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An Interview with Richard Watson

William Kolkey and Alexander Barker

Richard Watson is a writer and consultant, who specialises in scenario-planning and the analysis of trends. On 27 January, Watson spoke at Blackwell’s in Oxford about his newest book Future Minds: How the Digital Age is Changing our Minds, Why this Matters, and What We Can Do about It (2010). Future Minds expresses concern about the pernicious effects of technology on the brain, arguing that the Internet and contemporary multimedia impair the ability to think deeply and creatively. The book enters an ongoing discussion about the Internet’s influence on cognitive ability (see articles by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal), but is unique in its focus on ways to curb our addiction to technology. He spoke to the Oxonian Review about the relative rate of contemporary innovation and the relationship between technology and education. For more about Richard Watson, visit What’s Next and Future Files & Future Minds.

You argue that technology can impair the development of important skill sets, namely the ability to think deeply and creatively.

That’s really my focus. What are these technologies doing to our thinking? But we’ve got to be careful because obviously there are different types of technology and equally there are different types of thinking. And I think [technology] is enhancing different types of thinking but it is eroding others.

Should recourse to technology in the classroom be limited?

I think it should. I need more time to think about how that works…But I think fundamentally we need to ask: What kind of thinking are we after? What kind of technology best supports that? I would regard pencils and papers and books as much a technology as a blackboard. So we need to think very hard about what we’re trying to achieve and what are the best tools for the job…There should be periods when technology is switched off. It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you are trying to cram information, then by all means use a computer, use a whiteboard. But if you’re trying to do more than that, to understand context—for instance, what was the Battle of Britain and why did it happen?—then I think that needs physical interaction.

You criticise the current emphasis that schools place on quantitative analysis. Do we change the curriculum to give more emphasise to the humanities?

Yes, and this isn’t particularly my view. It is Ken Robinson’s more than anyone else’s. But I think we are only educating one half of our brain: the left logical side…The education system is still producing the same type of person and the world has changed. Bear in mind if you’re 5 years old and starting education, the world when you graduate is going to be an incredibly different place. It seems to me we’re training people for the wrong skills… The thing that has real value is the ability to relate to other people physically and emotionally. We talk about the information economy ad nauseam but we don’t really educate for it, and so creativity is sort of relegated…It’s not a real subject. The real subjects are like law and medicine. But these other things have equal weight…Essentially the education system is set up to say there’s a right answer for everything. Learn it; go and apply it. That’s true if you’re an engineer, and for a lot of scientists, there is one answer. But in a lot of areas, there isn’t. There are lots of different answers…We essentially teach convergent thinking: there’s one right answer. And actually, if you want a culture of innovation, you need to encourage divergent thinking.

In the United States there’s a big scare that the Chinese are out-educating Americans in the maths and sciences. Do you think these fears are missing the point?

Someone sent me an e-mail last night and it’s got a great slogan. They’ve got this campaign called “No right brain left behind”. It’s fabulous; I love that. I read a statistic recently. It said that 90% of PhDs in science and engineering reside in Asia…The issues in America are healthcare, obviously, but also education. The same is true in Britain. We are falling behind…We just don’t know what’s about to hit us. The Chinese take education so seriously. There are certain subjects you can’t teach unless you have a certain grade in that subject. Here, you can fail maths four times and eventually pass and then teach maths. You could not do that in China.

The interesting thing about China [and a few other countries] is that they’ve got a model that’s all about the production of low-cost stuff. The challenge now is to move up the value chain; they’ve got to start not just producing this stuff. They’ve got to start inventing. Now to what extent can they do that? To what extent is Silicon Valley dependent on the American Dream and that political system of freedom, etc.? Some people say you can’t have an innovation economy without freedom, but those people were probably also saying you can’t have capitalism without democracy, and the Chinese have proved that completely wrong. My feeling is that there are issues [correlating] serious innovation and creativity and originality. Unless you have openness and freedom, [innovation] could be quite constrained. I’ve heard a lot of anecdotal stuff from McKinsey. When they hire Indian and particularly Chinese graduates, there is a sort of groupthink going on there. They’re not going to challenge the teacher in a different direction. And for serious innovation you need that disruptive element; you need the wise ass. And maybe the Chinese system isn’t creating that, but maybe I don’t know enough about it.

In your talk, you said that Alvin Toffler was 30 years ahead of his time. You also invoked phrases of another mid-century analyst of technological change, Marshall McLuhan, such as “the global village” and “the medium is the message”. To me this suggests that Toffler wasn’t ahead of his time at all, but rather these technological changes have always been with us, and I wonder whether this is merely a change in pace?

There’s a quote I use from William Gibson: “The Future is already here—it’s just unevenly distributed.” Change always comes from the fringe…If you want to see the future, there are certain places you can go and you’ll get it. The history of prediction is appalling. It’s not that they’re wrong; it’s that their timing stinks. They are too optimistic about how quickly change is going to happen. There’s an argument that says change is accelerating; that it’s happening quicker than it used to. A lot of people are [predicting] what’s going to happen in the future, and [their predictions] are probably a decade off. There’s also the classic mistake of saying x will replace y. It’s a sort of binary argument. And actually it’s not like that. [For example] physical newspapers will not die. They may be an exception rather than the rule, and the same with books. There are going to be multiple futures and you can buy into the future you want.

With Toffler, that’s what’s been the case. There’s a really good book called Future Hype, written by an American computer scientist, who tries to put the predictions of technology into some kind of a historical context, and it’s really interesting looking at what people say now versus what they said 100 years ago. To some extent, I think his argument is that compared to the level of change we talk about now, there was actually more change during the Industrial Revolution. It was far more rapid, far more impactful. In a sense, there’s no reason to be anxious—it’s all nothing.

You encourage people to occasionally isolate themselves from technology and offer advice for how to do this: experiencing the outdoors, turning off mobile phones whilst on vacation, etc. But how optimistic are you that people will voluntarily remove technology from their lives?

[Technology] is a bit like drugs, cocaine, and alcohol. It’s rather satisfying if you are involved in social networks; [they] make you feel in control and important…A study was done on cell phone use, and [the researchers] withdrew the cell phone and a few other things, and the physical and emotional symptoms were exactly the same as going cold turkey from serious drug addiction. I don’t think we’re going to acknowledge this as a problem for 5 to 10 years minimum. I then think it will be acknowledged. South Korea and America are the only countries that have Internet addiction clinics at the moment. I think it will become more common 15 to 20 years down the line. Even so, most people will deny that they have a problem.

Alexander Barker is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at Lincoln College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review. William Kolkey is reading for a DPhil in History at Magdalen College, Oxford. He is the editor-in-chief of the Oxonian Review.