task.
This could cost us our intelligence:
In fact, as pioneering psychologist William James has said, one of the strongest factors
setting geniuses apart from other people is the act of paying attention.
What’s more, many brilliant and creative ideas are born only when we are disengaged
from the external world--Something else that technology has made nearly impossible to do.
One of the really interesting challenges we've faced over the last 10 years is that we have
devices in our hands and in our lives that demand constant attention and that promise
rewards for that.
One of the problems with that is that we've stopped having time to be bored.
You might ask but who wants to be bored?
Of course, boredom is not pleasant.
But new research is finding what philosophers and psychologists have been suspecting all
along: that boredom seems to be an essential state for the human brain.
Despite what you might expect, an idle brain is actually highly active.
The great thing about boredom is that in fact, it's one of the moments when your brain reconfigures
itself and it creates unexpected connections.
It has room for creativity and thinking and it turns out that's actually really important
for our mental health as well as our ability to think up new things.
it’s hard to be bored anywhere when we have our devices with us at all times.
It might feel that we are being productive.
But we might be missing out on all the different, better ways our brains could work when left
I think there's something about how we think about time now that makes it hard to carve
out spaces for being disconnected, but all of the science and the social science and
psychology demands that we find ways of doing it
Technology can help us go beyond the limits of the human brain — we augment our limited
memory with the virtually unlimited capacity of hard drives; we substitute our internal
pathfinder with a global positioning system; and find the best personalised options using
the power of AI.
In many ways, technology makes us more rather than less.
Does this change your brain?
Well, anything can change the brain – whether that be using technology or taking up knitting.
The real question of technology is if it changes your behaviour over time and changes you as
If it changes what you pay attention to and how you navigate life and experience it.
And whether those changes are in line with what you want.
So you may want to become smarter, kinder, more creative, more productive.
Whatever it is, when thinking about developing good habits and setting life goals, you might
have to think beyond just ourselves and scrutinise your technology as well.
Because you are more than your brain.
You are your brain, plus Google, plus algorithms.
And you now share your consciousness
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