Excelling in 140 Characters or Less
Today the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released data gathered during its fifth “Future of the Internet” survey. The survey collected responses from a sample of internet and technology experts on the future of networked communications. While the results are predictably mixed, ranging from a genuine concern for the decline of depth of human thought to a reimagined digital human seamlessly integrated with unfathomable amounts of knowledge, they offer unique insight to the challenges we are facing today. Both predictions have legitimate logical foundations; technology has always been a mixed blessing. The issue confronting the modern man is how to strike the appropriate balance.
Over the last half century we have witnessed a fundamental shift in American productivity. The former industrial powerhouses in the American Midwest have declined as knowledge jobs replaced physical labor as the primary employment source. The shift in skill requirements demanded a shift in the way we think and behave. We are embarking on the next great fundamental shift as access to information networks has become instantaneous and omnipresent. The Pew Center’s survey of industry experts and commentators asked respondents to categorize the hyperconnected human against paired opposites:
Some 55% agreed with the statement:
In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.
Some 42% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.”
The split results highlight both the problem and the solution. There will be drawbacks to the minds raised in an environment of multiple, competing information and entertainment sources. There will be previously unimaginable benefits of that same access. The challenge we face is, as always, the education of the new modern man.
As posited by the economist Simon Kuznets, in the theory bearing his name, first generation technologies tend to produce net negatives for society, the second generation produces net neutral results, and in the third generation, when we more completely understand the full benefits and dangers, finally gives us the net positive. The Kuznets Curve seems particularly descriptive of the social networking, hyperconnected world we are just getting immersed in. The way we use twitter, facebook, google+, etc does not exactly commend us as the advanced, intellectual species we might think we are. Indeed we rely too heavily on Wikipedia for research and neglect more deep and thoughtful analysis. History suggests this is a temporary condition and future iterations of networks and knowledge sites will address the shortcomings of our current options. Further, we will interact in more intelligent ways.
The development process is contingent on our education. In order to adapt and improve the technologies and the way we interact, our education system must evolve. Teaching people how to exist with balance in a hyperconnected world is essential. Mastering the quick decision-making process demanded by instant access to vast data sources is the new essential social and labor skill. Retaining the ability to disconnect and engage in deep, thoughtful consideration of problems that cannot be quickly resolved will be equally critical. Our education systems have to adapt to teach both skill sets, and most importantly, the ability to know when use of a particular skill is appropriate. When we have mastered the coexistence of those diametric processes, we will have achieved the most dignified of accomplishments: Evolution. Welcome to the era of the Digital Man.