The Internet & the Youth of Tomorrow: Highlights from the Pew Survey

The Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted “an opt-in, online survey of a diverse but non-random sample of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics … between August 28 and October 31, 2011.” The survey presented two scenarios for the youth of 2020, asked participants to choose which they thought more likely, and then invited elaboration.

Here are the two scenarios and the responses they garnered:

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.

However the report also noted the following:

While 55% agreed with the statement that the future for the hyperconnected will generally be positive, many who chose that view noted that it is more their hope than their best guess, and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios.

In all honesty, I am somewhat surprised the results split so evenly. I would have expected the more positive scenario to perform better than it did. The most interesting aspect of the report, however, are of course the excerpts presented from the respondents’ elaborations. Here are few with some interspersed commentary.

A number of respondents wrote about the skills that will be valued in the emerging information ecosystem:

  • There are concerns about new social divides. “I suspect we’re going to see an increased class division around labor and skills and attention,” said media scholar danah boyd.
  • “The essential skills will be those of rapidly searching, browsing, assessing quality, and synthesizing the vast quantities of information,” wrote Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft. “In contrast, the ability to read one thing and think hard about it for hours will not be of no consequence, but it will be of far less consequence for most people.”

Among the more interesting excerpts was this from Amber Case, cyberanthropologist and CEO of Geoloqi:

  • “The human brain is wired to adapt to what the environment around it requires for survival. Today and in the future it will not be as important to internalize information but to elastically be able to take multiple sources of information in, synthesize them, and make rapid decisions … Memories are becoming hyperlinks to information triggered by keywords and URLs. We are becoming ‘persistent paleontologists’ of our own external memories, as our brains are storing the keywords to get back to those memories and not the full memories themselves.”
I’m still not convinced at all by the argument against internalization. (You can read why here, here, and here.) But she is certainly correct about our “becoming ‘persistent paleontologists’ of our own external memory.” And the point was memorably put as well. We are building vast repositories of external memory and revisiting those stores in ways that are historically novel. We’ve yet to register the long term consequences.

The notion of our adaptability to new information environments was also raised frequently:

  • Cathy Cavanaugh, an associate professor of educational technology at the University of Florida, noted, “Throughout human history, human brains have elastically responded to changes in environments, society, and technology by ‘rewiring’ themselves. This is an evolutionary advantage and a way that human brains are suited to function.”

This may be true enough, but what is missing from these sorts of statements is any discussion of which environments might be better or worse for human beings. To acknowledge that we adapt is to say nothing about whether or not we ought to adapt. Or, if one insists, Borg-like, that we must adapt or die, there is little discussion about whether this adaptation leaves us on the whole better off. In other words, we ought to be asking whether the environment we are asked to adapt to is more or less conducive to human flourishing. If it is not, then all the talk of adaptation is a thinly veiled fatalism.

Some, however, did make strong and enthusiastic claims for the beneficence of the emerging media environment:

  • “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. There will be heads-up displays in automobiles, electronic executive assistants, and cloud-based services they can access worldwide simply by walking near a portal and engaging with the required method such as an encrypted proximity reader (surely it will not be a keyboard). With or without devices on them, they will communicate with ease, waxing philosophic and joking in the same sentence. I have already seen youths of today between 20 and 35 who show all of these abilities, all driven by and/or enabled by the internet and the services/technologies that are collectively tied to and by it.”

This was one of the more techno-uptopian predictions in the survey. The notion of “embracing ADHD as a tool” is itself sufficiently jarring to catch one’s attention. One gets the gist of what the respondent is foreseeing — a society in which cognitive values have been radically re-ordered. Where sustained attention is no longer prized, attention deficit begins to seem like a boon. The claims about the irrelevance of geographic and temporal limits are particularly interesting (or disconcerting). They seemingly make a virtue of disembodied rootlessness. The youth of the future will, in this scenario, be temporally and spatially homeless, virtually dispersed. (The material environment of the future imagined here also invites comparison to the dystopian vision of the film Wall-E.)

Needless to say, not all respondents were nearly so sanguine. Most interestingly, many of the youngest respondents were among the most concerned:

  • A number of the survey respondents who are young people in the under-35 age group—the central focus of this research question—shared concerns about changes in human attention and depth of discourse among those who spend most or all of their waking hours under the influence of hyper connectivity.

This resonates with my experience teaching as well. There’s a palpable unease among many of the most connected with the pace, structure, and psychic consequences of the always on life. They appear to be discovering through experience what is eloquently put by Annette Liska:

  • Annette Liska, an emerging-technologies design expert, observed, “The idea that rapidity is a panacea for improved cognitive, behavioral, and social function is in direct conflict with topical movements that believe time serves as a critical ingredient in the ability to adapt, collaborate, create, gain perspective, and many other necessary (and desirable) qualities of life. Areas focusing on ‘sustainability’ make a strong case in point: slow food, traditional gardening, hands- on mechanical and artistic pursuits, environmental politics, those who eschew Facebook in favor of rich, active social networks in the ‘real’ world.”

One final excerpt:

  • Martin D. Owens, an attorney and author of Internet Gaming Law, Just as with J.R.R. Tolkien’s ring of power, the internet grants power to the individual according to that individual’s wisdom and moral stature. Idiots are free to do idiotic things with it; the wise are free to acquire more wisdom. It was ever thus.

In fact, the ring in Tolkien’s novels is a wholly corrupting force. The “wisdom and moral stature” of the wearer may only forestall the deleterious effects. The most wise avoided using it at all. I won’t go so far as to suggest that the same applies to the Internet, but I certainly couldn’t let Tolkien be appropriated in the service of misguided view of technological neutrality.

5 thoughts on “The Internet & the Youth of Tomorrow: Highlights from the Pew Survey

  1. Building on the A Case quote, these off loaded memories, in part structure one’s future choices. AS it is, we frequently make choice before we are aware of them. Our executive function retroactively reacts, and this becomes part of future unconscious choice making,

    The off loaded memories function I think in a similar way, like our past Goggle searches structure future search results.

    Maybe the key here is determining the extent to which our offloaded experience mimics our sub conscious brain functions in structuring information and therefore choice.

  2. Let me know if I’ve understood your point correctly. What I took from your comment is that the structure and functionality of the archives that contain our external memory condition our future interactions with those archives and its resources. I think there’s definitely something to that. It reminded me the following observation by Lev Manovich:

    “Mental processes of reflection, problem solving, recall, and association are externalized, equated with following a link, moving to a new page, choosing a new image, or a new scene …. Before we would read a sentence of a story or a line of a poem and think of other lines, images, memories. Now interactive media asks us to click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence. In short, we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations …. Interactive media ask us to identify with someone else’s mental structure …. [The] computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer.”

    In one sense, a problem with externalized memory is that it doesn’t function like our internalized memory in becoming part of our non-conscious mental operations. In any case, drawing the analogy certainly suggests a number of fruitful lines of thought.

    1. Yes, that is the direction I was going in. Although I find myself more comfortable with your first paragraph than with the Manovich quote, which seems to minimize the scope and adaptiveness of the external information architecture

      Right now I’m having some difficulty organizing my thoughts on this, but one area that strikes me as important is discussing the relationship of parts to wholes. What happens if we designate the external memory as part of our non conscious mental operations, albeit with its own properties and functions?

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