brian_knutson's picture
Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience; Stanford University

Like it or not, I have to admit that the Internet has changed both what and how I think.

Consider the obvious yet still remarkable fact that I spend at least 50% of my waking hours on the Internet, compared to 0% of my time 25 years ago. In terms of what I think, almost all of my information (e.g., news, background checks, product pricing and reviews, reference material, general "reality" testing, etc.) now comes from the web. Although I work at a research institution, my students often look genuinely pained if I ask them to physically go to the library to check a reference, or (god forbid!) dig up something that is not online. In fact, I felt the same pain just recently when I had to traipse to the medical library (for the first time in three years) to locate some untranslated turn-of-the-century psychology by Wilhelm Wundt. Given the ubiquity and availability of Web content, how could one resist its influence? Although this content probably gets watered down as a function of distance from the source, consensual validation might offset the degradation. Plus, the Internet makes it easier to poll the opinions of trusted experts. So overall, the convenience and breadth of information on the Internet probably helps more than hurts me.

In terms of how I think, I fear that the Internet is less helpful. Although I can find information faster, that information is not always the most relevant, and is often tangential. More often than I'd like to admit, I sit down to do something and then get up bleary-eyed hours later, only to realize my task remains undone (or I can't even remember the starting point). The sensation is not unlike walking into a room, stopping, and asking "now, what was I here for?" — except that you've just wandered through a mansion and can't even remember what the entrance looked like.

This frightening "face-sucking" potential of the Web reminds me of conflicts between present and future selves first noted by ancient Greeks and Buddhists, and poignantly elaborated by philosopher Derek Parfit. Counterintuitively, Parfit considers present and future selves as different people. By implication, with respect to the present self, the future self deserves no more special treatment than anyone else.

Thus, if the present self doesn't feel a connection with the future self, then why forego present gratification for someone else's future kicks? Even assuming that the present self does feel connected to the future self, the only way to sacrifice something good now (e.g., reading celebrity gossip) for something better later (e.g., finishing that term paper) is to slow down enough to appreciate that connection, consider the conflict between present and future rewards, weigh the options, and decide in favor of the best overall course of action. The very speed of the Internet and convenience of Web content accelerates information search to a rate that crowds out reflection, which may bias me towards gratifying the salient but fleeting desires of my present self. Small biases, repeated over time, can have large consequences. For instance, those who report feeling less connected to their future self also have less in their bank accounts.

I suspect I am not the sole victim of Internet-induced "present self bias." Indeed, Web-based future self prostheses have begun to emerge, including software that tracks time off task and intervenes (ranging from reminders to blocking access to shutting programs down). Watching my own and others' present versus future self struggles, I worry that the Internet may impose a "survival of the focused," in which individuals gifted with some natural capacity to stay on target or who are hopped up on enough stimulants forge ahead, while the rest of us flail helplessly in some web-based attentional vortex. All of this makes me wonder whether I can trust my selves on the Internet. Or do I need to take more draconian measures — for instance, leave my computer at home, chain myself to a coffeehouse table, and draft longhand? At least in the case of this confessional, the future self's forceful but unsubtle tactics prevailed.