Digital in 2012: The web will make us smarter

The last decade or so were the august years of the Digital web. A sort of industrial revolution that created entirely new types of economies, skill-sets, companies and most importantly behaviors. Led by programmers and tinkerers and computer scientists, this industrial age has been crucial in helping us write our generational history. One of the biggest outputs though of this age has been the birth of a culture were our need for visibility has overtaken our need for privacy. What this has done is created a digital world that is not designed for developing original thought.

There’s nothing wrong with that and ofcourse the onus does not lie on the web. But I believe that anything in excess hurts the society. And all this talk about connectivity has left a few other equally important values for humanity at bay. It’s time to address this excess.

The good news is that a new slew of characters have emerge to balance out the equation. I believe, we are on the fringes of entering a new wave. I’m calling it the age of enlightenment in our digital history. And this age is being lead by a new class of people. These are thinkers, artists and storytellers not programmers and geeks. These are people driven by a vision that’s a bit more individualistic, centers more around exploring the tapestry of human opinions and feelings instead of connecting the world into one large immutable being.

The problem

Sharing has become a thoughtless act: Sharing used to carry weight – it used to be hold more meaning. Now, it’s passive, robot-like. And does not persuade or evoke response. Yet brands and marketers continue to tout the one-to-many function that social networks (and the Internet) has enabled. The web systems we have designed unfortunately haven’t focused on curating for the self but for the echo chamber that each of us is a part of. Some may argue we have become mindless drones, quick to react and retweet, but not *think*

I refuse to buy that a meaningful conversation can happen on channels we currently use: Facebook and Twitter predominantly. Even sites such as Pinterest and Tumblr who I’m a huge fan of, often symbolize nothing more than “inspiration fetishism” (a word coined by Stefan Boublil) What this has resulted into is a culture of people that backslap each other, think like one another and as a result, even act like one another. (I cannot tell you how many times I have heard about checking-in and scoreboards in a boardroom for new products. Which brings me to my next point..)

Value exchange is quantified in terms of likes, friends and followers: Web has become too much of a game. With gamifying the web and making instant gratification an expectation, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  I’ll give that the conversations around gaming are evolving and becoming more substantial but we have been trained to respond to flash sales, group buying and other forms of commercial game-induced behaviors. Gaming will have a larger role to play in the age of enlightenment, but perhaps not so overt. It’s job will and should become about elevating the meaning and importance associated with a like, number of friends and followers etc.

As our social quotient goes up, our intellectual quotient is coming down: The web is not going to disappear – if anything, it will continue to become more important in the next few years and become the entity that our kids will play with and even learn from. But if the growth of the web continues to perpetuate in such a manner – what kind of original thought will our kids will capable of producing?

The Solution?

The web, if designed and engineered differently,  has incredible power to induce substance back into our lives. To teach us how to think and encourage behaviors that aren’t simply reactive or celebratory. Our natural instincts are to shut technology or cut ourselves from it for a few days, to take a sabbatical or a thinking break. But why does it have to be this way? Why aren’t we or why haven’t we discussed the possibility of desgining technology and the Internet to make us smarter? Why don’t we make systems that:

1. Are designed for constructive debate and dialogue by exposing us to different points of views
2. Are designed for quality – not quantity. Where there is less immediate gratification.

In our capacity as marketers and brand stewards, our work is also indirectly shaping the future of education, humanity and intellectual thought. What roles can we play to encourage the evolution of the Web in a direction that’s not stunting our growth, but making us smarter individuals everyday?

The good news is, that I’ve already been seeing whispers of a movement in this direction. As I mentioned earlier, artists and thinkers are the one’s the forefront of this movement right now. Raghava KK, my fellow TED nominator and artist, has recently announced the launch of Shaken Media Collective.

Shaken Media Collective is an initiative brought about by the talents of creative individuals dedicated to forging a new direction of storytelling that raises empathy in readers by shaking up perspectives, and bringing stories to life through a fusion of play, art and technology.

You can see a glimpse of what this means (and its current incarnation) by downloading Raghava’s perspective-shifting PopIT application for the iPad where one shake of the story reveals a completely new perspective.

Another such attempt to bring more substance to the web and to our behaviors on the web is Cowbird. I’ve been lucky enough to be one of the early storytellers on the site. Cowbird, like most of other Jonathan Harris projects furthers how technology can offer new ways Screen shot 2011-12-21 at 6.54.01 PMof looking at the world, and telling stories. A tightly controlled and curated environment, Cowbird, is (in its own words)

trying to preserve and evolve the dying art of storytelling, using technology as friend instead of foe. We believe all people deserve equal access to the best storytelling tools, so the communication of ideas cannot be monopolized. We support the broad empowerment of individuals to voice their honest ideas about life, and we believe they deserve a clean, ad-free, uncluttered environment for sharing personal experience.By encouraging self-reflection and deeper connection, we hope to foster a feeling of empathy among people all over the world, so we can start to see our species — and indeed our planet — as a single living organism.

Regarding it’s whimsical name, it says, “Cowbird combines these two extremes to form a new kind of storytelling medium — mixing the slow, deeply rooted, contemplative idea of a cow with the fast, efficient, playful idea of a bird.”

I don’t know how successful these two initiatives will be, but we’ve entered the age of enlightenment and as the collective consciousness around this grows, more entrepreneurs, artists and thinkers will veer in this direction and build upon each other’s work to create a digital world that balanced. A world that can teach us to think as well as it as taught us to respond. Marketers as a rule respond to the current zeitgeist, and once we create a new habits and behaviors, marketers too, will play their part in accentuating and intensifying them.

This is my sincere hope for the coming year and I’d love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this.

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