The Hyperconnected Generation

March 1, 2012 Updated: March 5, 2012

Children are growing up in a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, creating a generation of brains that are “wired” differently. A study done by Pew Research Center and Elon University gathers expert opinions from various fields, analyzing not only potential harms and benefits of today’s technology-immersed lifestyle, but also possible reforms in education for a different breed of minds.

The study, “Millennials will benefit and suffer due to their hyperconnected lives,” is based on online surveys from 1,021 technology experts and young people who are asked about the effects of those who are growing up hyperconnected to each other, communicating mostly through virtual means.

Opinions are split down the middle on whether the effects of such constantly connected lives will be a net positive or negative by 2020.

The report raised the question: How do we educate a generation characterized with “a thirst for instant gratification, settling for quick choices, and lacking patience?”

Experts suggest that it is important for education reforms to concentrate on teaching skills, such as problem-solving through cooperation, the ability to effectively search for information online, and the ability to discern the veracity of their findings—the most “desired” skills, according to the study’s findings.

According to Amber Case, CEO of Geoloqi, key words and URLs are changing the way people think. “Memories are becoming hyperlinks to information triggered by keywords and URLs.”

“We are becoming ‘persistent paleontologists’ of our own external memories, as our brains are storing the keywords to get back to those memories and not the full memories themselves,” she stated in the study.

Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, claims that in order to be successful, the ability to read one thing and think hard on it for hours may not be as important as the skills mentioned above, according to the study.

Many experts emphasize digital literacy. Dave Rogers, managing editor of Yahoo Kids, says mobile connectivity is swiftly and positively changing the lives of children. For younger kids who have not yet developed verbal skills, using a tablet is more “natural” in evolutionary-driven development.

“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,” Rogers stated in the study.

According to the report, 55 percent agree with the statement that technology does not result in mental shortcomings; instead, students will become more adept at finding answers effectively on the Internet, learning more as a result.

“Growing up hyperconnected to each other and counting on the mobile Web/Internet as their external brain will make nimble, quick-acting, multitaskers, who will do well in key respects,” the study claims.

Technology has provided more opportunities for young people to multitask. There is “evidence now that ‘supertaskers’ can handle several complicated tasks well,” a useful skill to develop, Stowe Boyd, technology and communications consultant, states in the report.

Boyd claims that viewing technology dependency as harmful will “seem very old-fashioned in a decade,” just as “Socrates bemoaning the downside of written language, or the 1950’s fears about Elvis Presley’s rock-and-roll” have all come to pass.

Christopher J. Ferguson, a professor from Texas A&M whose research specialty is technology’s effects on human behavior, agrees that the fear of technology is a “moral panic … that seems to be wired into us,” states the report.

But 42 percent agree with the statement that students are too preoccupied with short social messages, hurting their ability to think on a deeper level. According to the report, many who chose the positive view also noted that it is “more their hope than their best guess,” while a number of people said the end result of 2020 will most likely be a combination of both scenarios.

According to the report, critics claim that accustoming to quick-fix answers will have ill effects on the ability to think deeply and critically.

One respondent predicts “discussions based around Internet content will tend to be pithy, opinion-based, and often only shared using social media,” nor will one take stands to “challenge political, ideological, or artistic beliefs.”

Search Engines Replace Reason

Eugene Spafford, a professor of computer science and engineering at Purdue University, said that reasoning will be replaced by search engines. Many people will no longer be able to communicate in confident, direct manners without access to online sources, he said in the report.

Alvaro Retana, a technologist with Hewlett-Packard, said the quick interactions encourage short attention spans. It will be “detrimental for focus on the harder problems.”

“The [future] leaders will be the ones who are able to disconnect themselves [from being hyperconnected] to focus on specific problems.” According to the report, Retana predicts that “technology and even social venues such as literature” will become stagnant by 2020.

The report states that numerous experts are concerned that the technological trend will create more “shallow consumers of information,” some comparing the future to George Orwell’s novel “1984,” a fiction novel about a dystrophy society brainwashed by totalitarian dictatorship.

Others wonder if short attention spans become the norm in the future, will concerts and films of the future be limited to 30 minutes? “Will feature-length films become anachronistic?” the report states.

There will be winners and losers. “As Sophocles once said, ‘Nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse,'” noted Tiffany Shlain, director of the film Connected and founder of the Webby Awards. The key would lie in finding a balance in the new environment.

“Just as we lost oral tradition with the written word, we will lose something big in the coming world, but we will gain as well,” Shlain said in the report.