Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Future of Thought

I had the immense pleasure of hearing Sherry Turkle speak on a panel concerning the emergence of a digital class and what it means for our social order. One of the questions raised during the discussion concerned the future of thought: As we become immersed in virtual worlds and digital media, what will happen to the structure of thought?

Turkle’s response was insightful and provocative. Children and teens are being told that the world is more complex than it has ever been, but they are being raised in an environment where they are required to answer questions almost immediately. As a result, the types of questions that are being asked are changing—they are questions that can be answered quickly (in 140 characters in some instances).  For example, in schools students are being encouraged from a very early age to create PowerPoint presentations—the formal research paper has morphed into bulleted slides that can be easily digested. Part of this is the result of the email culture, which has trained us to be ready to respond and dole out information in specifically packaged ways. Turkle suggested that one measure of the successful self in our present time has become whether the individual can keep up with email. This may change, but the question remains as to how thought will be constructed in the coming years as a result of our changing relationship with information.

Digital thought is something that I’ve spent a great deal of time researching. In fact, I’m in the process of finishing some edits on a paper that I plan to submit for publication. As subsequent generations are raised with the mediums of Facebook and Twitter integrated with their lifestyles, the sustained logic that Turkle views as absent from today's dialogues will emerge, just in a different way. They will learn to function within 140 characters. However, I'm curious about the future of communication between those who are exposed to digital media and those who aren't. (I'm thinking of the double digital divide again). For example, the health care reform plan was criticized for first being too long to digest, then too short to cover all the salient points. What will happen to information that cannot be processed in a compact way? Will it be omitted entirely? Connecting the dots on Twitter between "Health care plan = good" or "Health care plan = bad" is one thing, but does it mean you understand the tenets of the plan? And will individuals who don't have access to digital media be left out of the conversation about issues that may affect them?

To intelligently discuss the future of thought, we have to first acknowledge the discrepancies in thought that exist, not as a result of a difference in opinion but as a result of access to information. This discrepancy is not new. Schools in affluent neighborhoods tend to have access to more resources, and as a result the students also have access to more resources. However, with digital media the danger becomes that the discrepancy may widen beyond reconciliation given the rapid growth rate of technology. Are we raising a class of thinkers who are learning to operate in a bubble—who will discuss among themselves in a shorthand that only they can understand, leaving out the those who are not digitally present?

Some may argue that this is no different from what happens today, right? Politicians argue among themselves, and only loop the public in around election time. They operate in a bubble. And though the means of joining the conversation exist—you can access information via the Freedom of Information Act, write your congressperson or senator, post your opinion online, use your Facebook status or Twitter account to share your feelings—there are people who don't take advantage of these opportunities even though they have the means. By choice. Does it matter? So which group will guide the "evolution" of thought—the digital thinkers or the people who remain unplugged?

Many questions today, and not many answers I'm afraid. As always, feel free to chime in.

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