Pew Internet & American Life Project’s latest study on the future of the internet examines how young people will be affected by technology.
The study selected 1,021 “experts” and asked them to choose between one of the following statements, with no other choices, with these results:
Some 55% agreed with the statement:
In 2020 the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields helpful results. They do not suffer notable cognitive shortcomings as they multitask and cycle quickly through personal- and work-related tasks. Rather, they are learning more and they are more adept at finding answers to deep questions, in part because they can search effectively and access collective intelligence via the internet. In sum, the changes in learning behavior and cognition among the young generally produce positive outcomes.
Some 42% agreed with the opposite statement, which posited:
In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results. They do not retain information; they spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from deep engagement with people and knowledge. They lack deep-thinking capabilities; they lack face-to-face social skills; they depend in unhealthy ways on the internet and mobile devices to function. In sum, the changes in behavior and cognition among the young are generally negative outcomes.
Of course one conclusion is that close to half of “experts” are wrong, whichever of these statements is truer. But it is worth going beyond the polarizing “positive” or “negative” choice to the comments made by those surveyed. Here are some of the most thought-provoking quotes included in the report:
“We are evolving and we are going to be able to access so much knowledge and different perspectives that we will come up with new ideas and new solutions to our world’s problems,” she responded. “The key will be valuing when to be present and when to unplug. The core of what makes us human is to connect deeply, so this always will be valued. Just as we lost oral tradition with the written word, we will lose something big, but we will gain a new way of thinking. As Sophocles once said, ‘Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.’”
-Tiffany Shlain, director of the film Connected and founder of the Webby Awards
“First-generation tech usually causes ‘net negative’ social effects; second-generation ‘net neutral’ effects; by the third generation of tech—once the tech is smart enough, and we’ve got the interface right, and it begins to reinforce the best behaviors—we finally get to ‘net positive’ effects.”
- Futurist John Smart, president and founder of the Acceleration Studies Foundation
“Technology will be so seamlessly integrated into our lives that it will effectively disappear. The line between self and technology is thin today; by then it will effectively vanish. We will think with, think into, and think through our smart tools but their presence and reach into our lives will be less visible. Youth will assume their minds and intentions are extended by technology, while tracking technologies will seek further incursions into behavioral monitoring and choice manipulation. Children will assume this is the way the world works. The cognitive challenge children and youth will face (as we are beginning to face now) is integrity, the state of being whole and undivided. There will be a premium on the skill of maintaining presence, of mindfulness, of awareness in the face of persistent and pervasive tool extensions and incursions into our lives. Is this my intention, or is the tool inciting me to feel and think this way? That question, more than multitasking or brain atrophy due to accessing collective intelligence via the internet, will be the challenge of the future.”
- Barry Chudakov, a Florida-based consultant and a research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto
“Brains are being rewired—any shift in stimuli results in a rewiring. The techniques and mechanisms to engage in rapid-fire attention shifting will be extremely useful for the creative class whose job it is to integrate ideas; they relish opportunities to have stimuli that allow them to see things differently.”
- danah boyd of Microsoft Research
“A new page is being turned in human history, and while we sometimes worry and most of the time stand amazed at how fast (or how slowly) things have changed, the future is bright for our youth worldwide. The youth of 2020 will enjoy cognitive ability far beyond our estimates today based not only on their ability to embrace ADHD as a tool but also by their ability to share immediately any information with colleagues/friends and/or family, selectively and rapidly. Technology by 2020 will enable the youth to ignore political limitations, including country borders, and especially ignore time and distance as an inhibitor to communications.”
- William Schrader, a consultant who founded PSINet
“The short attention spans resulting from the quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems, and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature,” he predicted. “The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus on specific problems.”
- Alvaro Retana, a distinguished technologist with Hewlett-Packard
“Perhaps the issue is, how will deep thinking get done—including by whom—rather than will everyone be able to do deep thinking. In other words, division of labor may change.”
- Marjory S. Blumenthal, associate provost at Georgetown University and former director of the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies
“Certainly there will be some teens and young adults who will suffer cognitive difficulties from unhealthy use of the internet, Web, social media, games, and mobile technology. These problems will arise not because of the technology but because of wholly inadequate adult guidance, training, and discipline over young people’s use of the technology. But most teens and young adults will prosper as described in the first option.”
- Dave Rogers, managing editor of Yahoo Kids
“I made the optimistic choice, but in reality, I think that both outcomes will happen. This has been the case for every communications advance: writing, photography, movies, radio, TV, etc. There’s no reason to believe that the internet is any different. It will provide ways to save time, and ways to waste time, and people will take advantage of both opportunities. In balance, however, I lean toward the more optimistic view since a larger fraction of the world’s population will now be able to access human knowledge. This has got to be a good thing.”
- Hal Varian, chief economist at Google
“What if we’re seeing a temporary blip in behavior because an Aleph has suddenly opened in the middle of civilization, a Borges-like hole through which anyone can talk to anyone, and anyone can see everything that ever happened and is happening now? Because this has never existed, all the way back through prehistory, of course we’re seeing addictive and compulsive behaviors. Naturally. The big question seems to me to be whether we’ll regain our agency in the middle of all this, or surrender to consumerism and infotainment and live out a WALL-E world that’s either Orwell’s or Huxley’s misanthropic fantasies in full bloom. I think we’re figuring out how to be human again amid all this, and that we’ll all learn how to use the new technologies to multitask as well as to dive deep into materials, weaving contexts of meaning that we haven’t seen before. Call me an optimist.”
- Jerry Michalski, founder and president of Sociate,
“Our society’s concern with the supposed negative impacts of the internet will seem very old-fashioned in a decade, like Socrates bemoaning the downside of written language, or the 1950′s fears about Elvis Presley’s rock-and-roll gyrations. As the internet becomes a part of everything, like electricity has today, we will hardly notice it: it won’t be ‘technology’ anymore, but just ‘the world.’”
- Technology and communications consultant Stowe Boyd
It is an excellent report, in particular in how they have pulled out the main threads of the arguments offered by the respondents, yielding a rich perspective on the issues at hand.
This is a complex set of debates around which we should not have blind ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ views, but build nuanced views about how we can make the most out of our inexorable shift into a connected world.