Is our hyper-connected world changing us for the better, or the worse? Pew looks for answers.

One of the great questions about the digital and interactive age is how it may be affecting the way people fundamentally think and behave.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has been studying this question, too. In late 2011, Pew queried a group of technology experts and stakeholders and asked them to prognosticate on the impact of hyper-connectivity on today’s younger generation.

It is the fifth in a series of surveys conducted by Pew on “The Future of the Internet.”

The question posed to these experts was: Looking out to the year 2020, will the younger generation’s “always-on” connection to people and information turn out to be a net positive or a net negative?

And the consensus response to this question is … no consensus at all. In fact, the experts broke down in roughly equal camps on either side of the issue.

The optimists believe that:

 The brains of teens and young adults will be “wired” differently from their older counterparts … but this will yield positive results.

 They will not suffer any notable shortcomings as they cycle quickly through work-related and personal tasks.

 They will be more adept at finding answers to questions, and will be learning more precisely because they can search effectively and access collective information in cyberspace.

An equal proportion of experts holds a decidedly less optimistic view of the future. Their opinion is closer to this:

 Even though teens and young adults will be “wired” differently than their older counterparts, they will not become more knowledgeable as a result.

 They will use cyberspace not to become better informed, but to be “faster” informed.

 Instead of becoming better educated and better informed, they will depend on the Internet and mobile devices to deliver quick results, with little retention, introspection or further study.

 They will spend most of their energy sharing short social messages, being entertained, and being distracted away from a deep engagement with knowledge and with people.

Here’s a link to the Pew report summary, and the results are well worth reviewing.

As for my own view, it seems to me that the environment we’ll see in 2020 is probably somewhere in between these two posts.

It’s true that many people will interact with digital technology in ways that have little to do with any sort of hard, intellectual labor. But is that so different from what we’ve seen in society in general over the past half-century?

There are thought leaders. There are thought consumers. And then there are the clueless. The digital tools and techniques people choose to use just make it easier to play in whatever league they wish.

It reminds me of that old adage about the three types of people found in the world: Those who make things happen … those who watch things happen … and those who wonder what happened. (And there are precious few people who fall into the first group.)

The fact is, no degree of Internet connectivity and social interactivity is going to change fundamental human nature. It doesn’t matter whether we’re hyper-connected or not.

… But let’s hear some different perspectives from others …

One thought on “Is our hyper-connected world changing us for the better, or the worse? Pew looks for answers.

  1. The first person I heard use the term “hyper-connected” was (I believe) Tom Friedman of the New York Times. He was referring not just to the tendency of people to spend their days glued to their smartphones, but also to the Internet’s ability to connect people instantaneously to others all over the globe.

    He was right … and wrong. We’re certainly hyper-“wired.” No question about that. But connected? Globally, we still remain divided by language. A study I saw by Facebook revealed that most people’s circle of “friends” remained fairly parochial. And comments on walls are overwhelmingly in a single language. So while we may have access to a global community, most of us stake out our own little patch and rarely venture out. Of course, on the other hand, it is certainly true that catchy photos, jokes, quips, and news stories can now quickly “go viral” internationally.

    As for “deep engagement with knowledge”…
    Jean d’Ormesson, the French academician and essayist, observed that the web has become an excellent reference library that can be consulted when we have a question. BUT, it doesn’t help us discern which questions need to be asked. Context — cultural, historical, philosophical, commercial — remains the fruit of a proper education.

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