by Cato 8/7/14
The exchange in this online community began with: For all of you fuddy-duddies that think today’s youth spend too much time in front of “the machines,” read this blog post. It supports my long-held view that the single most important trait for successful workers is curiosity.
Since most of the technology businesses I’m involved with are populated with young’uns, I see this in action all the time. One of my attorneys sent this to me. CID
What the attorney had sent to CID was this:
I just ran across a blog post that makes CID’s often stated point that curiosity is the most important trait to have to create a successful future. It goes on to make the case that the current generation (SA’s daughter G) and their ability to multitask facilitates that sense of curiosity. One of the more positive spins on the wave of the future. Interesting to think about it that way. Maybe our best days ARE in front of us…… S
And my reply to S and CID was this:
Confirmation bias at work, CID. The linked blog post suggests the young are somehow advantaged mentally by their addiction to electronic devices. This is nonsense.
You work with tech businesses that attract active, curious, mentally aggressive young people, and come to the conclusion this entire generation shares those traits? I’d be equally amiss assuming the best of the scary-smart 20-somethings I met at TXN were characteristic of their generation as well.
Certainly the best of them are impressive, but then the best of every generation is impressive, especially if you isolate the skills that are unique to that generation — skills these exceptionals exemplify — and make that your marker. They socialize via electronics incredibly well. Is that a reasonable metric for judging them mentally superior as a generation?
What I see is a generation, broadly speaking, with remarkable social skills and a rather pronounced inability to function outside approval systems validated by “the group.” I see herd instincts honed and developed and, contrary to the blog, very limiting in some ways.
Thinking independently, especially thinking in long form on complex issues over extended time frames, is becoming not only a lost art but renders one a social outcast. They are producing, metaphorically, too many bumper sticker answers and not enough deep treatises. What I’m saying, my observations and judgment only of course, is: too much crowd-sourcing and not nearly enough independent initiative.
Which is why, perhaps, this is the first generation in the industrial age with nearly half of its over-age-21 members living at home with Mom and Dad. Do you know anyone your age today who as a young man just out of college would not have lived out of a car or in a cold water flat rather than demean himself to move back in with Mom and Dad, in his boyhood room? I don’t. Just a thought.
That was all on Wednesday. On Thursday the WSJ published a book review of relevance, which I reprint for you below because it’s behind a pay wall. I introduced the article with this commentary:
Just as CID and I were exchanging ideas on the impact and value of connectedness, this pops up.
I think my observation, contention really, that the smartphone-disabled young lack the ability to direct and maintain focus has substance.
Anecdotally, toward the end of my long association with TXN I noted to management that the newest hires coming through my finance seminars were different from groups even 5 years prior, much less 10 or 20 years ago. They wanted 1) not insight into financial issues but formulas that would be installed in a computer and run with a minimum of understanding and 2) they were impatient with the pyramid-building approach to teaching, that is, they lost interest quickly with establishing a base of concepts then layering examples and insights upon that base. They wanted “facts” and “data” in discrete, bite-sized pieces, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, that they could then edit and arrange into a picture.
Finance not being a discipline that is easily compartmentalized, unitized and placed on a grid — as are for instance the listed rules of accounting — I was losing favor and ratings consistently over the last few years of my efforts. One can’t teach financial sophistication by means of a checklist. And many of these seminarians were incapable of thinking otherwise.
Perhaps of interest to CID given his work (note: he is a gifted and very successful management consultant), I also noted that TXN, which 20 years ago was very decentralized in its management structure, had become much more autocratic and rigid. Hierarchy had replaced distributed responsibility even as the number of management layers had been reduced from about 6 to 4, and in some groups to 3.
I don’t find the change in thinking and learning processes, on the one hand, and decision rigidity, on the other, to be unrelated. Hard to say which lead to the other, but I suspect the change in management style was of necessity, and came second.
My opinion of electronic interconnectedness is colored by this experience, without question. But I think there is much to be concerned about, not the least of which is that politicians — like Obama, who exemplifies the compartmental, checklisted, bite-sized, and often disjointed, intellectually dishonest and illogical manner of thinking I see around me — will flourish among those incapable of seeing beyond the content-limits of their glowing screens.
Book Review: The End of Absence by Michael Harris
The author marvels as his infant nephew fingers the pages of a magazine, trying to make the pictures change with a touchscreen swipe.
By Jessica Kasmer-Jacobs
Updated Aug. 6, 2014 7:46 p.m. ET
Johannes Trithemius was a bit of a worrier. In 1483 the Benedictine scribe had become abbot of a monastery in Sponheim, Germany, not more than 50 miles from the workshop where Johannes Gutenberg had printed his first bibles a few decades before. Trithemius was concerned by the mass produced volumes proliferating thanks to Gutenberg’s innovation. It was the delicate and crucial art of the scribe, he wrote in 1492, that lent “strength to words, memory to things, vigor to time.” If book printing were to replace religious scribes, “faith would weaken . . . law would perish, Scripture fall into oblivion.” At risk was not just the authority of the Church but the souls of its flock.
We are living in our own “Gutenberg moment,” according to Michael Harris ; only today the Internet is to blame, not for corrupting religious belief but for disrupting thought itself. Digital technology, the author suggests in “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection,” has filled the once sacrosanct silences in our heads that let us escape our fleeting daily concerns. Distracted by the constant buzzing of our devices, we lose the chance for novel insights and discoveries, “the kinds of thoughts that present themselves in our emptiest moments—the moments when we stare out the train’s windows or hover on a lawn to monitor the sky.”
The author has ample reason to fret: Global Internet usage has expanded more than 500% in the last decade. According to YouTube’s own statistics, users uploaded 100 hours of video for every minute of real time in 2013. That’s a “decade” of footage posted to the Internet every single day.
Google processes over 3.5 billion queries daily while each American owns, on average, four digital devices. A 2013 report found that Americans aged 18-64 spend an average of 3.2 hours a day on social networking sites.
Mr. Harris, a Canadian journalist, structures his book according to a series of mounting worries about the effects personal technology has on our cognitive function, interpersonal relationships and encounters with the world. The author is concerned about kids who will never know the world without the Internet. He complains bitterly about Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that can be edited by anyone, including computerized “bots” that create data at alarming rates and go virtually unchecked by the site’s overlords. He rues the culture of recorded living, in which we are more eager to upload a photo of a meal to Instagram than we are to eat it, and where we curate online avatars to represent sleeker, happier versions of ourselves. He feels we are increasingly divorced from the “authentic” when we replace real-life objects and communications with mere copies: Kindles for books or text messages for in-person “I-love-yous.”
In an early chapter, Mr. Harris cites a UCLA study that tested “Internet-naïve” people for the effects of using the web on brain neuroplasticity. The study found that new neural pathways are forged after just a few hours of surfing. If children are exposed to that much screen time every day, Mr. Harris argues, their thinking may be shallower as a result. He marvels as his infant nephew fingers the pages of a print magazine, attempting to make the pictures change with a touchscreen swipe. “Will the soft certainty of earlier childhood be replaced by the restless idleness that now encroaches?” he asks.
“Restless idleness” is a good description of our new digital default. Mr. Harris is also right to worry that, when services like Facebook grant us the opportunity to tirelessly tailor our own images and how others see them, we lose the ability to navigate between the authentic and the counterfeit. We snap, crop and filter the events of our lives in a manner that is supposed to portray true life but more often only presents a synthetic surface. The growing distance between online and offline realities reminds Mr. Harris of the Emerald City in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” We choose to wear the emerald glasses because we prefer a glittering world to the real one.
Yet the topic Mr. Harris has chosen is so capacious, and the ways in which the Internet has invaded our lives so various, that his book does little more than gesture at the plethora of problems. And the one he chooses to dwell upon the most—the one that gives his book its title—is the most nebulous of all. Mr. Harris interviews neuroscientists, consults psychologists and discourses with philosophers to bolster his claim that we are losing something crucial, but he struggles to define what “absence” is, though his nostalgia for it seems endless. “The value of absence is always an intangible thing,” he writes, “whether that absence is a memory or a current reality.”
In an attempt to test the value of “absence,” the author gives himself two weeks to read “War and Peace”: “My phone goes off . . . I want to read, but I stop. I know the distractions are unproductive and I fly to them all the same.” He eventually disconnects long enough to slip into Tolstoy’s prose and complete the novel. Victorious, Mr. Harris abstains from technology for a month in the hopes that he might fully recover his lost “absence.” He is sad to find that by the end of the trial, nothing magical has happened—he is still “utterly wired to the promise of connection.” It’s thus unsurprising that Mr. Harris can share little advice for the Internet-addled, other than to be more diligent in choosing our technologies and how much time we spend with them. As connectivity becomes ever more constant, that’s a lot like telling a kid not to eat too much Halloween candy.
Ms. Kasmer-Jacobs is a Bartley fellow this summer at the Journal.
Cato blogs at Cato’s Domain.
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