RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: Beware of the employee too busy to read

June 23, 2008

Is Google making us stupid? No, but it's contributing to the problem.

It's well-known that, although we shape our tools, we are in turn shaped by them. Look no further than the hollowed-out cities of the middle 20th century, when the automobile gave us the mobility to build bedroom suburbs. Mobility killed off neighborhood social clubs, eliminated multi-generational families living together, and stretched town infrastructure like roads and sewers to the breaking point. Sleepy outlying school systems suddenly had both a surge in tax revenue and a horde of new students.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr talks about how we made the Web and Google, and how they're not making us now, so much as unmaking us. In the lifespan of the average pet cat, we've gone from reading books to reading bullet points, from essays to blog entries.

We'll maintain that it's due to our busy schedules, that we don't have time to read much anymore, but that's only partly true, because along with becoming Flamenco readers, we're now dancing the same way everywhere in our lives. Wedding receptions used to last at least a day, and often more. Today they're over in a few hours. The guests have to move on to other engagements.

Business leaders have noticed the trend. In his book "Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?" Lou Gerstner bemoans the ubiquitous move to PowerPoint in corporate suites. When he took over IBM in 1993, he found that executives were eager to regale him with stacks of slides that had nothing but bullet points on them. One of his first acts was to ban the things. He told his executives that if they wanted to talk about their businesses, to just talk.

Carr recites anecdotes in the Atlantic article about acquaintances who have stopped reading books. Not because they were too busy, but because they had gotten into the habit of drive-by information plucking. In some cases, they said when they tried to return to reading books, they couldn't focus on them.

I see the same effect in my practice. It's futile to send lengthy e-mails, even when the subject is complex. People don't read them. Sometimes they get no further than the subject lines. During meetings, it's not uncommon to hear, "I got the e-mail, but I haven't read it all yet." The nation is becoming afflicted with institutionalized ADD.

The problem goes far deeper than just turning into e-mail skimmers. It's often said that business today uses brains instead of brawn, but that's not entirely true, if by "brains" you mean "new thoughts." It's getting to the point that young employees don't have new thoughts-they have ingrained mental spasms. They haven't fed the mental centers for reflection, so they don't have much wisdom. Wisdom comes from experience only when you take time to pause and reflect on what you've learned. Today we not only don't pause and reflect on anything, we think of those who do as hopelessly slow-witted.

Google and the entire online experience are turning our employees into speedsters with no real driving skills. I've seen them with two phones open, several texting windows up and writing e-mails, all simultaneously. At the end of the day they seem to have accomplished a lot, but it's broad and shallow. At no point have they penetrated anything deeply. Today it's possible to be considered a "thought leader" just by having a couple of decent bullet points on a slide. Such thoughts are always murky and vague, because their creators haven't been taught how to crystallize them.

Thought leaders of the past such as Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Warren Buffett and Geoffrey Moore are rarities today. I have bookshelves full of deep thoughts that have influenced me profoundly over the years, but when I lend them out, they come back unread. Not enough time, supposedly. But we spend time on things we believe are important, and today, absorbing others' wisdom has no pride of place.

This is a generalization, of course, as I've met people who have read the influential books of today, such as Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat," Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point," James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" and Guy Kawasaki's "Rules for Revolutionaries." But they tend to be older. Younger people talk about them, but haven't read them. They're second-tier readers letting others winkle out the bullet points for them. They seem to believe reading a Wikipedia entry is the same as having been there.

If it's true, as McLuhan wrote decades ago, that first we build our tools and then they shape us, our Internet information tools are shaping us to be toe-dippers in the information pool, rather than the confident swimmers we believe ourselves to be. It's a little unnerving to imagine American business moving into the mid-21st century with nothing but earnest toe-dippers on staff.

Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net. Find his blog at usabilitynome.blogspot.com.
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