Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Chaos of Constant Connection?

A while back I read this article in Newsweek by George Will. In it, Will warns us against the "chaos of constant connection."

The ubiquitous barrage of battery-powered stimuli delivered by phones, computers, and games makes “the chaos of constant connection” an addictive electronic narcotic. As continuous stimulation becomes the new normal, “gaps between moments of heightened stimulation” are disappearing; amusement “has squeezed the boredom out of life.” For the hyperstimulated, “the synaptic mindscape of daily life” becomes all peaks and no valleys.

He's quoting the work of clinical psychologist Adam J. Cox, who fears that this "electronic narcotic" is creating a generation of socially-stultified people--especially among boys and young men.

“Unlike reading and listening to stories,” Cox warns, “the blitz of electronica doesn’t build deeper listening skills or a greater range of emotional expression.” Self-absorption, particularly among young males, may be the greatest danger of immersion in the bath of digital amusement: “Not only does withdrawal into electronica enable them to bypass the confusion and pain of trying to give their emotions some coherence, it also helps them avoid the realities of being a flawed, vulnerable, ordinary human being.” So “the silent, sullen boy at the mall’s game store may be next in line for an underemployed, lonely adulthood if we don’t teach him how to maintain effective social contacts with others.”

Then I read this post from Andrew McAfee about how the connected habits of Millennials are benefting organizations. When asked if the hyper-connectivity that many younger workers grew up with is something they will also grow out of, McAfee says no.

There are too many benefits to living with a certain degree of openness for Digital Natives to 'grow out of it.' Job opportunities, new personal connections, professional collaboration, learning from others' experiences, etc., are all very powerful benefits to engaging openly with others online, and this is something that Gen Y understands intuitively."

Older generations, McAfee says, don't share this intuition. They work privately, or in small groups, and only share their work when they consider it done. The younger generation, in contrast, shares information constantly, and use blogs, microblogs and social networking software to broadcast not only their finished products, but also their work in progress. They "narrate their work," sharing information about their tasks and projects, the progress they're making, the resources they're finding particularly helpful, and the questions, roadblocks and challenges that come up. This narration becomes part of the digital record of the organization, which means that it becomes searchable, findable, and reference-able.

McAfee sees two broad benefits of this connected content:

First, people who narrate their work become helpful to the rest of the organization, because the digital trail they leave makes others more efficient. Second, by airing their questions and challenges work narrators open themselves up to good ideas and helpfulness from others, and so become more efficient themselves.

So here are two views of the same phenomenon. George Will sees the glass as half empty, with the water quickly draining out of a hole in the bottom. He cautions:

We are in the midst of a sudden and vast social experiment involving myriad new means of keeping boredom at bay. And we may yet rue the day we surrendered to the insistent urge to do so.

Andrew McAfee sees the glass as half full and getting fuller, with the younger generation setting a new model that older generations should follow:

Gen Y, meanwhile, knows that narrating their work, when done right, saves time, increases productivity, and knits the organization together more tightly. We should start following their lead and stop reflexively working in private.

Which view are you going to take? There's still time to choose, isn't there?
Photo source


seanrox said...

Seems in earlier generations, a level of "success" was based upon 'secrets' with an eventual media blitz showcase moment. With a very short tail...

Now, the actual 'doing' or process is a slow media burn gaining collaborators along the way. The end product : a shared asset, tag-gable, relevant and archived for future reference...

Producers will excel in this environment. Rise of the 'Do-ers'.


Jen Alluisi said...

Well...they're both a little bit right, aren't they? I mean, I agree that the "constant stimulation" provided by social networking really does leave us floundering for depth in our connections. It's certainly not a stretch to say that comprehension decreases the more information you take in, and we take in a LOT more every day these days. On the other hand, the public and collaborative inclination of the GenYs as highlighted by McAfee definitely has great value for all the reasons he pointed out: resource sharing, brainstorming, archiving, etc. I think the leaders of tomorrow are going to be those who retain the ability use strong critical thinking skills but also find their online presence a natural extension of themselves. And those people are definitely out there.

Eric Lanke said...

Thanks for the comments, Sean and Jen. You've both picked up on essential points. I ended my post with the question I did because I believe we do have a choice in this matter. Those who master the art of "filtering" the connected enviornment so that it adds value to their experiences and their organizations will be the true leaders of the future. In this regard, Millennials (or at least those who swim regularly in the connected pool, whatever their generation) have an advantage over those of us who are still taking water safety courses or those, like George Will, who refuse to go swimming at all.

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