A recent study from the University of Maryland provides more evidence that the tools of social media; texting, tweeting, instant messaging, and online posting, are taking over the lives of a generation. I’m particularly intrigued by this discussion for a couple of reasons. First, I do believe that digital technology is creating fundamental shifts in culture. As a futurist, I’m interested in tracking those changes and, most importantly, understanding how they might be used to help us create better futures.
The second reason is more personal. I live with one of those social media addicts. I have been observing, and dealing with, the disruptions this phenomenon causes for the past year. My 14-yr old daughter’s relationship with social media borders on obsessive. In some ways this is not surprising. It’s a classic example of what happens when a technology comes along that perfectly enables an underlying need. 14-yr old girls are all about social relationships; texting did not create anything new in that sense. A colleague pointed out that hours spent talking on the telephone was used by earlier generations to fulfill the need to constantly reconstruct social narratives. What seems to make these new technologies fundamentally different is the way they are being used virtually 24-7. The question this raises is what kind of futures might we expect to see as this generation of social media addicts matures.
I’ve heard and read many of the arguments on both sides of the issue. Those who see promise in the practice argue that this younger generation is actually rewiring their brains to be superior multi-taskers. While I am hopeful that will prove to be true, I can tell you that thus far it just ain’t so. My daughter, like most of her peers, assumes they can multi-task, but constant texting and old-fashioned homework do not mix well.
If it turns out that this promised multi-tasking skill is illusionary then the critics of these technologies might be right to warn us of dire results. Some even suggest that we are creating a society that will be even more attention deficit, with the most effected individuals unable to complete anything other than the simplest tasks. That scenario certainly suggests a bleak outlook for success in our knowledge economy.
Of course, all that assumes we continue to define tasks and measure success in the same way that we do today.
For a different experience of how knowledge might be transformed to suit the skills of this new digital generation I would suggest taking a look at the “book” Imagologies by Mark Taylor and Esa Saarien. In digital terms it was written during the days of pre-history (early 1990s). It draws its inspiration from an experience the two had teaching a teleseminar connecting their university classes in Helsinski and at Williams College in the USA (no small feat at the time). What they construct out of that experience is an interesting, if often obtuse, meditation on what they call the mediatrix. One of their most interesting assertions is that in the future “personal knowledge will be inches deep and miles wide.”
This certainly feels like an apt description of the world we are creating with these digital tools. Whether it is a good or bad future has a lot to do with your point of view. A traditional western scientific mind would clamor that this is the end of centuries of great knowledge and accomplishment produced by the deep dive of specialization. One might also be tempted to suggest that that this is a perfect example of what the Buddhists call “monkey mind”– constant and destructive distraction.
On the other hand, when I watch my daughter simultaneously text, instant message, and post to Facebook, I am impressed by how hard she is working. I can’t imagine being able to manage a dozen or more conversations at once. While many, if not all, are banal in content, it is clear that there is a structure and order to the process. There are special languages to learn and rules of etiquette that must be followed. Maybe it’s just the naïve hope of a fretful father, but I can’t help but think that there is some skill being acquired here, even if it is not in sync with an education system based on old technology. What will be interesting to see is if this younger generation can translate these skills into useful habits within today’s structures or if they will have the power to truly transform the ways we create useful knowledge.
The futures we encounter will contain many threads and, consequently, many paths to success. For some, the strength to swear off digital distractions could prove to be a huge advantage in achieving success. Undoubtedly some of these will create prodigious works of art, knowledge and commerce. For others, life might be a constant battle against their debilitating digital addictions as they fail to sync up their skills to society’s measures of success. Of course, that story carries all sorts of interesting threads as we invent new way to rehabilitate these digital addicts.
But, at least some members of this generation will figure out how to use these tools to create new opportunities and new measures of success. And if these always on, social media multi-taskers, can figure out how to capitalize on the skills they are developing as 14-year olds, I’m betting they will crate some of the most interesting futures for all of us.