Consumer or Contributor? Growing Up on the Internet

published on September 22, 2014 | tagged in:

It is almost impossible to imagine life without the Internet. It is, clearly, one of the most powerful networking tools that transcends location, distance, geography, language, race, and culture – reaching millions of people faster than you can say the word Ping. Well, in some places that is. But, there is absolutely no turning back to life before it.

Millionaires have been built online. Fame and fortune have become accessible to even the remotest ends of the earth. If you have a smartphone and internet access, the next online sensation perhaps could be you. The world is flatter than ever. The new land of great opportunity is no longer a specific country. It is right there at your fingertips. A swipe, a like, an upload, a post, a tweet away.

Distraction or Tool?

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.” – Oscar Wilde

There are legitimate reasons why we spend so much time online. The thirst and quest for information is like swimming in a bottomless pool of answers that just gets deeper and deeper and deeper. It can be addicting. Really. And before you know it, minutes, hours, or even days have already passed while consuming and gobbling up “information”. There is no “mouth” wide enough that can fit all that brain food all in one blow. Guilty? Uhm, Maybe. Productive? Well. The question is, in the search for more and more knowledge, “Are we searching ourselves to death?”

Today’s generation is constantly looking for “the next big thing” to devour – latest music, latest video, latest gadget, latest app, latest download. For some, it is a legitimate tool for learning. To others, it is a mindless distraction that keeps them preoccupied and amused. In the novel Brave New World, a book written by Aldous Huxley in 1931, the author shares some interesting insights (considering that this was written almost 83 years ago) that could very well apply to what is going on today. Makes you stop and think about how this generation is being raised.

To maintain the World State’s Command Economy for the indefinite future, all citizens are conditioned from birth to value consumption with such platitudes as “ending is better than mending,” “more stitches less riches”, i.e., buy a new item instead of fixing the old one, because constant consumption and near-universal employment to meet society’s material demands, is the bedrock of economic and social stability for the World State. (source: Brave New World, Wikipedia)

Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, shares this interesting insight regarding Huxley’s book :

“…in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Interestingly, in the book The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, author Nicholas Carr points out a few observations that seem to say the same thing.

“Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster the better,” he insists.

Carr worries that the volume of information which we are able to access along with associated practices of multitasking and skimming are resulting in “a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization: we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gathers in the electronic data forest”.

On the other end of the spectrum it is not all gloom and doom. Clay Sharky, author of Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators, presents a different perspective on how the Internet affects us, its possibilities, and its challenges. Here are a few excerpts from his book.

Cognitive surplus is “ treating the free time of the world’s educated citizenry as an aggregate”.

The harnessing of our cognitive surplus allows people to behave in increasingly generous, public, and social ways, relative to their old status as consumers and couch potatoes. The raw material of this change is the free time available to us, time we can commit to projects that range from the amusing to the culturally transformative.

If people are using their surplus time and talents in generous and public ways, then we assume the cause is new tools: the web, mobile phones, new software, everything that didn’t exist in the past. These kinds of technology-centric observations locate the surprise in the new tools.

Today people have new freedom to act in concert and in public. In terms of personal satisfaction, this good is fairly uncomplicated— even the banal uses of our creative capacity (posting YouTube videos of kittens on treadmills or writing bloviating blog posts) are still more creative and generous than watching TV. We don’t really care how individuals create and share; it’s enough that they exercise this kind of freedom.

The fusing of means, motive, and opportunity creates our cognitive surplus out of the raw material of accumulated free time. The real change comes from our awareness that this surplus creates unprecedented opportunities, or rather that it creates an unprecedented opportunity for us to create those opportunities for each other. The low cost of experimentation and the huge base of potential users mean that someone with an idea that would require dozens (or thousands) of participants can now try it, at remarkably low cost, without needing to ask anyone for permission first.

In conclusion, Sharky notes:

The world’s people, and the connections among us, provide the raw material for cognitive surplus. The technology will continue to improve, and the population will continue to grow, but change in the direction of more participation has already happened. What matters most now is our imaginations. The opportunity before us, individually and collectively, is enormous; what we do with it will be determined largely by how well we are able to imagine and reward public creativity, participation, and sharing.

At the end of the day, what we do with what we have all depends on what we value most. Personal motivation and goals determine why we do what we do offline and online. Consumer? Contributor? Knowledge is power and Information empowers. What we do or not do with it will determine its value and impact – to ourselves, to the world around us, and to the generations after us.

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