Week 1 – Technology and Leadership

This is my first blog post for a course at Creighton University entitled “Technology and Leadership.”  The course is a part of the Interdisciplinary Doctor of Education program, in which I am a student (clearly).  Throughout the semester, I will be posting more thoughts and reflections from the course… to my classmates who are reading along this semester, I look forward to sharing these ideas with you and learning from you as always.


Is the world “flat” or “spiky”?  And what happens when machines become smarter than we are?

In The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, Friedman (2007) suggests that the earth (in the social, economic, technological sense) is “flattening” because of improvements to communication and travel technology.  The assertion is that technological advances since 1989 (para 10) have allowed individuals and businesses to dramatically increase productivity, expand markets, and enhance innovation through broader talent networks.  In many ways, Friedman is correct.  Technology has decreased the time it takes to do complicated tasks and increased our abilities to connect with one another.  The internet’s beginnings as a government/university research and collaboration network speaks to the genetics of how we use the network technology.

Taken from the technological determinist perspective (e.g., McLuhan, 1964), Friedman might have us believe that the seemingly ubiquitous nature of technology and the internet is responsible for major shifts in both human consciousness and subsequent economic shifts – on par with the effects written language had on society (e.g., Ong, 1982, Shlain, 1998).  That it pervades our lives in such a way as to change the way we think, what we perceive as real, how we do business, and even how we conceive of human relationships.  If that were truly the case – or when it inevitably becomes the case – I would agree that networked technology will indeed fundamentally alter human communication and consciousness.  We have already seen its effects in countries with advanced communication infrastructures like the US.  In other countries, however, where even literacy hasn’t yet completely transformed society, technology will not thrive in the same ways it has elsewhere.  (I’d be interested to explore the notion of skipping literacy in the shift to technology further…

What Friedman may miss, and what Florida (2005) asserts, is that the technology (no matter how good) is not sufficient for the complete “flattening” of the world. The social construction of technology approach (e.g., Bijker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987) would suggest that the technology is only as influential as its host environment allows it to be.  That is, technologies (in all forms) emerge and thrive because of economics, culture, and people’s readiness to adopt the innovation.  The printing press, for example, became a pivotal technological innovation in human history because of the climate of late medieval Europe at the time of its invention.  Scientific work was blooming, and intellectual curiosity was creating a demand for information.  Economics and trade were calling for standards of language and measure and was pushing innovation from the financial side.  Exploration and travel meant that more people across Europe, Asia, and Africa were being exposed to written language in the form of mass replications of text via the printing press.  I believe that literacy has indeed fundamentally changed many societies, yet may still be a novelty in some others.  If we plotted it, I think we’d see a trend of technological hotspots across medieval Europe similar to those presented in Florida’s (2005) article.

Does super intelligence eliminate the social constructivist narrative entirely?  In some senses, I think that if the human condition is eliminated from the equation, and AI is given reign over further development and adoption of “technologies” we may see a very different topology.  As Bostrom (2015) discussed in his talk, when machines begin to learn and adapt, the potential exists for them to move beyond even the limitations of the physical (or sociocultural) environments in which they operate.  If self preservation becomes a value of learning machines, it could follow that they would devise ways of guaranteeing technological adoption and subsequent control of societies through a kind of determinism.  If, as Shlain (1998) argues, the invention of writing systems led to the rise of hegemonic masculinity and the subjugation of women, who’s to say that a similarly nefarious plan couldn’t be hatched by the machines to subjugate humanity?  I don’t know if I believe this (or just don’t want to), but I recognize the power of technology as a shaper of and respondent to humanity.  I sincerely hope that we figure out, as Bostrom (2015) suggests, how to manage our continued exploration of technology!

I’ve failed to address how this practically applies to my work… as a teacher, the influence of networked life on students is profound.  Simple examples like language fluency show how the changing communication technology shapes learning. The creation of unrealistic social expectations through MMORPG and other gaming systems impacts how students interact with one another in the classroom. Children who develop cognitively in fixed rules gaming/app environments become college students with a fixed understanding of what’s possible in the world.  I think this last example (anecdotally) creates myriad problems in creative fields such as graphics, web design, and advertising; an area I plan to continue exploring!

Can you tell I love this stuff?!

James

References

Bijker, W. E., Hughes, T.P., and Pinch, T.J.,(eds).  (1987). The social construction of technological systems: New directions in the sociology and history of technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Bostrom, N. (2015, March) What happens when our computers get smarter that we are? [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/nick_bostrom_what_happens_when_our_computers_get_smarter_than_we_are

Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. Atlantic Monthly. 48-51.

Friedman, T. (2007). The world is flat, 3.0. London: Picador.

McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. New York: McGraw Hill

Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word.  New York: Methuen

Shlain, L. (1989). The alphabet versus the goddess: The conflict between word and image.  London: Penguin Books

14 thoughts on “Week 1 – Technology and Leadership

  • James:
    Thanks for providing some very insightful analysis to this week’s readings. I appreciated the technological determinist lens you provided to the work by Friedman. I had a few questions for you. First, in regards to your thoughts on literacy, as a career marketer, I’m wondering if you think that technology has played any role in lower income areas. I have found that this population is more connected to their digital devices that others using texting and mobile devices to connect with others. My second question is about your thoughts on how the gamer generation is impacting advertising. After 20 years at advertising agencies, I can tell you that big brands are always chasing the next consumer and as an interesting side note, the most visited part of the AARP.org website are the gaming sections. Perhaps there’s a way that gaming can bridge across generations?
    Thanks-Krista

    • James

      Krista – Thanks for jumping in on this discussion. I look forward to working with you this term!

      The technology access gap, I believe has played a significant role. In low-income urban areas as well as rural areas, the type and quality of connectedness definitely shapes the recipient’s perception of both marketing messages and personal communication. A Pew study found that between 10-15% of Americans were “cell phone dependent” (Smith, 2015), meaning, they accessed the internet on a cell phone, and had few or no other ways to do so. Cell-dependency increases among low income households, as well as among African Americans, and Latinos. Educational level also positively correlated with cell phone dependence. From an economic standpoint, this makes a lot of sense: pay one bill for a device that gives you calling, texting, internet, music, pictures, etc, or pay up to 4-5x as much for home phone, broadband internet, cable? (In part, that’s why I have also eliminated home phone and cable from my monthly budget.)

      So, your primary method of consumption is a small screen. I think that’s incredible influential and greatly restricts what you may be able to do. (I thought about writing this response on my tablet and quickly thought better). Further, if your connection is slow or spotty, as is often the case with satellite internet in rural areas, you will consume the media much differently that you might on a fiber network in San Francisco or Chicago.


      Great question about gaming as well. Gamification is a big thing now in so many different areas. I appreciate your insights as an advertiser… one interesting thing I see here is the ability to form deep loyalties among consumers through gamified systems. I, for one, am a slave to my grocery store fuel perks program. I think there’s a level of competition to try to get the lowest price per gallon… or to beat my last score on points earned. Airline miles programs dole out gold, silver, and platinum status, and then flaunt your status when you get to the gate and get to board first! This type of “leaderboard” perpetuates the aspirational nature of the program and influences “noobs” to sign up. The popularity of online games and video games, I think, helps shape the generation’s response to this type of marketing.

      Fascinating stat about the AARP website! I would never have guessed that, through it does make sense. I would be interested to hear more about how you’re thinking of inter-generational applications. I don’t have a ton of insight at this point, but I think there’s a lot there! Thanks!

  • An interesting post, James. One of your classmates noted that there are now more cellphones than toilets in the world, and I have video in a few weeks that explores how this global connectiveness is both changing and confounding us. As both a citizen and a teacher, I am wondering how devices like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana will change our interactions with devices. With the ability to ask these devices any question and get valid answers, are standardized tests now obsolete? Do they enhance or detract from learning?

    Add to it this post from a few days ago…
    https://medium.freecodecamp.com/the-mind-blowing-ai-announcement-from-google-that-you-probably-missed-2ffd31334805#.kfsxsna83

    • James

      Such an important question, Dr. Watwood… thank you!

      I think that on-demand knowledge media resituates where knowledge resides in the human consciousness. That is, how do we conceive of what we know and how we come to know it. The primary medium we rely on for transmission of knowledge either restricts or enables different types of knowledge. Walter Ong (1982) outlined a number of psychodynamic characteristics and compared them between literate and pre-literate cultures. I think we can do the same as we move from literate to post-literate society based in the on-demand medium. For example, predominantly oral cultures maintained a conservative epistemological worldview because knowledge had to be preserved in the mind. Transmission of knowledge preserved the details as they had always been preserved. Mnemonics were heavily used, and context was very close to the “human lifeworld” (as Ong (1982) calls it).

      The advent of the written word allows us to store information elsewhere, freeing up valuable space and horsepower in the mind for abstract thinking, generative knowledge sharing, and innovation!

      Digital, on-demand media, I think, situates that information even further from the centers of our mind. (Interestingly, I wonder how the relation of our understanding of the physical technology impacts our perceptions of the media we’re using. That is, a book is not a complicated mechanical device. Yet, ask someone to explain cloud computing and watch them glaze over.)

      I polled my students this week about how many phone numbers they have memorized, and across the board, the answer was fewer than 5. What is filling in the cognitive void left by sending all of our knowledge to the cloud? I’m not entirely sure, but I know it is consequential. I don’t think on-demand media detracts from accumulating knowledge, but I do think it detracts from our ability to retain information and perhaps generate original knowledge.


      Ong, W. (1982). Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. New York: Methuen

      • “…What is filling in the cognitive void left by sending all of our knowledge to the cloud?” One of Clay Shirky’s later books after HERE COMES EVERYBODY was his 2010 COGNITIVE SURPLUS, which focused on the free time individuals now have due to new media. Many derided it as too simplistic, but it was thought provoking.

  • Mary

    James,

    I really enjoyed your post! You mentioned that if we plotted the technological hotspots across medieval Europe we might see a trend similar to that in Florida’s (2005) article. Here is a link to a picture of the spread of the printing press in the 15th Century (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_spread_of_the_printing_press#/media/File:Printing_towns_incunabula.svg). It seems they went from zero to 200,000,000 books in a century. But you are right, the same cities were the spikes, 500 years ago. The industrial power of Europe is still northern Italy and the Ruhr valley.

    In The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, Shlain (1989) argued that written language brought logic and left brain processing to the forefront, and noted that this is an area where males tend to excel. Shlain pointed out that the switch to visual media might help reorient things. Iconic and graphic images are right brain areas, areas that Friedman (2005) thinks machines may never excel at. I am curious, do you think the form of the mediums we use to communicate might influence right brain and left brain skills?

    Mary

    References

    Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic30774.files/2-2_Florida.pdf

    Friedman, T. L. (2005). The world is flat: A brief history of the twenty-first century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

    Shlain, L. (1989). The alphabet versus the goddess: The conflict between word and image. London: Penguin Books

    • James

      Mary – thanks for pulling that image of the spread of printing. It’s fascinating to see it plotted like that. As suspected, and as we see with many other innovations, the concentrations are close to economic and political hotspots like Rome, Venice, and Paris. Germany is well-represented on this map also.

      To your question about new media and left/right-brain thinking, I absolutely agree with Shlain. In doing my master’s thesis research, I looked at nonprofit organizations’ constituent engagement rates across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I was interested in learning about internet slang, emoji, and hashtags, but also ended up noticing significantly higher engagement (likes, responses, etc) on posts that included images or videos. Overall, Instagram has tended to have a higher engagement rate than Twitter: ~3% and ~.07% respectively (Jarc, 2015). Meaning… I think that images work really well in social media/mobile media because it’s a quick and easy way to consume information. Add video to the mix, and I think you start to see a very different type of cognition emerge. The fact that we’re consuming so much media so quickly on small screens necessitates a shift to easily digestible formats, which in turn, will cause a shift in how we shape (and learn about) the world around us.


      References

      Jarc, J. (2015). Parlance, perception, and power: An inquiry into non-standard language use in digital media. (master’s thesis). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1684659688

  • Tricia

    Hi Mary and James,

    You know I can’t resist any discussion of right/left/whole brain thinking. And for fun I am including a video interpretation (with voice over by the author) of Daniel Pink’s 2007 book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. https://vimeo.com/56477941 Pink’s introduction to the book does remind us that he is using right/left brain as a metaphor but building on that metaphor, it would appear that success in the future will depend on us being very capable in multiple thinking skills. Note that in the assessment of thinking skills we’ll need problem solving, critical thinking and creativity top the list for 2020 https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/21st-century-skills-future-jobs-students/ .

    Strange new worlds … Tricia

    • James

      Tricia, thanks for jumping in with this new information! I have not yet had a chance to watch this, but it sounds fantastic!

      There are so many facets to the innovation/creativity discussion. I totally agree that we need to develop the ability to change gears quickly from divergent to convergent thinking, and abstract to concrete. As tech continues to speed up everything, we need to work on keeping up!

    • Tricia,

      More great resources – thank you! You make an excellent point that multiple thinking skills may be one of the greatest assets for the future. I would add that this might also be accomplished by creating teams with members that, together, represent multiple skills.

      Comparing the 2015 list of thinking skills to the 2020 list, it is interesting to note that Emotional Intelligence and Cognitive Flexibility are newcomers, whereas Quality Control and Active Listening drop off the 2020 list https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/21st-century-skills-future-jobs-students/. Strange new worlds, indeed.

      Mary

  • Chris Kean

    James,

    I enjoyed your additional sources that linked the rise of literacy with that of technology and the limitations that literacy might impose on technology’s growth in certain areas of the world. However, in my experience there is also an issue with technological literacy. With the increasing rapid rise of technology around the world, I don’t believe that there has not been an equal rise in technological literacy. Now I understand that not everyone can or should have a Computer Science degree, but it does seem that many people lack even a basic amount of knowledge with the devices they interact with and depend on daily. This problem seems worse among generations that have also had technology around (I often think back to experiences with my friends’ small children and how all of them seem to assume every screen is a touchscreen). I think this idea of technological literacy fits well into Florida’a argument, as those areas with the largest spikes seem to be hubs of technological literacy. Do you think a lack of technological literacy is merely a roadblock in the world becoming flat or something that will prevent it outright?

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