Children of the Law of Accelerating Returns

Teens texting

The New York Times reports that the “ever-accelerating pace of technological change may be minting a series of mini-generation gaps, with each group of children uniquely influenced by the tech tools available in their formative stages of development.” Will this gap narrow even more as the pace of technological innovations quickens – as we approach "The Singularity?"

Whether or not you agree with Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity, the evidence that the pace of technological innovation continues to accelerate is hard to deny. “An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view,” Kurzweil famously asserts. “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.”

But is this technological acceleration producing not so much a generation gap (or “mini-generation gap”) than a gap between those that can keep up with the pace of technological acceleration and those that can’t? In other words, a cognitive gap? Larry Rosen, a professor of psychology at California State University at Dominguez Hills distinguishes between the Net Generation, born in the 1980s, and the iGeneration, born in the ’90s and the oughts (’00s). The older Net generation was raised on the first personal computers and video gaming platforms like Nintendo and Sony PlayStation. The younger iGeneration (sometimes referred to as “Millennials”), while still gamers, tend to multitask more than their older siblings by listening to mp3 players, texting and chatting online with friends, and reading and posting Facebook messages, often while studying. Here’s a funny 60 Minutes spoof that contrasts the Net generation with the Millennials:

Dr. Rosen’s book, Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the Way They Learn, offers a research-based, positive, proactive message to parents, educators, and policy-makers and cuts through the sensationalism and fear-based messages of others in the media. Indeed, what good can possibly come from a title like Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30)? The evidence seems to favor Dr. Rosen’s view.

The most recent Pew Research Center statistics show that 56% of adult Americans have accessed the internet by wireless means. African Americans are the most active users of the mobile internet, which, the Pew report concludes “means the digital divide between African Americans and white Americans diminishes when mobile use is taken into account.”

Photo: The New York Times Company“Adult Americans,” are those 18 and older, which by definition would include primarily a mix of Boomers, Net, and iGeneration respondents, although the actual age distribution was not published in the report. While manual dexterity, cognitive flexibility, adaptability, and the ability to multitask often go hand-in-hand with youth (for example, 16- to 18-year-olds can perform seven tasks on average, while people in their 30s can only handle about five and a half), there are nimble seniors — perhaps outliers statistically — who are quick learners and may be more technologically adept than many of their younger counterparts. Nevertheless, author Brad Stone’s point in the New York Times article is intriguing. Discussing his 2-year-old daughter, he writes  “Another bubbling intra-generational gap, as any modern parent knows, is that younger children tend to be ever more artful multitaskers,” Many of the technological innovations (explored in the pages of h+) — increasingly intelligent web bots that can be tasked to crawl the web, fluid interfaces such as clothing that connects to the internet, more computing power packed into smaller-and-smaller form factors, brain-to-computer thought-controlled interfaces, neural implants, more compelling virtual worlds, 3D nano-printers, and domestic robots — will likely become more powerful and more available at an accelerating pace over the next 10 to 20 years. The ability to multitask (like the computers of today) may indeed require the cognitive flexibility of a 2-year-old to keep pace with such change. Vernor Vinge — one of the first to argue that exponential growth in technology will reach a point beyond which “we cannot even speculate the consequences” — explores the educational consequences of keeping up with accelerating change in his fiction in which adults must return to high school just to function in society.

The ability to multitask may indeed require the cognitive flexibility of a 2-year-old to keep pace with such change.

In Arthur C. Clarke’s classic science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, the Earth is visited by powerful aliens — the Overlords. These beings, however, turn out not to be conquerors or Lords of the Universe, but merely babysitters. They know that life on earth is undergoing transformational change — the children are evolving beyond the parents. But are we all, in some sense, the children of the law of accelerated returns? A young, nimble mind may be an advantage, but the continued shrinking of the digital divide may not separate us so much by “mini-generation” as by those who have both access to new technology and the cognitive wherewithal to continue to learn and adapt to it.

11 Responses

  1. bob keefe says:

    I’m a boomer (’53) and we have a saying at my law office: “multi-tasking isn’t.”

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