In last month’s column, I talked about my journey into social networking, which, I must admit, has become more fun and useful than I thought it would. But…
A great Dilbert cartoon depicts a low-level analyst presenting her report on a competitor’s product. It’s thorough and comprehensive, but by the time it gets to the CEO, it’s down to just a single bullet point. We’ve all been there; told by a manager or a client to get our data, findings, and recommendations down to a single page or a couple of slides, and we’ve been frustrated that increasingly, people just don’t want to get into the details. Although troubling, this would not be a big concern if we were just talking about slide presentations compensating for CEO attention spans. But the growing reliance on the Internet, and on social media specifically, to transmit information is causing concern that new media are changing the way we communicate and learn, and not totally for the better.
There’s a growing wave of interest in this issue. For example, in his new book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet, while a very handy resource for information, may, by its very usefulness and design — quick hyperlinks and the ability to “surf” large amounts of content — be depriving us of the ability to think deeply and concentrate, and is shortening our attention span. Nicolas Carr also wrote the interesting Atlantic Monthly article, “Is Google Making us Stupid?”
One must wonder, in an age of instant messaging, Facebook, and Twitter, if are we headed down a road to more chatter, but less understanding and less learning? Are we sacrificing complexity for triviality? Are messages and information so bombarding us that we can’t take in the knowledge? Yes and no.
Yes, it’s a big problem
Most working adults today were raised and educated with an emphasis on reading and writing. We read books we may not have liked and actually had to discuss what we read. We wrote essays and substantial term papers, and were graded on our thought processes as well as on content and grammar. In many schools today, including some colleges and universities, there is much less of this. Slide presentations substitute for papers, as if speaking in bullet points and writing are the same thing. For a great and funny example, check out Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in PowerPoint, http://norvig.com/Gettysburg.
There is growing concern that, for the next generation of workers, basic literacy could be in jeopardy, and a genuine fear that an obsession with messaging of all forms can lead to mindless, and mind numbing, activity. Already, tech-savvy kids would much rather text than talk, but at 140 characters per message, are they communicating? Are personal conversations, human interaction, and the very nature of deep thinking suffering? Are we rapidly moving to a “sound bite” culture?
The very abundance of knowledge and its ease of access can lead to promulgating (posting, re-tweeting, etc.) content without ever reading, verifying, or understanding it ourselves. The Internet is full of great content, but it is twice as full of worthless drivel. We can just as easily share bad information as valuable information. Without specific research skills, expert guidance, or time to explore a topic in depth, and without a discerning eye for what’s valuable and what’s not, are we left to just cut and paste information as if the Web was the world’s largest “Cliff Notes?”
No, it’s a great opportunity
New ways of doing things always have a learning curve. Once we get past our inflated expectations and subsequent concerns, we’ll likely adapt just fine. Sure, the technology has changed. So what? Weren’t there dire warnings that radio, then television would rot our brains? While some bemoan the death of printed books, digital devices like Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad may actually make reading more popular. Although lagging, schools will eventually figure out how to use the Web more critically and develop new information-consuming skills in our kids, the generation that Marc Prensky refers to as “digital natives,” and they will be much more ready to master this new world than we “digital immigrants” ever were.
Far from being discarded, writing is exploding on the social Web. With millions of blogs on the Internet, more people are writing in this new format than are writing in books or magazines. Increasingly, thoughtful conversation is taking place online. In the workplace, more people actually know what’s going on, thanks to technology. And social networking not only links workers in distant locations and improves productivity; it enables everyone to become better content consumers and more thoughtful content contributors. In a world where the amount of information is exponentially increasing, but its half-life is steadily decreasing, technology, including social media, may be the only way we can keep up.
What to do
The debate is far from over. The key for now is neither running from technology nor blindly embracing it. We must understand and manage it better, including balancing the hype, the promise, and the realities of new media. We cannot be smart users of technology if we are not also smart consumers of technology-delivered content. Technology, including social networking, cannot compensate for a lack of critical thinking abilities, skill mastery, or deep expertise. All require long-term investments in learning, which is why high quality, rigorous education and training still matter — a lot. This combined with a focus on three Web-savvy competencies — digital literacy, technology consumerism, and content criticism, starting with children and extending into the workplace, will go a long way.
What are we training, learning, and performance professionals going to do about this? How can we reap the benefits of social media and the Web while avoiding the pitfalls? Embracing the technology du jour, tweeting about it, or writing a column about it in an online magazine, is not enough.