The internet is colonising our brains, from the Amazon to Acton

The internet is colonising our brains, from the Amazon to Acton

Nine months ago, a group of men with 20 satellite antennas strapped to their backs trekked deep into the Amazon rainforest, to install the internet. The indigenous Marubo people – who have lived for centuries in near-isolation, in thatched huts along the Itui river – had asked to be connected via Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network, so they could call for help in life-threatening situations and stay in touch with relatives who have moved away. 

You know what happened next, of course. We all do, because the exact same thing has happened to us. “When it arrived, everyone was happy,” one of the Marubo elders told The New York Times. “But now, things have gotten worse.” Many members of the tribe – especially the teenagers – have become so addicted to their phones they lie around in hammocks all day, gossiping on WhatsApp or scrolling through Insta. 

The Marubo elders (ah, how I feel their pain) have scrabbled to restore order by imposing screen-time limits. But they worry about the damage being done to their young. A traditionally modest tribe, who even disapprove of kissing in public, they are now having to deal with boys watching porn and sharing horrible videos in group chats. Parents also worry about their children acting out after playing violent video games, and being targeted by strangers on social media. 

It would be comic, if it wasn’t so melancholy, how relatable all this is. From Acton to Ulaanbaatar, we have sold our souls to the internet in return for convenience and connectedness. Yet what we get back, the world over, is addiction, angst and – perhaps the cruellest swizz of all – disconnection. 

Marubo culture and history have been passed down orally for generations, creating a strong sense of identity. But now everyone is staring at their phones, imbibing the bland culture of American-ish, instead of learning from the people around them. As one of the Marubo leaders mourns: “Everyone is so connected that sometimes they don’t even talk to their own family.” 

Old You

Would we all behave differently if we could see ourselves from the wiser vantage point of old age? Luckily, there may soon be an app for that. Researchers at MIT have devised an AI-powered chatbot that can simulate an old version of the user, and dispense sage advice from the future. 

The AI uses the results of a lengthy personalised questionnaire to generate synthetic “memories” of the life you have not yet lived. Then it digitally enhances your profile picture to make you look old, and wears this face to adopt your elderly persona. You can then quiz it about what will happen to you in the future, creating different outcomes by adjusting the answers in your questionnaire. 

Pat Pataranutaporn, one of the MIT scientists who devised the chatbot, says conversations with your older self can promote “long-term thinking and behaviour change”. You might, for example, finally get round to starting a pension if Old You starts cursing Young You for your profligacy. But Pataranutaporn, who has chatted at length to his future self, says the most profound conversations tend to be about human relationships. The chatbot, for example, reminded him that his parents wouldn’t be around forever, so he should relish his time with them now. 

I wonder what it would say to the teenagers of the Marubo?

#internet #colonising #brains #Amazon #Acton,
#internet #colonising #brains #Amazon #Acton


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