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Elon studies the future of "Generation Always-On"

World tech experts share predictions in the Imagining the Internet Center's fifth "Future of the Internet" survey.

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LInks to media coverage of this Elon study: Los Angeles Times; Chicago Tribune main story; Chicago Tribune sidebar story; Reuters newswire; Digital Journal; LiveScience; MSNBC; Economic Times; Central Valley Business Times; Pew Internet Project; Buzz Machine; Tech News Daily; First Coast News; The Republic; The Atlantic; Editor & Publisher; Gawker; Mashable; Decoded Science; Triad Business Journal; WebProNews; Huffington Post; Mind/Shift; Mobiledia; RedOrbit; EdTechResearcher; Epoch Times; DigitalShift; Forbes; Examiner; News & Observer; Times-News; Monterey County Herald; Washington Post; Business Insider

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Gen AO in 2020: Teens-to-20s to benefit and suffer due to ‘always-on’ lives

From their amazing ability to juggle many tasks to their thirst for instant gratification, lack of patience,  Pew Internet/Elon University survey reveals hopes and fears for the hyperconnected generation

By the year 2020, it is expected that youth of the “always-on generation,” brought up from childhood with a continuous connection to each other and to information, will be nimble, quick-acting multitaskers who count on the Internet as their external brain and who approach problems in a different way from their elders. "There is no doubt that brains are being rewired," said danah boyd of Microsoft Research.

In a new survey, boyd and more than 1,000 other technology stakeholders and critics discussed the future for today’s hyperconnected young people. Janna Anderson, the report co-author and director of Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center, refers to the teens-to-20s age group born since the turn of the century as Generation AO, for “always-on."

“They have grown up in a world that has come to offer them instant access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge, and incredible opportunities to connect, create and collaborate," Anderson said. "While most of the survey participants see this as mostly positive, some said they are already witnessing deficiencies in young peoples’ abilities to focus their attention, be patient and think deeply. Some experts expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people become shallow consumers of information, endangering society."

This is the fifth in a series of “Future of the Internet” surveys of leading technologists conducted since 2004 by the Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. Many of the respondents in this survey predict that Gen AO will exhibit a thirst for instant gratification and quick fixes and a lack of patience and deep-thinking ability due to what one referred to as “fast-twitch wiring.”

“There is a palpable concern among these experts that new social and economic divisions will emerge as those who are motivated and well-schooled reap rewards that are not matched by those who fail to master new media and tech literacies,” said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and co-author of the report. “Many of the experts called for reinvention of public education to teach those skills and help learners avoid some of the obvious pitfalls of a hyperconnected lifestyle.”

Many noted that humans are experiencing a revolutionary era – with new communications tools changing the knowledge landscape – and said young people are approaching life and its tasks and challenges in new ways, with good and bad results.

“In most-developed nations, young people born since the mid-1990s are quite different from those born before them,” Anderson said. “While these survey participants see this as mostly positive, they added that we are already witnessing deficiencies in most younger people’s abilities to focus their attention. Some expressed concerns that trends are leading to a future in which most people become shallow consumers of information, and several mentioned Orwell’s 1984.”

The experts offered strong, consistent predictions about the most-desired life skills for young people in 2020. Among those they listed are: 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; and the ability to distinguish between the “noise” and the important messages in the ever-growing sea of information.

Following is a selection of respondents’ remarks:

“There is no doubt that brains are being rewired. The techniques and mechanisms to engage in rapid-fire attention shifting will be extremely useful for the creative class.” — danah boyd, senior researcher with Microsoft Research

“It’s still early, but I believe we will see significant, positive, and even astounding improvements in the cognitive abilities of young people within the next five years.” — Dave Rogers, Yahoo Kids

“Skills being honed on social networks today will be critical tomorrow, as work will be dominated by fast-moving, geographically diverse, free-agent teams of workers connected via socially mediating technologies.” — Fred Stutzman, creator of the software Freedom and Anti-Social

“The replacement of memorization by analysis will be the biggest boon to society since the coming of mass literacy in the late 19th to early 20th century.” — Paul Jones, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill

“When these young people remake our educational institutions so that they reflect this Internet-based architecture, rather than the broadcast, ‘expert in the center’ framework of today's K-doctorate educational systems, then their ability to process, if not actually absorb, a greater amount of information will be used to produce positive outcomes for society.” — Morley Winograd, co-author of Millennial Momentum

“Teens find distraction while working, distraction while driving, distraction while talking to the neighbours. Parents and teachers will have to invest major time and efforts into solving this issue – silence zones, time-out zones, meditation classes without mobile, lessons in ignoring people.” — Marcel Bullinga, futurist and author of Welcome to the Future Cloud—2025 in 100 Predictions

“Society is becoming conditioned into dependence on technology in ways that, if that technology suddenly disappears or breaks down, will render people functionally useless. What does that mean for individual and social resiliency?” — Richard Forno, cybersecurity expert

“Short attention spans resulting from quick interactions will be detrimental to focusing on the harder problems and we will probably see a stagnation in many areas: technology, even social venues such as literature. The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus.” — Alvaro Retana, distinguished technologist, HP

“When the emphasis of our social exchanges shifts from the now to the next, and the social currency of being able to say ‘I was there first’ rises, we will naturally devalue retrospective reflection and the wisdom it imparts.” — Stephen Masiclat, Syracuse University

“If we can stop fretting about what we’re losing, we can make room to get excited about what we’re gaining: the ability to multitask, to feel connected to ‘strangers’ as well as neighbours, to create media unselfconsciously, to live in a society of producers rather than consumers. The question we face as individuals, organizations, educators and perhaps especially as parents is how we can help today's kids to prepare for that world—the world they will actually live in and help to create—instead of the world we are already nostalgic for.” — Alexandra Samuel, director, Social + Interactive Media Centre at Emily Carr University

“The underlying issue is that they will become dependent on the Internet in order to solve problems and conduct their personal, professional, and civic lives. Thus centralized powers that can control access to the Internet will be able to significantly control future generations. It will be much as in Orwell's 1984, where control was achieved by using language to shape and limit thought, so future regimes may use control of access to the Internet to shape and limit thought.” — Paul Gardner-Stephen, rural, remote, and humanitarian telecommunications fellow at Flinders University; founder and director of the Serval Project

“It seems easy to decry the attention span of the young and to mourn the attendant loss of long form content. Who will watch Citizen Kane with rapt attention when your Android tells you Rosebud was a sled? On consideration, though, I think the Internet has brought forward not only education, but thinking. While we still want to cultivate in youth the intellectual rigor to solve problems both quantitatively and qualitatively, we have gotten them out of the business of memorizing facts and rules and into the business of applying those facts and rules to complex problems. In particular, I have hope for improved collaboration from these new differently ‘wired’ brains, for these teens and young adults are learning in online environments where working together and developing team skills allows them to advance.” — Perry Hewitt, director of digital communications/communications services, Harvard University

“We will renorm to the new tools. We have always had mall rats and we've had explorers. Ideally, people will improve their critical thinking skills to use the available raw information. More likely, fads will continue.” — Bob Frankston, computing pioneer, co-founder of Software Arts and co-developer and marketer of VisiCalc, created Lotus Express, ACM Fellow

“We've got adaptive intellects, so if we need to develop new ways of understanding and coping because of a supposed ‘rewiring’ of the brain, we will do so. Whatever happens, we won't be able to come up with an impartial value judgment because the change in intellect will bring about a change in values as well.” — David Weinberger, senior researcher, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Library Innovation Lab

Respondents were allowed to keep their remarks anonymous if they chose to do so. Following are predictive statements selected from the hundreds of anonymous comments from survey participants:

“I wonder if we will even be able to sustain attention on one thing for a few hours – going to a classical concert or film, for instance. Will concerts be reduced to 30 minutes? Will feature-length films become anachronistic?”

“We have landed in an electronics age where communications technologies are evolving much more quickly than the minds that are producing them and the social structures that must support them. We are not taking the time to evaluate or understand these technologies, and we aren't having serious conversations about what effects these new tools have on us.”

“Discussions based around Internet content will tend to be pithy, opinion-based, and often only shared using social media with those who will buttress – rather than challenge – political, ideological, or artistic beliefs.”

“Increasingly, teens and young adults rely on the first bit of information they find on a topic, assuming that they have found the ‘right’ answer, rather than using context and vetting/questioning the sources of information to gain a holistic view of a topic.”

“My friends are less interested in genuine human interaction than they are looking at things on Facebook. People will always use a crutch when they can, and the distraction will only grow in the future.”

“Parents and kids will spend less time developing meaningful and bonded relationships in deference to the pursuit and processing of more and more segmented information competing for space in their heads, slowly changing their connection to humanity.”

“It’s simply not possible to discuss, let alone form societal consensus around major problems without lengthy, messy conversations about those problems. A generation that expects to spend 140 or fewer characters on a topic and rejects nuance is incapable of tackling these problems.”

“Why are we creating a multitasking world for ADD kids? The effects will be more telling than just the Twitterfication of that generation. There have been articles written about how they're losing their sense of direction (who needs bearings when you have Google Maps or a GPS?). Who needs original research when you have Wikipedia?”

“Fast-twitch wiring among today's youth generally leads to more harm than good. Much of the communication and media consumed in an ‘always-on’ environment is mind-numbing chatter. While we may see increases in productivity, I question the value of what is produced.”

“Long-form cognition and offline contemplative time will start to be viewed as valuable and will be re-integrated into social and work life in interesting and surprising ways.”

These findings reflect the reactions in an online, opt-in survey of a diverse set of 1,021 technology stakeholders and critics who were asked to choose one of two provided scenarios and explain their choice.

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 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.”

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.”

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 firm prediction, and a number of people said the true outcome will be a combination of both scenarios. The research result here is really probably closer to a 50-50 outcome, noted Anderson.

This is the first report generated out of the results of a Web-based survey that gathered opinions on eight Internet issues from a select group of experts and the highly engaged Internet public. (Details can be found here: http://www.elon.edu/e-web/predictions/expertsurveys/)

The Imagining the Internet Center (http://www.imaginingtheInternet.org) is an initiative of Elon University's School of Communications. The center's research holds a mirror to humanity's use of communications technologies, informs policy development, exposes potential futures and provides a historic record.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://wwwpewInternet.org), is a nonprofit, non-partisan “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It produces reports exploring the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care and civic and political life.
 

Dan Anderson,
Staff
3/28/2012 4:52 PM