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This is your mind on media.

Musings on the effects of media on cognition.

The Entrepreneurial Generation

[editor’s note: Phooey on Digg. Sorry that this post is a bit of a repeat, but I used their “blog this” link and all it ended up doing was truncating what I wrote and didn’t put any links in the body of the post (which is just my style). So I’m posting this again with some additional information]

So Gen X were slackers and Gen Y are kickin’ it? There are some nice statistics on Steven Johnson’s blog that show that our new Web medium is encouraging participation and entrepreneurship. Kids rule! —give them video games. And maybe Johnson is right in his tome “Everything Bad is Good For You” that this development has more to do with a generation that has grown up with interactive mediums (i.e. video games and the web) than a generation that grew up with a passive medium (i.e. television).

On a slightly related note, Mr. Johnson just came down here to Clemson to give the opening talk to the freshman class, who were required to read “The Ghost Map” over the summer as their first assignment as Clemson University students. I’ve seen Steven Johnson speak before up in New York, and his style (and level of nervousness) have really improved. I thought the points that he made about what went into the book were enlightening beyond the text, and from what I’ve gathered from the faculty here, there are quite a few students who now intend to go into sanitation engineering—you know, at least for the next 14 months or so. Freshman—you’ve gotta’ love ’em.

I have to confess that I have not read “The Ghost Map” just yet—still slogging through Pinker’s Book (and being made fun of by the rest of the Psychology department for it). But even without reading it, I suspect it may be one of his better books. I’ve read them all, with the exception of said historical narrative, and the last two, Mind Wide Open and Everything Bad is Good For You had the information but not insight—the big insight. I don’t know how else to put that. Both Interface Culture and Emergence literally changed my world view. They influenced where I was heading with my own academic pursuits.

Let’s put it this way, great ideas are obvious after the fact. Once you see all the connections, it just becomes very obvious to you, that yes, this is the way things work or function. And I have to say that having worked with computer interfaces all my early adult life, I was still surprised when Johnson pointed out just how much influence the GUI had on society. It was astounding, and I think most people still don’t realize the impact. And it was equally astounding when he revealed how simple automatons could create immensely complex systems. I am still influenced by that particular work when I look at something like Danny Hillis’ Freebase.

Of course, Johnson isn’t inventing any of these theories or ideas. A lot of people complained in the case of Emergence that he really hadn’t explained the matter of emergence deeply enough. ((Although his critics all equally failed to explain what exactly they themselves were talking about)) But the critics really miss the point here, and it’s something he discusses in interface culture (somewhat) and discussed a great deal in his lecture. We live in a world of experts, and we need synthesists—people who don’t just understand the theories of the day, but that can reach across disciplines and what he calls the Long Zoom in order to pull these theories together and find revelations in the matrix of the information. I do think he generally accomplishes that. It would appear (from my mother and father’s reactions to the book) that he also did that with The Ghost Map.

My father is a mathematician here at Clemson, and I used to look at my father’s generation and think that we really needed more people like Steven Johnson, synthesists who would pull the data together. But something else that Johnson mentions in Emergence about the web has gotten me thinking slightly differently. My father’s generation really did need big visionaries who could see across wide swaths of disciplines, but this next generation, growing up on the web—they all have that ability already. Granted, watching them use Facebook in the library, I’m not particularly given over to a utopian optimism about the future of science, but you have to think that the nature of an interactive medium in the lives of these young scientists is going to make them a lot more aware of what is going on elsewhere in their discipline and in science in general. And that will make them synthesists inherent.

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