From the moment our ancient ancestors used their first tool, technology has been a constant companion on our species’ evolutionary road trip. That same innovative moment created technological “haves” who quickly adopted and utilized these new tools and “have nots” who either refused to or were prevented from adopting them. This dichotomous existence continues to this day and one of its most prominent current manifestations is the collective technology of the internet. At an exponentially increasing rate, the internet is knocking down barriers in human communication that have existed for tens of thousands of years, forcing us to rethink and relearn how we create, consumer and share content.
While the “haves” or Early Adopters and the “have nots” or the Laggards don’t agree on the efficacy of these technological advances, they generally agree with our natural ability to leverage them. For instance, most researchers (regardless of their technological bias) agree that humans are not effective multitaskers (listen to NPR interview http://n.pr/10QZKkM), have an upper bound on the number of relationships they can maintain (read NYT article http://nyti.ms/11SWOKS) and acknowledge the primordial and addictive nature of asynchronous communication.
They disagree however on humanity’s ability to recognize its historical limitations and develop methods to overcome them and harness the full potential of their technological advances. As with the advent of printing press and the clock this technological innovation has disrupted conventional cultural norms, creating evangelists and detractors that have little in common other than the strength of their convictions that society is either taking a giant step ahead or is ever closer to complete disintegration.
Early Adopters of technology pontificate the benefits of the communication revolution that has been fueled by internet. They talk about the cathartic value of ambient intimacy that occurs when people are able to follow the daily events of their extended network. The efficient technology Haves will wax poetically about how the internet provides them with instant access to almost infinite information, eliminating the need for them to commit facts and figures to memory, allowing them more time for deeper contemplation or social endeavors. Social conservatives will preach that the internet allows a society to police itself, helping college students and others to think about the consequences of thier actions for fear of it becoming part of thier perpetual digital record. Liberal supporters believe the proliferation of users updating their status will help them attain greater self actualization. Overall, regardless of their political or social views, Early Adopters believe they have harnessed the power of the internet to create a more informed, more connected and more convenient life.
With a passion matching that of the Early Adopters, Laggards vehemently believe that the internet is to be viewed skeptically at best or at worst totally avoided. They argue that the internet is reprogramming the human mind, making it incapable or reading, let alone comprehending, anything longer than 140 characters (the limit of a Tweet) creating a mindless society of pancake users who are miles wide and only inches deep. The “touchy feely” Laggards bemoan the loss of in-person relationships and the inability of connected users to interact with live people. Academia lectures about the negative impact the internet has had on the ability of today’s students to focus on a single topic for any significant amount of time. The harshest critics point out a paradox where the heaviest internet users don’t are effectively digitally illiterate and are ignorant of the features and benefits technology provides. Overall, regardless of their political or social views, Laggards see technology as a threat and believe the movement away from traditional competencies and lifestyles is fraught with peril.
In the End
Both types of users and both sides of the debate have convincing, fact based arguments, but like most topics worth debating, there isn’t an objective way to determine who’s wrong and who’s right. Most likely, both sides are right at the same time and their perspectives will merge as more and more people adopt the new technology (most people now agree that fire, cultivation and the steam engine are good things). Most importantly, I think academia needs to respond to these new innovations by dramatically overhauling their curriculum to teach society how to effectively use internet technologies while providing them with the training they need to prevent or at least minimize the negative consequences and side effects. Academia’s success will largely determine if the internet is an evolutionary milestone or a tragic dead end.