Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Net Negative

I love what the internet has done for information availability. When I was a kid, before there was a public internet, one of my favorite places was the library. When I was there I felt at home. I could look up just about anything and read 'til my heart was content. Today I have what could be considered the entire world's libraries at my finger tips.

History of Information Technology
In ancient times books were expensive and the knowledge they contained was only available to the privileged. One of the most famous libraries of all time was the Library of Alexandria in Egypt. Scholars from all over the world would go there and research information. Often times these scholars brought new information with them that would be added to the libraries volumes. The library's founder, Ptolemy I, was said to have had the goal of filling the library with a copy or every book in existence. With an estimated inventory of around a half a million scrolls, he came very close to achieving that goal.

In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This made books more available since it was exponentially easier to print them with movable type than copy them by hand. This facilitated the spread of knowledge and opinion, changing everything. Now nearly anyone with enough ambition could print something and spread his ideas. Even the Bible could be made available in the common language of the people. This was a huge threat to the established power structure and in large part lead to the European Reformation.

Today the internet has disrupted society in a similar way. Now literally anyone can publish his ideas just as I am now. This is changing the way people learn, get their news and communicate. Old forms of publishing from the newspaper to the handwritten letter are quickly disappearing. In some obvious ways this is very beneficial, but in other less obvious ways, some of which will not be fully understood for years to come, it is very detrimental.

Dangerous Distractions
Past improvements in information technology such as the Gutenberg press had side effects that indirectly lead to disturbances in society and even dangerous events such as religious wars, but it never directly made life more dangerous. Being able to read the Bible in your native tongue instead of having to learn a dead language is not by any stretch of the imagination hazardous to the mind or body. Likewise even reading subversive literature like Thomas Paine's Common Sense isn't going to kill anybody in and of itself.

Today's information technology however, has proven to be most deadly. Though it be true that it usually is the irresponsible use of the technology that leads to the hazard, it is hazardous non-the-less. One example many people are waking up to is texting while driving. One estimate is that around 16,000 deaths can be linked to texting and/or talking while driving. Some places have even passed laws in view of the dangers of text walking.

If that's not enough there is also growing concern about distracted doctors. This New York Times article explains how doctors and nurses are more and more distracted by tablet PCs and cell phones. True, patients are benefiting to a degree by being connected to medical records and having advanced diagnostic tools at their doctor's finger tips, but the distraction of too much information is both interfering in the human relationship with the patient and creating an information overload for the physician. In addition there are also hair raising accounts of surgeons taking personal phone calls and anesthesiologists shopping online.

Your Brain on IT
Some who use the internet and smart phones excessively have noticed a drug like affect on themselves, even to the point of feeling addicted. When giving up the use of these devices they report being anxious, feeling disconnected and an inability to coordinate basic daily activities. Unlike giving up drugs, however, the internet and the devices we use to access it are difficult to completely eliminate from our lives.

Most people know that its not especially healthy to binge on internet surfing or social media, but exactly how much harm does it do? In short, the internet is literally re-wiring our brains. There is actually a transformation in the firing pattern of our neurons that is not so beneficial. Studies have shown less activity in the prefrontal cortex. This makes us less thoughtful and adaptable and more impulsive and mechanical.

In his article Is Google Making Us Stupid, Nicholas Carr explores how the internet is making us shallower in our thinking. He makes the point that our malleable brains have adapted to reading online with all of its hyper links and RSS feeds. That's right, our brains have been re-wired to scan large volumes of information quickly at the expense of being able to concentrate on any one thing deeply. Where as in prior times people would spend hours reading a book and ruminate over its contents, thinking deeply about its meaning, we today have become merely information processors with no time or attention span for such deep thinking.

Another frightening result of this change is the loss of our creativity and even our sense of self. Because we are loosing the ability to concentrate on anything for long periods of time we are also loosing the reflection and contemplation necessary to come up with new ideas or even formulate our own opinions. Rather than reading a book with nothing more than black type on white paper and at most an illustration to distract us, leaving us with lots of time to pause and think about what the author is saying and how we feel about that, we now are confronted with pages full of links that go in all directions surrounded by blinking ads. I really think this threatens to make us all two dimensional people, broad in our knowledge with no depth of understanding, even of ourselves.

Zero Sum
Is it possible to have our cake and eat it too? Can't we have access to this vast knowledge base without loosing our depth of understanding? Will we be able to keep up with twitter feeds and still read War And Peace? Will we be able to maintain this connection to the world as a whole without loosing ourselves? Without strictly limiting the use of the internet in our lives it would seem the answer is no.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Generation Y

Generations share common traits because they share common experiences that shape their development when they are young. For the Greatest Generation WWII and The Great Depression made them self sacrificing and frugal. The Baby Boomers experienced a time of prosperity and optimism making them materialistic and confident. Generation X, the latch key kids, grew up self reliant and distrusting. Gen Y grew up in the prosperous tech boom of the mid 1980's-1990's. The ubiquity of electronics and the media they make available has made this generation the greatest consumers of digital media the world has ever seen. For most of them there has never been a time in their memory when their wasn't an internet. Being plugged into the rest of the world and in constant contact with friends and relatives is natural and normal. Their brains and bodies matured with cell phones in their ear and video game controllers in their hands.

In my previous post I talked about the over stimulation created by modern life. Generation Y has lived their entire life in this environment. Its all they know. To them the dystopia I describe may seem perfectly normal. Gen Y is usually described as being digital natives. They are very familiar with digital communication, media and technology. They are also noted for having short attention spans and a need for constant stimulation and instant feed back. I think its obvious the two traits are connected.

Instant Gratification
One of the difficulties in earlier generations dealing with Gen Y is their desire for instant gratification and feed back. For example Gen Y employees seem to need constant feed back on their performance. This is puzzling to the Baby Boomer boss because they were raised with the understanding that you did what you were told and worked hard and down the road you reaped the rewards. That just doesn't sit well with Gen Y. Gen Y is used to the instant feed back of video games and text messaging. They also are used to getting what they want, when they want it. Patience and forbearance are not in their vocabulary.

Growing up with instant messaging, and constant electronic alerts from email or social media has caused their brains to be wired for fast twitch. This allows them to keep up with the excessive volumes of information they are bombarded with, but at a cost. The cost of course is they have very little deep thinking. This leads to quick decisions based on shallow analysis that are often short sighted. It also makes them feel irritated when anything takes too long. I've even noticed this in myself sometime when my computer takes more than a few seconds to load something.

Gen Y expects everything to be as responsive as their iPhone or twitter feed. Unfortunately much of life just isn't like that. Solid human relationships, mastering skills and building a career take time. Some times these and other worthwhile things require several failed attempts before getting it right. If Gen Y quits instead of sticking with it, will they ever succeed at these important slow to be realized achievements? Maybe this is why so many of them are still living at home even into their late twenties and early thirties.

Brain Extensions
Its been said that the internet with its vast knowledge base and advanced search capability has become an extension of out brains. Some people don't even bother to remember information anymore. They just remember how to find it on Google. This is also true of finding your way around town. Many people don't learn street names or directions anymore, they just enter the address in their GPS and listen to the soothing voice say take the exit on the left. Its as though we have delegated these functions to external devices in a way similar to bodily functions like breathing and beating our heart are handled autonomicall by the brain stem, freeing our frontal cortex to contemplate questions like, "why is there air?"

For those who use it, the internet has become the largest source of transactive memory. Transactive memory is nothing new. We all rely on people we know to remember things for us. For example you may ask your spouse something like where are the spices, pruning shears, etc. Likewise a colleague at work may ask you something related to your area of expertise. I remember, as a kid, always asking my mom what a word meant or how it was spelled. In each case you often don't bother to remember the answer long term, but instead you simply remember who to ask. Today that who is Google.

Some believe this has allowed Gen Y, who's brains developed along side the internet, to learn much more. They believe that by just knowing where to find the details, rather than the details themselves, allows them to focus on the bigger picture. To some extent this is true. Really intelligent, capable people have the ability to see both the details and the big picture, zooming in and out at will. If the internet has become an extension of our nervous system allowing everyone to do this, then theoretically we will all be a little bit smarter.

One obvious problem with this is the unreliability of the information. With out making sure the details are correct our big picture could be skewed. In fact much of what's available on the internet is half truth or completely false and it is often difficult to tell without pouring over the details and fact checking. This requires significant amounts of time and effort, something Gen Y is not fond of.

A less obvious problem with this is that unused neurons get pruned. So with Gen Y using less of their brain and relying on calculators, Google and GPS to think for them, they have made themselves dependent on these systems. This strikes me as potentially retarding intelligence, not expanding it. In addition being dependent on these things for information and guidance could leave us in the dark in the event of an outage. If you've never made the effort to remember that emergency phone number or navigate to that important location your self, what do you do when your cell phone battery dies or the GPS network goes down?

A more ominous concern is the emotional reliance on things like social media and shallow online relationships. Many today, especially from Gen Y, measure self worth by how many Facebook friends they have or how many texts they receive. Its as though their whole self image and sense of being has been transferred from their control and relocated externally. As such they make themselves dependent on the availability of the technology and the fickle whims of that cyber community.

Virtual Reality
With the real world being such a depressing and stressful place, is it any wonder there is a strong demand for more and more realistic virtual realities. To answer that demand, much of our modern media is a form of virtual reality. Movies for example are a form of virtual reality. You might even notice the slight disorientation felt after watching an engrossing movie. Like wise video games and social media can be forms of virtual reality. These and other forms of media are all fantasy worlds that we can escape into and forget, at least for a while, the real world.

Generation Y is very comfortable with the virtual world and spend much of their waking hours immersed in it. In fact they often seem more comfortable in the virtual world than the real world. They will make friends with people on line, but feel uncomfortable getting close to people in person. They spend hours and hours on Farmville instead of gardening in their yard. They will spend great amounts of effort mastering their skills at some video game, but very little time building skills they need for a career. Why would one want to spend so much time and effort on something that's not even real?

The problem with virtual reality is its not reality, but it can be so deceivingly real to our senses and emotions that we can often confuse it with reality. When you are in the virtual world you have total control. Even in a video game, though you can not rewrite the rules, you can simply press the reset button. On some sites like Virtual Life you can create your own avatar to look like anything you want. You can fly or pretend to be any persona and all safely behind your computer, where if your not having fun you can just click to some other site. So what effect does growing up in a virtual (e.g. fantasy) word have on someone?

In the real world there are real and sometimes painful consequences. Personal relationships can not be handled the same way as with Facebook and chat rooms. If you are married you can't just click a button and unfriend them. If you have a dog you can't just abandon them because you're no longer having fun, like you can on NeoPets. In the real world there are far reaching implications of your actions that go beyond loosing points. If you do something stupid or dangerous in the real world, there is no reset button.

Gen Y has some advantages to previous generations in that it is more adept at traversing this new modern digital landscape, but without the perspective and ability to think deeply and patiently wait for things, they seem doomed to be unable to accomplish as much as previous generations. It would be advantageous for this and all generations to take a moderate approach to technology use. Unfortunately, from what I know of imperfect human nature, moderate use is unlikely. Instead I firmly believe that Gen Y and each succeeding generation will continue to over use technology to their detriment. Perhaps in a future post I'll discuss why I think this is guaranteed.