Richard Watson is a writer and speaker who advises organizations on the future, focusing particularly on the impact of trends on long-term strategy. He has worked on scenario planning, research and innovation projects with, amongst others, IBM, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Westfield, P & G, News Ltd, Nestlé, Toyota and Samsung. He is also a columnist for a number of magazines including Fast Company (USA), (Australia) and Future Orientation (Denmark). Is the author of Future Files. A History of the Next 50 Years (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010) and Future Minds. How the Digital Age is Changing Our Minds (Clays St Ives plc., 2010).
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Four billion mobile phones, two billion PCs, five hundred million Facebook accounts, and probably a Google-zillion Internet searches, texts, and Tweets could, if we’re not careful, lead to the death of deep thinking. The reason I wrote Future Minds is that I had an idea. It occurred to me while I was slowly sipping coffee, gazing into space on the rooftop of a hotel in Sydney overlooking the harbor. I thought to myself, would I be having this thought if I was talking on the phone, staring at a computer screen, in a basement in London? I thought then, and still think now, that the answer is no. Modern life is changing how we think, but the clarity to see this only comes with a certain distance or detachment. The Overview Effect is a state of heightened consciousness that astronauts experience when they look back at the Earth from a long way away. It’s what William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell (the crew of Apollo 8) experienced on Christmas Eve, 1968, when they saw something that nobody had ever seen before. An Earthrise. A fragile blue planet rising optimistically over an inhospitable lunar landscape. Recognizing this was signifi cant, Anders grabbed a camera and took some photographs, and these photographs effectively started the environmental movement back on Earth in the 1970s. This story proves to me, at least, that external stimuli do influence our thinking. The attitudes and behaviors that we sometimes think of as fixed are constantly being influenced by the objects and environments around us.
The original idea of Future Minds was to write a book about physical spaces and how they influenced thinking. A book about architecture and office design, essentially. But then, my publisher pointed out to me that the book would probably sell about three copies, so I broadened the scope to include virtual spaces, digital devices, and eventually screen culture. Thus, it became a book about the future of thinking, with a set of sociological and technological trends as the unifying force. Ultimately, though, I think it’s about something slightly different. It’s about our addiction to digital technology and the way this is changing our relationships with each other. We are constantly connected nowadays. About 25 to 30 years ago, about half the world had never made a phone call. About 10 years ago, there were fewer than 500 million cell phone subscribers worldwide. There are now 4.6 billion mobile phone subscribers. In the UK, 50% of children between the age of five and nine now own a mobile phone. One consequence of all this connectivity is that we’re continually distracted. As a result, we never really get a chance to be by ourselves. We never really get a chance to know ourselves. We never sit quietly anymore. We never get an opportunity to think who we are and where we’re going. Ironically, this connectivity also means we tend to be alone even when we’re together. This is what I call digital isolation. What worries me most, though, is how this might be affecting the quality of our thinking. Our thinking is in danger of becoming shallow, narrow, cursory, hurried, fractured, and thin. Now, I think this is problematic because originality, in my view, is dependent largely on thinking that is deep. Serious creativity (whether it is in business, science, the arts), I think, is largely dependent on thinking that is calm, concentrated, focused, attentive, and above all, reflective.
Another implication of constant connectivity and distraction is that it can lead to mistakes, and sometimes it can be absolutely fatal. This is what I call constant partial stupidity. We tend not to fully concentrate nowadays. Instead, we’re constantly scanning the digital environment, trying to look for new information, and we start to think that we can do more than one thing at once, but we end up getting distracted again and forget what it is we are supposed to be doing. There is a U.S. study from last year and it says, not unsurprisingly, that multi-tasking is becoming the normal state. However, the same study has found quite interestingly that people that think they are the best at it are actually the worst. Heavy multi-taskers are poor at analysis, they’re quite bad at forward-planning, and they seem to lose the ability to ignore irrelevant data. They’re suckers for distraction. They become bored when they’re not constantly and instantly stimulated. It’s quite true that you can turn most of this technology off, but most of us don’t. There’s increasing cultural pressure to be continually available and to respond instantly. As for mistakes, I think these can be pretty serious. You probably don’t remember Mr. Da Silva. He was a Portuguese man that famously used his laptop a little while ago to get instructions on how to avoid a traffic jam on the motorway. The problem was he was driving a lorry at the time. He smashed into a line of cars and killed six people. Now, I don’t think he is alone in outsourcing his thinking to a machine. I mean, if you can Google a piece of information more or less instantly, why would you bother learning anything? If a sat-nav can tell you where you are all the time, why worry about situational awareness?
We need context as well as text. We need to understand principles before we move on to applications. We need breadth from depth, not just from superficial facts. Unless we know how things relate to one another, we just have information. For knowledge, we need to understand connections; and for wisdom, we need to understand consequences. If everyone is using the same sources, then what about originality? Now you’re probably thinking I am exaggerating at this point, but seriously, I am not. Far from creating an intellectual paradise, there is a danger that digitalization is narrowing our thinking. For example, 99% of Google searches do not proceed beyond page one of results. Academic papers are starting to cite fewer studies, not more. The other thing I’ve been thinking about is what if one day, this stuff doesn’t work? What then? We assume for instance that the Internet will always work. What if it doesn’t? What if one day the volume of data becomes so great, that it becomes blocked? What if energy shortages disrupt access? What if cyber attacks become such a problem that things of great importance have to be moved offline? What then? How many individuals or institutions have a plan in case this happens–have a plan in case mobiles, emails, sat-navs, Google, or the entire Internet becomes unusable for a while? Why does any of this matter? Who cares if our brains are changing? They’ve always changed. We’ve always invented new things; we’ve always worried about new things. To some extent, we’ve always moaned about younger generations. The answer is that things are becoming ubiquitous. They’re becoming addictive. They’re becoming prescribed.
But, I’m concerned that while the quantity of communication is increasing exponentially, the quality of communication is moving backwards. This is damaging for our thinking, but it is also damaging for our relationships. Ideas, in my experience, are inherently social. They need physical interactions if they’re to flourish. Most importantly, people need people too. One of the byproducts of the digital age is that our relationships are becoming more superficial. Thanks to text messages, egreetings and social networks, we know a lot of people, but we know them less well. We’ve replaced intimacy with familiarity. It’s interesting to note that 10 years ago, one in ten Americans said that they have nobody whatsoever to confide in. 10 years on, this figure has jumped to one in four. There are 300,000 applications for an Apple iPhone. Apparently, there’s not a single one for loneliness. I’m sure I will be accused for exaggerating this point, but it seems to me that empathy and tolerance of others could be two of the casualties of our instant digital culture. If we’re constantly looking down, an iPod Oblivion as it were, we are less aware of others; and some of these people might need our help from time to time. Equally, if we personalize our experience of reality via RSS feeds, friendship alerts, Google Earth and so on, it’s less likely that we will be confronted by people with ideas that don’t agree with us. Our thinking won’t be as challenged quite as much.
The Internet is a wonderful invention, and there are plenty of people talking about how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t be able to do much of what I do today without the Internet. I run an internet-based business. I’m not declaring war on digital devices–many of them are unbelievably useful. I’m not saying Google is evil. I’m not saying Apple is rotten. I’m essentially arguing for some level of analog-digital balance, much in the same way that people talk about work-life balance. We should think further ahead. Fundamentally, technology should be used in combination with human intelligence and judgment, not as a replacement. We should use technology to advance human relationships, not negate them. We need to think of the relative merits of digital and analog technologies, and pick the very best tools for the job. For example, evidence has been emerging quite strongly now that pixels and paper are actually quite different. When we use screens, our minds are generally set on “seek and acquire”. It’s a very fast mindset, which is fine if you want to acquire or distribute facts very quickly. But with paper, our minds are more relaxed. We tend to see context. Our thinking is a little more curious and questioning. There is evidence that people are more reckless with their money when it’s digital. There was something about this in the papers only yesterday. When it’s digitalized money, it’s as though it belongs to someone else, and we spend it rather impulsively. Paper bills–paper statements–seem to have more weight in contrast. We take them more seriously. We’re on the lookout for things that don’t add up.
What can we do about this if we’re trying to get this sort of balance between the digital and the analog better aligned? First, we should restrict the flow of information. In the U.S., people consumed more than 300% of information in 2008 than they did in 1960. One could argue that it is in attention and not information where the power resides these days. We should learn how to control the flow of information. We should learn that not all information is useful or trustworthy; and we should remember that despite the digital revolution, the medium still influences the message. I’ll give you an example of this. I was about halfway through the book, when it occurred to me that I needed some more information about where and when people did their best thinking. I decided that I needed about 1,000 responses to get a good view on this. Then, it suddenly dawned on me that if I wanted 1,000 responses, in my experience you would need to mail 50,000-100,000 people. Then, I had an idea–in the bath, as it so happens–: if people are busy and don’t know me, asking them to stop and think for a few minutes is quite a lot to ask. They’re probably not going to do it. But then, I had a thought: what if the interruption itself was unusual? What if, as well as sending out e-mails and trying to phone people, I sent out typed and handwritten letters? It worked. I got close to 1,000 responses. I got responses from Howard Gardner, Susan Greenfield, James Dyson, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd–I mean, I even got an indirect response from the Prince of Wales, which I wasn’t even expecting. What does this prove? I think fundamentally it proves that scarcity still creates value. I think it also proves, to some extent, that if something is really really easy, you probably shouldn’t do it. You should resist it. “Convenience is the disease you have to fight in any creative field” like Jack White says. Secondly, we need to disconnect. Our brains need to relax. If they don’t, they don’t function properly. We should switch our mobiles off after 6:30 every night. It’s interesting how parents try to set boundaries around screen use for their kids, yet we don’t seem to restrict our own usage. Much of the concern surrounding the use of mobiles, Facebook, Twitter, etc. seems to have focused on kids, particularly teens; but adults are a very major part of the story. There’s a book coming out next year by Sherry Turkle around parental use of digital technology. Her argument is that it’s making kids feel quite isolated and hurt.
Technology is not destiny. The human, as far as we know, is the most complex structure in the universe, but it has one incredibly simple feature: it’s not fixed, it’s malleable. It is impressionable to the point where it records every single thing that happens to it, and I mean every single thing, even if you don’t recognize it. You might think that text messages, Internet searches, sat-navs, and Google don’t affect you. You’d be wrong–they already have. The question, therefore, is not whether they will influence your thinking or change your brain, but how? The real question, though, is whether or not we have the time to change things if we want some things to stay the same.