When it comes to the internet and digital technology, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and I think it’s delicious! I believe the disruption caused by mobile and social innovation is exciting and is making our lives and the way we do business better. As the saying goes, birds of a feather flock together, so it’s hardly surprising to learn that most of my friends feel the same way and share that same opinion. That’s why I try to make a point of reading articles by people who pose a counter view. It challenges my beliefs and can reframe the way I approach thinking about certain topics. So, with that in mind, here’s a selection of interesting articles I’ve read recently that explore this counter view. These articles suggest that the effects of the internet and digital technologies are deleterious to our health and, possibly, our creativity.
First up, Ian Leslie writing for Intelligent Life, looks at the important role of serendipity in innovation and creativity. Serendipity, he suggests, is more than happy coincidence – Leslie suggests it is a crucial component of a creative culture and that it is under threat from the internet:
Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.
When the internet was new, its early enthusiasts hoped it would emulate the greatest serendipity machine ever invented: the city. The modern metropolis, as it arose in the 19th century, was also an attempt to organise an exponential increase, this one in population. Artists and writers saw it as a giant playground of discovery, teeming with surprise encounters. The flâneur was born: one who wanders the streets with purpose, but without a map.
… some of our most serendipitous spaces are under threat from the internet. Wander into a bookshop in search of something to read: the book jackets shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands. You may not find the book you wanted, but you will walk out with three you didn’t.
… serendipity, on the other hand, is, as Zuckerman says, “necessarily inefficient”. It is a fragile quality, vulnerable to our desire for convenience and speed. It also requires a kind of planned vagueness. Digital systems don’t do vagueness very well, and our patience with it seems to be fading.
Next up is Tony Dokoupil’s piece from Newsweek which has been doing the rounds on the Internet this week. Titled, Is the Web Driving Us Mad? Dokoupil’s article canvases the digital shifts that have ocurred in the last fives years and their effects on our mental environment:
Questions about the Internet’s deleterious effects on the mind are at least as old as hyperlinks. But even among Web skeptics, the idea that a new technology might influence how we think and feel—let alone contribute to a great American crack-up—was considered silly and naive… Instead, the Internet was seen as just another medium, a delivery system, not a diabolical machine. It made people happier and more productive. And where was the proof otherwise?
Now, however, the proof is starting to pile up. The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. The current incarnation of the Internet—portable, social, accelerated, and all-pervasive—may be making us not just dumber or lonelier but more depressed and anxious, prone to obsessive-compulsive and attention-deficit disorders, even outright psychotic. Our digitized minds can scan like those of drug addicts, and normal people are breaking down in sad and seemingly new ways.
Meanwhile, over on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, Justin Fox poses the question, When Will this Low-Innovation Internet Era End? Fox investigates the idea that in this time of unprecedented technological change, we are in fact not as innovative or clever as we like to think we are and that recent innovations in communication (apps etc) are blinding us to the fact:
It’s an age of unprecedented, staggering technological change. Business models are being transformed, lives are being upended, vast new horizons of possibility opened up. Or something like that. These are all pretty common assertions in modern business/tech journalism and management literature.
Then there’s another view, which I heard from author Neal Stephenson in an MIT lecture hall last week. A hundred years from now, he said, we might look back on the late 20th and early 21st century and say, “It was an actively creative society. Then the Internet happened and everything got put on hold for a generation.”
And, lastly, in The ‘Busy’ Trap Tim Krieder takes aim at the culture of being ‘busy’. In a highly caffeinated economy with the culture of apps that are meant to make modern life easier, he reflects on our full social diaries and suggests that our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness:
If you live…in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.”
Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
There is definitely some food for thought here.
While I’m broadly optimistic about technology and the digital culture it is inspiring, I think it’s important to take note of arguments that challenge that view. The recent works of people like Jason Silva are more palatable to me because they align with the way I frame modern culture. But taking a step back and considering the alternative is not just good practice – it’s essential for gaining better strategic and cultural insight.