The Internet Is Driving Us Mad

By Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA — Sep 21, 2021
Madness is everywhere. This week in New York, a waitress was set upon by a group of Texas tourists for asking for proof of vaccination before they entered a popular tourist restaurant. Beaten. Beaten over a law that is no different in its legal base as requiring verification of age before being served liquor. The Internet is driving us mad. Not just mad in the sense of anger, but mad in the sense of unbalanced. 
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Can we agree that our political views are increasingly polarized? Doesn’t the abandonment of the middle for the “poles” suggest an imbalance? The chart is one, among many, metrics of that divisiveness. (Thank you Vox)

I added the vertical line for 2000 because it was around then that Google appeared, followed by Twitter and Facebook in 2006. The Internet was no longer DIY “bulletin boards” but a growing means of communication. CNN was founded in 1980, but 1996 brought us two copycats of format, Fox News and MSNBC, both eclipsing the original for viewers. I would argue that this marked the time when everything became “breaking news.”

While correlation does not mean causation, today, I want to argue that the media, the 24-hour news cyclists, and the twittering of communication are unbalancing our thinking. 

“The medium is the message.”

The gist of McLuhan’s work was that the medium of our communications, words, pictures, in-person, remote, live, tape-delayed, all of them influence not just the meaning and impact of the communication’s content, but our culture. It took the research and hypothesis of Dr. Leonard Shlain to demonstrate the power of McLuhan’s words. 

A generation ago, coincidentally, in 1998, he wrote The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. His thesis was that the rise in literacy, as marked by the creation of the alphabet, written language, and the printing press, favored linear analytic thinking and actions. The literate introduced the idea that a cause could produce an effect – Newton's gravitational laws; Descartes thought that the application of reason and skepticism; analysis would allow us to investigate the natural world, creating the scientific method. To understand something, it was best done by analyzing the parts. 

Literacy has displaced our pre-literate means of sharing knowledge and beliefs, pictures, and stories, all of which are holistic. Communication is lost when we break down the whole into parts. 

“Shlain argues that literacy reinforced the brain's linear, abstract, predominantly masculine left hemisphere at the expense of the holistic, iconic feminine right one.” 

Painting with the broadest of brushes, analytic thinking, is primarily a left-brain function. For a variety of unknown reasons, this is a slightly greater strength among males. Our visual, narrative thinking resides in our right brain, which is more expressed among females. An unintended consequence of the rise of literacy was the rise in male dominance in our knowledge and commerce; and a subordination of narrative, visual, holistic thinking. Shlain suggests that the alphabet displaced the Goddess, the modern-day incarnation of which would be the concept of Gaia. 

Every advance in literacy was accompanied, as Shlain demonstrates historically, by moments of madness—episodes of misogyny and the persecution and subordination of women. You might think of his argument as critical gender theory. [1]

Has the Internet brought another period of madness to our culture?

What was your emotional response when I used the term critical gender theory? Did you feel a moment of anger, or did you sense a kindred spirit? Words carry not only meaning; they have emotional baggage. For example, these words convey secrecy—controversial, cover-up, insider, off the record, unexpected; and these express fear - backlash, catastrophe, caution, crisis, danger, failure, gullible, hoax, meltdown, stress, stupid, toxic, vulnerable, warning.

Our senses take in far more than we consciously recognize and reduce them to a working summary. The subconscious filtering minimizes the lag time between thought and deed – a valuable skill for a primate on the Savannah. The gist is such a working summary. Today we communicate in gists[BB3] . Instagram or TikTok are the reality behind the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” 

“The most common length of a tweet back when Twitter only allowed 140 characters was 34 characters. Now that the limit is 280 characters, the most common length of a tweet is 33 characters. Historically, only 9% of tweets hit Twitter’s 140-character limit, now it’s 1%.” Techcrunch


Can we really expect a media, social or otherwise, constrained to images and sixty or so words to provide linear, analytic arguments?  It is not that we speak in full sentences; we do not speak in full thoughts. We let the gists and the images deliver our messages. Both carry emotional baggage, and both favor emotional responses.

The rise of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC coincident with the rise of the internet brought us the 24-hour news cycle—nothing more than an endlessly repeated 20-minute newscast of breaking stories. It has to be breaking to get your attention. The internet, in turn, gave rise to the attention-seeking algorithm. Information may want to be free, but it isn’t. We pay for our informational access with all those ads surrounding our information. It seems a fair trade. It is easy enough to ignore the ads until you realize that the delivery of information is optimized for advertising, not knowledge. 

I follow any number of medical and health sites. The FDA decision on boosters will affect my life, but it will not change my life to know this one minute after the decision is made or if repeated to me, as breaking news or separate emails, 20 or 30 more times in the next 24 hours. One source sent me four separate emails, each with a different way to get my attention, all with the same information, all within three or four hours. Repetition drives ad revenue, but it causes my brain to feel an urgency that is just not there. 

The incessant drumbeat of the gists, those emotional pulls, causes a right-brain madness altering my emotional response. If I am fearful because that is the gist’s emotional effect, repetition will make me more fearful. If I am relieved, which is infrequently the case (if it bleeds, it leads), then the repetition may be soothing.

COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain so that we can see how little we really know about airborne respiratory viruses, how inadequate is our understanding of contagion, how best to move forward, and the inadequacy of our leaders and government. It is our Wizard of Oz moment. 


But it also pulls back the curtain on how we communicate with this new medium, the internet. We talk in gists; you might call them memes. We let words and images do the heavy emotional lifting, and it is driving us mad. Shlain was right, the alphabet put linear thinking in the driver’s seat, and we went too far, shutting out the necessary balance from emotion. By contrast, the internet has allowed us, in my opinion, to swing too far to our emotional side, and logic has little sway—the debate over vaccination shows that to be the case. 

We are all going mad because we have lost the balance between the left and right sides of our brain, politics, and our thoughts. Our communication medium plays a significant role in that madness—we call it echo chambers, biased or fake news, special interests. Our technological means of communicating has outstripped our very ancient minds' ability to process information.


[1] You can hear Dr. Schlain more ably present his thesis in this 45-minute YouTube video or read the book; I encourage both. 


Chuck Dinerstein, MD, MBA

Director of Medicine

Dr. Charles Dinerstein, M.D., MBA, FACS is Director of Medicine at the American Council on Science and Health. He has over 25 years of experience as a vascular surgeon.

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