Dan makes a brilliant point in The Power of Pace: "...we tend to underestimate the significance of the pace of change and is effects on powerful institutions."
I’d take it even further: We underestimate the effects it has on us as individuals, and thus on every aspect culture and society. Tools have always changed civilizations, but 21st century tech isn’t about tectonic shifts like the invention of the steam engine. It’s about a thousand aftershocks that change the ground we walk on. It alters not only what we do, but who we are as human beings.
First, we have to understand how our minds affect our brains. Neuroscientist Michael Merzenich explains the full implication of how massively what we do changes how we think:
What we pay attention to physically alters our brains, determining which synaptic connections and neural pathways get stronger and which atrophy. Merzenich uses the example of young soccer players in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Their ability to head a soccer ball occurs at a rate higher than in populations of boys from a U.S. city. This is not because U.S. kids don’t have the same motor skills or brain power. Rather, they don’t pay as much attention to developing soccer skills. Their culture doesn't value those skills in the same way.
Lots of factors go into our decision on attention allocation: biology, culture, environment, social values, parental beliefs, personal experiences, fear of spiders. Once we give our attention to something repeatedly and intensely, such as learning to head a soccer ball, we build brain infrastructure.
The beginning, when neural pathways are under construction, can be labor intensive, time-consuming and even painful. But once we master a skill, we are effortlessly sending energy across smooth, wide highways. Same principle applies to things that aren’t as good for us. Being in a prolonged stressful situation, for example, beefs up neural connections as surely as if we were sending them to the gym.
In both cases, we can get so good at things, we don’t really “think” about them any more. Things become automatic. We don’t need to read street signs as we drive home every day. We lose our temper at the drop of a hat when someone “pushes our buttons.”
A well-built highway system is great, if it takes us where we want to go. When old patterns have to be undone, though, it can be even more difficult than learning from scratch. Changing your mind or learning a new way to do something requires a diversion of “traffic” from super highways to roadways still being graded.
Change-positive people are cool with this. They like to build (at least some of the time.) Change-averse people will stick to the current route, even if it’s full of potholes. Most of us are in the spectrum between.
Change our brains, change the world
So how does this relate to tech? Because millions of us are paying attention to new things. We our changing the physical structure of our brains and across demographics and geography and psyochographics, we are changing in similar ways.
The skills we acquired lets us use new tech that lets us connect with others who are acquiring the same skills, the same wiring. We are transforming contemporary culture. We are changing what we pay attention to.
And we are doing it rapidly. The changes aren’t eventual. It's not horseback to automobile. Massive change doesn’t suddenly spike with a new invention and then flatten out. It is a Gatling gun of innovation. Imagine the digital press coming out two years after the printing press. Think iPhone apps. A non-qwerty phone is old school. So 15 minutes ago.
As we teach ourselves to text, we learn that we can learn. We can adapt and adopt and change. So when our phone morphs into a Blackberry and then to an iPhone and then to whatever’s next, our neural pathways for change become superhighways. We evolve -- and are willing to evolve -- faster and faster.
And here’s a corollary: Tech familiarity decreases the fear factor. Stair-stepped skills -- and most personal tech builds on the last bit -- paves our pathways. Typing to word processing to digital layout Those who started early aren’t as intimidated because some pathways are already in place. Our kids aren’t the least reluctant to dive in because they’ve been using computers since they could hoist themselves upright. Those that dive in strengthen their ability to dive in.
It becomes fun. Research indicates that we get a little boost of pleasure courtesy of dopamine as we acquire new behaviors, a built-in reward system for adaption.
But the change-averse are still ubiquitous, those who unfailingly pump the brakes in a desperate attempt to slow things down. Internet as isolating. It's bad for kids. It's destroying the fabric of the cosmos. It is tempting to argue back, to say that what is really being criticized is the how not the what. For instance, the isolation theory assumes that digital interaction supplants face-to-face meetings. Come to Charleston where the online community meets up more often than most of us can afford. Blaming technology for the failure of kids to go outside and play seems to me to be more about lax parenting, And the accusation that it's killing our culture sounds like the old "everything-was-better-the-way-it-used to-be" lament of people who enjoyed the perks of the status quo.
As 20th century models falter and lose relevance, a question to ponder -- one that may be more profound that how to save a failing bank or newspaper -- is what will happen as the gap widens between those who can change their minds and those who can’t?