Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse.

Sophocles, as quoted by Tiffany Shlain, director of the film Connected and founder of the Webby Awards, in this new Pew Internet Report.

This survey is fifth in the series “Future of the Internet” conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center. Results from past surveys can be seen here and here

The survey was conducted from August 28 to October 31, 2011 through an online questionnaire sent to selected experts who were encouraged to share the link with other informed friends. The task: consider the future of the internet-connected world between now and 2020 by selecting a choice in each of eight “tension pairs,” pairs of scenarios that might emerge by 2020. The overall finding:

In 2020, the brains of multitasking teens and young adults are “wired” differently from those over age 35 and overall it yields baleful results.

55% chose the statement that this rewiring yields helpful results.
42% chose the statement that this rewiring yields baleful results.

The study does note that, 

We did not offer a third alternative – that young people’s brains would not be wired differently – but some of the respondents made that argument in their elaborations. They often noted that people’s patterns of thinking will likely change, though the actual mechanisms of brain function will not change. 

Strong, consistent predictions listed the most desired life skills for young people in 2020. These include:

  • public problem-solving through cooperative work (sometimes referred to as crowd-sourcing solutions)
  • the ability to search effectively for information online and to be able to discern the quality and veracity of the information one finds and then communicate these findings well (referred to as digital literacy)
  • synthesizing (being able to bring together details from many sources
  • being strategically future-minded
  • the ability to concentrate
  • the ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the message in the ever-growing sea of information

Answers were supplemented by narrative elaborations, which are the fascinating portion of this study. One of the insights I found most interesting came from Barry Chudakov, a Florida-based consultant and a research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto.

He wrote that by 2020, “Technology will be so seamlessly integrated into our lives that it will effectively disappear. The line between self and technology is thin today; by then it will effectively vanish. We will think with, think into, and think through our smart tools but their presence and reach into our lives will be less visible. Youth will assume their minds and intentions are extended by technology, while tracking technologies will seek further incursions into behavioral monitoring and choice manipulation. Children will assume this is the way the world works. 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.”

FJP: Sounds frightening and fascinating at the same time. Now, our question to you. What impact might this have on innovation? A repeated theme in the study is summarized by this comment:

Young people accustomed to a diet of quick-fix information nuggets will be less likely to undertake deep, critical analysis of issues and challenging information. Shallow choices, an expectation of instant gratification, and a lack of patience are likely to be common results, especially for those who do not have the motivation or training that will help them master this new environment. One possible outcome is stagnation in innovation.

FJP: Is this true? Stagnation in innovation? The whole report is worth a read. Really insightful comments from great thinkers.

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    Interesting read, Howard Rheingold has some interesting things to say about all this in his new book Net Smart....
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