Our Digital Legacy

by Adam on November 15, 2012

There’s a relatively timely scene in the popular IFC show Portlandia where one of the main characters ends up in an endless cycle of digital overload, jumping from texts on his mobile phone, to check-ins on Facebook, to streaming video on Netflix, and on and on it goes. While in the moment, we all can laugh at the hyperbole of this scenario, it does in many ways point to an impending multitasking issue that the digital world provides.

First and foremost, as a way of level-setting, I think most people stink at multitasking, at least in terms of doing things online. Jumping from writing a proposal in Word, to composing an email, to crafting a tweet, there’s no real way to dig into something and do it well. But, aside from this very apparent productivity problem (or perhaps in addition to it), a larger problem now is arising over how we process, store and recall information on a long term basis. In short, the world of digital, while allowing for incredible access to information, trades depth of knowledge for sheer breadth on a superficial level.

Why is this an issue? For two primary reasons: the first is that in allowing access to information 24/7 (and in trying to quell or curate the firehose of information that comes out of digital channels), users don’t put significant value on any of the information they are accessing. The term “just Google it” has become so ubiquitous for everything from figuring out how to put together an IKEA sofa to putting a timestamp on the War of 1812 (well, duh). And the second, which relates to the first, is that since we can have such an unprecedented breadth of information at our fingertips, we don’t really feel the need to become experts at anything (or perhaps, anything outside of the fiefdoms of knowledge we’ve cultivated as they relate to our professional endeavors).

Anecdotally, it seems that more and more, the value of knowledge and education is diminished in the face of opportunities for instant gratification over quick answers. There’s no longer any thrill or hunger for understanding information outside of how it relates to solving our primary problem in the moment. One only has to look at the educational marketplace to see that we no longer value the pursuit of information for its own sake. And, since the internet has almost any answer you could ever need, the “information archive” that at one point might’ve been our own brains is increasingly being offloaded to digital platforms.

I can’t quite say what the consequence of this issue will be, but I think there’s an inherent risk in not valuing information, understanding its history and pedigree, and also understanding where we’ve come from and why. They say that those who don’t understand the past are doomed to repeat it (you can Google that one too and find out who said it), and it seems to me that the less and less we understand the tapestry of information that’s brought us to where we are, the more apt we are to depend on digital channels to answer all the questions we have, rather than trying to discover those answers on our own.

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