Our future minds – how constant connectivity is changing how we think

20Dec10

Below follows a review of Richard Watson’s ‘Future Minds: How The Digital Age is Changing Our Minds, Why This Matters and What We Can Do About It’ that appeared in Admap Magazine Jan 2011 edition ‘Speed Read’ section. The irony of speed reading and surmising a book espousing the benefits of slower thinking and living were not lost on me.

I think this is an important book but it won’t get huge attention, sadly. The cover is awful (so cover-judging book readers will be put off) and the central tenant not mainstream and catchy enough. But it is an informative, and sobering, read. With a bit of sensationalism, the main idea could catch on: slow down or live a poorer existence.

From someone involved everyday in fast-paced continuous marketing activity, saying that things have to slow down sounds a bit hypocritical. And it is. But as a Dad, I’m getting paranoid about the creeping ‘normalisation’ of rapid consumption. You Tube is like cat-nip to my kids. It’s a joy to get to sit and read a book to them. They love it, but only after they’ve forgotten you’ve banned them from the iPad.

So here’s the quickie book summary for you snacking types. I’d advise you to read the whole thing though. In a dark room. Without interruptions every 3mins. And when you’re inspired by the contents avoid the office, as it stops deep-thinking. Enjoy.

Futurologist and strategist Richard Watson discusses an unfashionable idea: that all this connectivity might not, in fact, be good for society or us.

While such skepticism of technology’s rapid changes is not new, the exhaustive support collected by Watson for this argument is sobering.

His central ideas are as follows:
Permanent connectivity is changing the brain

In the process of developing a ‘digital mind’, children as young as five can spend an average of eight hours a day in front of a screen. This ‘screen time’ is affecting the malleable brain’s structure. Connectivity Addiction is on the increase, and Continuous Partial Attention is a noted phenomena.

Digital interruptions affects societal bonds

The pre-teen ‘screenager’ will be continually stimulated by multiple devices. His parents will be glued to BlackBerries and laptops. TV may replace dinnertime. ‘Cerebral whiteout’ can occur and information overload leads to stress and ‘work guilt’ as time poor parents respond to work requests wherever they are, even on holiday. This continuous connectivity scenario is being blamed on societal ills as far reaching as the rise in teenage pregnancies (due to the loss of quality family conversation time) to general ignorance and lack of imagination in students.

Faced with the sheer volume of evidence charting the negative effects of our digital binge, Watson endeavours to provide some guidance:

  • He promotes the idea of ‘free play’, where by children have plenty of time to invent without guidance from games manufacturers, or restricted by structured activity. Boredom is apparently excellent for imagination.
  • He advises that in a knowledge economy staff with lateral thinking ability are prized, and that focusing on only rational subjects harm student’s prospects

The bulk of the book Watson focuses on ‘deep thinking’; the act of the mind to probe its memories and invent new connections to solve problems.

He divides this subject into two broad areas: where ideas come from, and what we can do to get better at having them. The common enemy of both these areas is seen as digital interruptions.

Office based workers apparently suffer from an interruption to their work every three minutes. Yet the brain needs to have time to process ideas. Surveys record that ideas are not generated at desks, but in showers, on running machines, in baths etc. The brain needs lots of sleep and lots of downtime. Doing nothing, Watson argues, is the best way to crack a problem, as the brain is in fact working hard to process the information it has received. Eureka moments come at downtimes (or monotonous/routine times).

Also, don’t be shy to ask silly questions or to make mistakes, as it is well proven that from these experiments serendipitous discoveries are born.

The author explores crowd-sourced idea generation and concludes that for well-defined problems, many minds make light work of the issues. But for revolutionary jumps, groups are hopeless because new ideas don’t fit with existing ways of thinking, and humans collectively reject that which won’t fit.

So Watson explores how we can shrug off this ‘normalising’ instinct and create environments for deep thinking.

  • We must seek ‘the overview effect’; an objective place where lateral inspiration can be found: “Stop searching for great ideas and simply make room for them to visit” recommends Robert Grudin, author of The Grace of Great Things.
  • Messiness may well be part of this: resilience, creativity and effectiveness all come from a messy desk. Paperless offices are a real threat to invention he argues, quoting Eistein: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”
  • Accidental encounters and quality conversations stimulate deep thinking. However be wary of open-plan offices, as these often infringe on the quiet and study space the brain needs.
  • Remote working and teleconferences may be as damage innovation as natural environments (and human contact) slow us down and help the mind relax, creating a more effective environment for thinking.
  • The ‘strategic use of lunch’ is recommended to increase times we can pause and reflect. Reclaiming lunch allows for quality conversations while a visit to a garden or art gallery provides stimulation. In the words of Gandhi “there is more to life than increasing its speed’.

So slowing down is central to deep-thinking. Like the Slow Food movement, Watson foresees counter-trends emerging that seek to defy the pace and ‘crazy busy’ lifestyles we’ve created for ourselves. Instead ‘digital diet’ holidays will appear while café’s and public spaces will start banning wifi and mobile phones.

A powerful warning summarises Future Minds: “we assume the Internet is spreading knowledge, but the reverse could be happening. Ignorance could be increasing …because the volume of digital dross and distraction that is now so easily co-created and distributed is drowning out learning and wisdom”.

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