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How has the Internet Changed the Way We Think?

What is “Internet Thinking,” how did it come into being; and how and why is it changing the way we think about disruptive change? A trending buzz-phrase in China, “Internet Thinking” is the phenomenon named for the emergence of Internet economic powerhouses such as Alibaba or Tencent based on their extraordinary short rises to be among the most profitable companies in the world. “Internet Thinking” encapsulates the combination of a technological step-change (i.e. the Internet plus mobile telephony) and an out-of-left-field, disruptive model for satisfying customers. So, while the “Internet Thinking” catch phrase may be blacklisted by Chinese media outlets, preventing a wider public discourse, the next generation of entrepreneurs are quietly devising products and services that will upset the dominant paradigm yet again. Our goal here is review a small slice of industrial history and explores the landscape we see before us today:

“Internet Thinking” features a way to approach things via the Internet. The Internet is a technology, while profound thinking is uniquely human. So, how does technology affect humans? To answer this question, we must go back in time to look at how a few key technical innovations succeeded in revolutionizing the normative behaviors of human existence.

Technology Impacts the Way We Think

In the last 300 years, the world has seen a variety of innovations that have changed the course of history, from the steam engine to the discovery of electricity, inventions may vary in form but are adopted widely because, once seen, step-changes for improving productivity and efficiency cannot be unlearned.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the digital computer was invented. A new world was opened, and a path cleared for the Internet. Before the arrival of the Internet, humans had already created three global networks: transportation, power grid, and telephone.

The Internet is a fourth worldwide network built by humans in the 20th Century. By accelerating the flow of information, the Internet facilitates the connection between humans and machines on an unprecedented scale. Uniquely capable of satisfying individual tastes, the Internet excels in the effective dissemination and presentation of information. Traditional media businesses, such as newspapers and broadcast television, face increasing pressure from the Internet because Internet-delivered information is faster and better targeted than any media type in history. As the Internet has disrupted the information and entertainment industries, corollary impacts are being felt in online recruitment, education, e-commerce, and finance. The Internet disrupts traditional publishing industries in the same way that guns disrupted spears and swords by overturning what had been tried, true, and reliable models.

World-famous Internet companies are media agencies that connect people with people and “things,” both physical and virtual. For example, Google and Baidu give people easy and quick access to information; Tencent and Facebook provide platforms for people to communicate with each other any where, any time; Alibaba and Amazon make online shopping easy and efficient; the Dianping and Yelp reviews sites, and Uber taxi-calling applications also make our lives dramatically easier. And finally, Industry 4.0, a top-down industrial strategy by the German and Chinese governments, is intended to create an environment where disruptions in product design and manufacturing are encouraged to blossom.

Internet Impacts — the Good, the Bad, and the Uncertain

Technology is proven to have profound and empowering impacts on people — quite enough to transform the entire world, again and again. Machines and energy gave us locomotion and power, the telephone and the Internet give us powerful communication tools. Technology has made the world a smarter place, not only by improving social productivity, but also by redefining what is understood as normal. There are few greater truisms about technology than the adage: “Out with the old, and in with the new.”

So how exactly has the Internet impacted have on the way people think? On the list of primary effects is the fact that society has shifted from being in a state of information deprivation to one of information excess. In some cases this phenomenon has caused interpersonal relationships to weaken, as the instantaneous nature of the medium can have the tendency to amplify the differences between individuals and within groups. In all cases, examples of the exact opposite outcomes are known and notable. Information overload appears to be causing a proliferation of shallow thought and reduction in time spent in contemplation and deep thought that, left unchecked, would seem to lead to an overall weaker cognitive ability. In addition, information redundancy causes confusion. Studies show that the more information we have access to, the less we find effective. And also, over the same time frame that the Internet has exploded, society seems to have become less stable and more worried, perhaps also due to this huge influx of sometimes conflicting information. For both positive and negative outcomes, there is no doubt that Internet-informed thinking is a new kind of mentality in the digital economy.

Understanding User Demands in the Internet Era

Business competition in the Internet era is an ongoing struggle to gain insight into customers’ inner world and cater to their demands. Lei Jun, CEO of the Chinese smart phone maker Xiaomi, proposed the famous “seven tactics of Internet thinking” — which attempts to capture customer attention in a society bombarded with information — ergo, businesses must be “focused” and “extreme” to attract attention; brand image and company reputation are more important than ever, and are even more effective in promoting a company than advertisements; and, because customer requirements in the digital economy are fast-changing and unpredictable, businesses must always be on alert and able to respond quickly.

The Internet has influenced competitive business models, and affected organizational structures by shrinking and flattening hierarchies. Business organizations are built to make the division of labor and collaboration among people more efficient: for mass production businesses, very large organizations are more efficient; however, the opposite is true for customized businesses. Many large organizations have shrunk, or split into smaller units. For example, the Haier Group, a Chinese consumer electronics and home appliances company, proposed the concept of “every employee is a manager,” that divided the company into an army of small, task-centered units. In this way, Haier boosted organizational efficiency, flexibility, and the ability to respond quickly to changes in the market.

The Human Resources (HR) model that prescribes one director for eight or fewer employees is also being challenged. The Internet has disrupted these conventions. For example, a director can now manage a much large number of employees as the social media tools for managing inter-personal relationships has expanded. One example is Xiaomi’s de-hierarchy and de-centralization strategy, whereby employees form task-centered units, driven by specific goals, with neither hierarchy nor dependency between units.

The Internet has also reduced the importance of professional organizations. In the past, professionals leaned on collectives to play key roles. Today, increasing numbers of professionals are becoming entrepreneurial and severing past dependencies. Virtual platforms emerge because individuals are able to communicate with each other more efficiently independently of corporate supervision. Other examples include consultants and trainers who are starting their own businesses; and housekeepers are able to contact customers directly through Online-to-Offline (O2O) platforms. The Internet is leading to the end of brokers, middlemen, and intermediaries.

Knowing the impact of technology on human beings is the only way to understand how the Internet is changing our ways of thinking and how businesses can adjust to changing customer requirements. Businesses must adopt new operating principles, and enterprise decision makers must become acquainted with these technologies and their impact — because, going forward, it is essential to understand the influences and thinking process behind our most valuable decisions.

By Chen Xuepin

Founder and CEO, iZhihuiyun