Reports of a Baleful Internet Are Greatly Exaggerated

Reports of a Baleful Internet Are Greatly Exaggerated

It’s now fashionable, when something has you mildly obsessed, to say that it is “living rent-free in your head.” Well, in my case, that something is an earworm—Bo Burnham’s catchy, creepy, poignantly acidic song “Welcome to the Internet.”

I can’t be alone. The song, part of Burnham’s new hour-plus Netflix special, Inside, has been consumed on YouTube and Spotify more than 54 million times. The Internet’s near-utopian promise of speedily disseminating knowledge has, for Burnham, revealed itself to be a cartoonishly bad deal. We’re not enlightened as a result of this; we’re addicted, distracted, and motivated, much of the time, by the wrong things. We’re suckers in a pitilessly profiteering world. In Burnham’s song, during which he dons the persona of a sort of psychopathic P.T. Barnum beckoning you from behind a keyboard, the delightful and useful stuff you can find online are juxtaposed with the traumatic and malicious.

The earworm-y part captures the ethos of the Internet:

Could I interest you in everything
All of the time?
A little bit of everything
All of the time
Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime
Anything and everything
All of the time

To get this out of my system, I thought I’d talk about the song—particularly its portrayal of the Internet as something pervasive and enticing that messes with our cognition—with a scientist. Specifically, I asked Lorenzo Cecutti if he would watch and react to Inside’s centerpiece track. He’d just published a conveniently germane article in Nature Human Behavior, the title of which aroused my curiosity: “Technology may change cognition without necessarily harming it.”

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