Are we suffering from information overload?
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Information has never been easier to get, but is it doing us any good? Futurist David Houle puts our national addiction to the Internet in historical context.
Recently, there's been a lot of discussion that asks whether our growing addiction to all things digital is making us dumber. Commentators—including President Barack Obama—have addressed how adults are increasingly suffering from digital distraction and losing the ability to focus for extended periods of time. They wonder out loud about what they see as a growing superficiality in the population and a hyperactive need to constantly be checking computers and handheld devices.

Parents express concern to me that their kids seem unable to quietly focus on one thing or that they can't seem to live without being constantly connected to their friends via ever-present digital devices. We all are beginning to wonder if there is some detrimental effect we have or will soon suffer.

I am not talking about the lunacy of texting while driving. Oprah has correctly led a high-profile effort to keep us all from this dangerous behavior. Would you read a book while driving? Would you be flipping through a magazine with the other hand on the wheel? Of course not! Texting while driving is the same thing, doing something other than completely focusing on the activity of driving a vehicle. That is not the subject of this column.

The Internet, the connectivity all our digital devices provide us and the ever increasing new ways to combine these forces is one of the most transformative events in the history of human communication. It has, is and will profoundly change our lives, individually and collectively. It is here to stay and will only increase in speed, magnitude and effect going forward. It is a force that can positively transform us in the coming decade. I will speak to this vision in future columns.

Every time there is a new, transforming technology, it always causes concern. When Gutenberg invented the movable type press in 1455, the decades that followed were full of consternation. What would reading do to the acquisition of knowledge? At that time, the common belief was that one could not learn unless one wrote things down and that reading would never become a way to learn. This position was propagated by the entrenched interests at the time—the scribes who wrote all the manuscripts.

A century ago, when the telephone first started to become widely used, the dominant question was that people would get overwhelmed with information and wouldn't be able to cope. When radio—the first electronic medium—started to quickly spread across the world, some thought it would destroy the family way of life as then lived, bringing the world into the home and, with it, the outside influences and different ways of looking at the world.

When television took off in the United States between 1947 and 1955, there were loud social ruminations about how it would kill reading and that literacy rates would go down as everyone lost the desire to read. Around this same time, there were two new art forms that were clearly going to lead to the destruction of the moral fabric: comic books and rock 'n' roll. While these were not new technologies, they were social phenomenon based on technologies. But the point here is clear: When anything new, anything that is different from the norms of society starts to take off, it causes an overreaction as to the detrimental effects it will have on our society and on us as individuals. In the decades since portable radios (I remember carrying around a transistor radio listening to John Glenn orbit the earth; shows how old I am!) and television became part of American culture, IQ scores have continually risen. So, by the acceptable measurements of brain science, we are smarter today than we were before television came along.

One of the criticisms of our addiction to digital devices is that we are constantly checking them for email, texts and notifications, feeling the need to constantly be in connection with others. That's certainly true, but it's not something surprising. Whenever some new technology comes along that expands our ability to see beyond our physical reality, it initially transfixes us. I have heard and read numerous stories about the early days of television. When the first store in town would get one and put it in the store window, people actually stood in front of the store watching test patterns! Each technology initially transfixes us, then we incorporate it into our lives and move on with greater connectivity and awareness of the world we can't see or touch.

One of the key criticisms of our use of the Internet is that we are becoming superficial, jumping around from website to website. Our incessant use of search engines is looked at as being superficial. But think of it another way: For the first time in human history, most of the knowledge of the world is now available at our fingertips. Everything I want to know about anything in the world is right here on the computer screen or the tablet screen or the smart phone or the app phone. How could I not jump around? To have the ability to search for just about anything and find it instantaneously makes the acquisition of knowledge and information immediate and available to anyone with an Internet connection. Few scholars in recorded history have ever had that opportunity. Now, it's a reality for us all. No wonder we're drunk with the wonderful access of it all!

Has digital connectivity made you more productive and efficient or less? Do you feel more knowledgeable and connected with true friends who don't live near you...or more superficial and isolated?

David Houle is an award-winning futurist and strategist who has launched successful brands and is an in-demand speaker about the future. He writes the popular futurist blog Evolution Shift and lives his life slightly ahead of the curve.

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