Our brains are changing - why your business needs to know
THE internet has changed the world. It is changing individuals - the way we think, work and play. And it is also physically changing our brains.
Is that a frightening proposition, or a great opportunity? How do the brains of "digital natives" work differently from those of "digital immigrants" and what does that mean for business?
In his thoughtful but alarming book The Shallows, former Harvard Business Review executive editor Nicholas Carr describes the neurological changes that have happened to humans in the wake of technological change - the development of writing, the invention of maps and clocks, and the industrial revolution have all rewired human brains to take advantage of the new technologies.
Just as Socrates said of writing - that it would erode the ability of young people to remember things - Carr decries the loss of memory created by access to instant information, the turning away from the medium of the book, and the loss of quiet thoughtfulness.
"What the net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation," he writes. "Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a jet ski …
"The net's interactivity gives us powerful new tools for finding information, expressing ourselves, and conversing with others. It also turns us into lab rats constantly pressing levers to get tiny pellets of social or intellectual nourishment."
The Shallows, described as "hair-raising" by one reviewer, does not dwell on the other side of the equation - the benefits of the internet and of the way it is changing us.
Yes, being online changes your brain - but so does making a cup of tea.
As British Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science Tom Stafford writes, "The truth is that everything you do changes your brain. Everything. Every little thought or experience plays a role in the constant wiring and rewiring of your neural networks. So there is no escape. Yes, the internet is rewiring your brain. But so is watching television. And having a cup of tea. Or not having a cup of tea. Or thinking about the washing on Tuesdays."
Stafford writes that the changes make us better at dealing with abstract information.
"You would be a fool to think that the internet will provide all the exercise your brain needs, but you would also be a fool to pass up the opportunities it offers. And those pictures of funny cats," he says.
The opportunities are many and powerful, and businesses need to take hold of them to survive.
I can get all the information I need faster through the Web. You need to know how to do it - to be a skilled hunter
Four years ago (a long time in internet years) author Don Tapscott wrote of how the internet has altered the way an entire generation learns and thinks.
He quoted a 20-something student as saying: "I don't read books. I go to Google, and I can absorb relevant information quickly …
"Sitting down and going through a book from cover to cover doesn't make sense. It's not a good use of my time, as I can get all the information I need faster through the Web. You need to know how to do it - to be a skilled hunter."
I know a hunter of similar age who grew up in a house full of books yet never developed the habit of reading them.
That didn't stop him from being on the Dean's list each year of his university studies, or from making a detailed study of various forms of democratic government and writing a detailed white paper on how the Queensland electoral system could be dramatically improved.
"The digital world provides new ways to learn that can potentially make this Net Generation the smartest ever," writes Tapscott.
"What we're seeing is a new form of literacy that many experts say is just as intellectually challenging as reading a book."
What lessons can business take from this?
Be conscious of how the Net Generation - or Generation Next if you like - thinks and works.
Hire smart young people and learn from them - and learn how to keep them on staff.
Be aware of it in your handling of staff and with your marketing and communications with your customers.
As Tapscott says, "Net Geners" are more sensitive to visual icons than older people are:
- They absorb more information presented with visual images than in straight text.
- They are quick scanners, which is useful when confronted with masses of online information.
- They are quick at switching tasks.
They are good at blocking out background noise, able to work effectively with music playing and news coming in from Facebook.
"They can keep up their social networks while they concentrate on work-they seem to need this to feel comfortable," says Tapscott. "They've learned to live in a world where they're bombarded with information, so that they can block out the TV or other distractions while they focus on the task at hand. This is a powerful advantage in a digital environment that's buzzing with multiple streams of information."
- Most importantly, when you are considering marketing to this generation, remember they expect a two-way conversation, not a one-way lecture.
It's a lesson we journalists are struggling to learn, and which many businesses are still ignoring, at their peril.