Where Is Technology Taking Us?
I’ve already written about what effects ubiquitous technology may be having on our culture, on my generation, and on how we communicate with one another. The Pew Research Center released the results of a fascinating survey that asked respondents to agree with one of two statements.
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 workrelated 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.
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.
Before I discuss these two statements, here are the results of the survey. Of the over 1000 respondents to the survey (“a diverse but non-random sample of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics”), roughly 55% of them agreed with statement 1. Only 42% agreed with statement 2, with 3% overall giving no response. However, according to Pew, “the research result here is really probably more like a 50-50 outcome than the 55-42 split recorded through survey takers’ votes. Respondents were asked to select the positive or the negative, with no middle-ground choice, in order to encourage a spirited and deeply considered written elaboration about the potential future of hyperconnected people.” The survey was deliberately designed to force respondents to make a tough decision and then elaborate on why they made that opinion. Many took issue with the idea that our brains will be wired differently. They argued instead that our patterns of thinking will change, but not our fundamental brain wiring.
Interestingly, some of the respondents emphasized education. Pew: “A number of the survey respondents argued that it is vital to reform education and emphasize digital literacy.” I wondered what this might mean, “emphasize digital literacy.” I’ve long believed in the importance of teaching computer literacy to young people. A required year of computer science (in addition to the other hard sciences: chemistry, biology, and physics) would teach students how to program, interact with software, utilize data systems, and operate necessary programs (Office Suite, Google Apps, Windows, OS X, etc.). The vast majority of technology users know next to nothing about how technologies work or how they are best operated. Respondents didn’t go this route, arguing instead that “educators should teach the management of multiple information streams, emphasizing the skills of filtering, analyzing, and synthesizing information.”
Simply being exposed to vast amounts of information means nothing. Instead, young people must learn how to think; that is, they must learn how to process this vast array of data and come to an informed, critical decision about its content. This argument is at the heart of the survey and illustrates my fear that we are moving closer to the future envisioned in Statement 2. Technology will either be used as another tool to advance human society, or it will be used as a way to make us unthinking consumers.1 If we fail to educate America’s youth in a way that nurtures deep, critical thinking skills, I see no possible alternative except a future of rampant consumerism.
Here are a few of the more interesting quotes from the study:
“Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, and a lack of patience are likely to be common results, especially for those who do not have the motivation or training that will help them master this new environment. One possible outcome is stagnation in innovation.”
I’m reminded of that quote I cited in Autonomous Prime: “Maybe the problem is that driving distracts us from our digital lives.” When the writer above suggests that a lack of patience is likely to be a common result, she assumes that it’s not already happening. Just drive around on some of America’s road, and you’ll see contemporary impatience in full effect.
“I suspect we’re going to see an increased class division around labor and skills and attention.” – media scholar Danah Boyd.
If I had to choose one comment from the study to represent my feelings, it’s this one. I’ve written already about the future of class divisions in America’s stratified economy. Improving the education system is the only answer. There are no longer well-paying manufacturing jobs to help fill our middle class. If you lack high-level education and strong critical and creative thinking skills, there will not be a well-paying job in your future. Many people will turn to technology to ease the daily burdens of their lives.
“The essential skills will be those of rapidly searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information. In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people.” – Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft
Centers of higher education, are you listening?
1 Pinterest, for example, touts itself as “a creative outlet, a place to connect with friends in new ways, a tool to plan important personal projects, and of course, a source of inspiration and discovery.” Pinterest is a way for consumers to post the things they like, share it with other consumers, who in turn will buy those products from the brands. It is the greatest gift to advertisers and corporations in my lifetime.