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Doomed or Lucky? Predicting the Future of the Internet Generation

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Looking into the proverbial crystal ball, a slew of technology experts weighed in on the Future of the Internet V survey conducted by Pew Research and Elon University, and came up with a predictably mixed scenario: It's complicated.

Asked to consider the future of the Internet-connected world between now and 2020 and to choose from two statements, of the total 1,021 responses, 55% agreed with this optimistic view:

"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."

But 42% were less enthusiastic about the impact of wired life:

"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."


These points of view are presented in the context of statistics that show Internet and media use completely permeating young people's lives. From the Pew Internet Project: "95% of teens ages 12-17 are online, 76% use social networking sites, and 77% have cell phones. Moreover, 96% of those ages 18-29 are internet users, 84% use social networking sites, and 97% have cell phones. Well over half of those in that age cohort have smartphones and 23% own tablet computers like iPads."

Focusing the work of educators on shaping students' use of and attitude towards technology is crucial in paving the way for a more positive outcome, many respondents said. “The changes in behavior and cognition in the future depend heavily upon how we adapt our pre-school-through-college curricula to encompass new techniques of learning and teaching,” wrote Hugh F. Cline, an adjunct professor of sociology and education at Columbia University who was formerly a senior research scientist at a major educational testing company based in Princeton, NJ. “If we simply continue to use technologies to enhance the current structure and functioning of education, our young people will use the technologies to entertain themselves and engage in online socializing and shopping. We will have missed enormous opportunities to produce independent life-long learners.”

Some educators who took the survey were critical of the effect of technology on their students "hyper-connected" lives.

"I have seen a general decline in higher-order thinking skills in my students over the past decade," wrote one respondent. "What I generally see is an over-dependence on technology, an emphasis on social technologies as opposed to what I'll call ‘comprehension technologies,’ and a general disconnect from deeper thinking. I’m not sure that I attribute this to the so-called ‘re-wiring’ of teenage brains, but rather to a deeper intellectual laziness that the Web has also made possible with the rise of more video-based information resources (as opposed to textual resources).”

Another respondent who has been a college-level professor for 12 years weighed in: "Students do not know how to frame a problem or challenge. They do not know how to ask questions, and how to provide enough detail to support their answers (from credible sources). Technology is playing a big part in students not only not being able to perform as well in class, but also not having the desire to do so.”

But the writers of the survey posed an important question about why educators noted these negative impacts: "Is this at least partially due to the fact that they are still trying to educate these highly connected young people through antiquated approaches? Perhaps those who have argued for education reform would think so."

The need for instant gratification and shallow learning and interactions were the main negative points made about impacts of tech-dependent lives. "Technology is taking our collective consciousness and ability to conduct critical analysis and thinking, and, in effect, individual determinism in modern society,” said cyber-security expert Richard Forno. “My sense is that society is becoming conditioned into dependence on technology in ways that, if that technology suddenly disappears or breaks down, will render people functionally useless. What does that mean for individual and social resiliency?”

Alexandra Samuel, director of the Social + Media Centre in Vancouver, Canada, offered a less tentative, more proactive approach and thinking about the issues: “If we can stop fretting about what we’re losing we can make room to get excited about what we’re gaining: the ability to multitask, to feel connected to ‘strangers’ as well as neighbours, to create media unselfconsciously, to live in a society of producers rather than consumers,” she said. “The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents is how we can help today's kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for.”

Other highlights from the study:

  • Barry Chudakov, a Florida-based consultant and a research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto: "Technology will be so seamlessly integrated into our lives that it will effectively disappear. 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.”
  • Alvaro Retana, a technologist with Hewlett-Packard. “The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus on specific problems.”
  • Jessica Clark, a media strategist and senior fellow for two U.S. communications technology research centers: “Every new generation finds creative and groundbreaking ways to use the new technologies to explore and illuminate human truths and to make dumb, sexist, horrifying schlock. Multitasking young adults and teens will be fine; they'll be better at certain types of tasks and worse at others. Their handwriting will be horrendous. Their thumbs will ache. Life will go on.”
  • Communications scholar Sandra Braman of the University of Wisconsin: "Are the deep skills acquired by those with a lot of gaming experience transferable to the meat flesh world? That is, do those who can track multiple narratives simultaneously practice that same skill in environments that aren't animations and have buttons to push? The second is will. Do those who can, to stick with the same example, track and engage with multiple narratives simultaneously choose to do the same with the meat-flesh political environment? The incredibly important research stream that we have not seen yet would look at the relationship between gaming and actual political activity in the meat-flesh world. My hypothesis is that high activity in online environments, particularly games, expends any political will or desire to effectively shape the environment so that there is none of that will left for engaging in our actual political environment.”


Tin Tan Wee, an internet expert based at the National University of Singapore: "Current educational methods evolved to their current state mostly pre-internet. The same goes for a generation of teachers who will continue to train yet another generation of kids the old way. The same goes for examination systems, which carry out assessment based on pre-internet skills. This mismatch will cause declension in a few generations of cohorts. Those who are educated and re-educable in the internet way will reap the benefits of the first option. Most of the world will suffer the consequence of the second. The intellectual divide will increase. This in turn fuels the educational divide because only the richer can afford internet access with mobile devices at effective speeds.”


Communications professor Jeff Jarvis: “I do not believe technology will change our brains and how we are ‘wired.’ But it can change how we cognate and navigate our world. We will adapt and find the benefits in this change.”


David Ellis, director of communications studies at York University in Toronto: “I don’t think there’s anything inherently bad or anti-social about smartphones, laptops, or any other technology. I do, however, believe we are entering an era in which young adults are placing an inordinately high priority on being unfailingly responsive and dedicated participants in the web of personal messaging that surrounds them in their daily lives. For now, it seems, addictive responses to peer pressure, boredom, and social anxiety are playing a much bigger role in wiring Millennial brains than problem-solving or deep thinking.”


David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society: “Whatever happens, we won't be able to come up with an impartial value judgment because the change in intellect will bring about a change in values as well.” Alex Halavais, an associate professor and internet researcher at Quinnipiac University: “We will think differently, and a large part of that will be as a result of being capable of exploiting a new communicative environment,” he noted.

It's a fascinating read, with lots of thought-provoking perspectives from experts, students, and educators. Be sure to read the report in full here.



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