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Noted Technologist to Moderate Upcoming Winter Socrates Seminar

December 4, 2013  • Institute Contributor

Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, will moderate a digitally focused dialogue at the upcoming Aspen Institute Winter 2014 Socrates program, a forum for emerging leaders (approximately ages 28-45) from various professions convening to explore contemporary issues. 

Balkam’s seminar will explore the way our brains and relationships are being re-wired in the digital age, and the impact these fundamental changes are having on the art of leadership. Given all the digital distractions, has it become impossible for people and, in particular, teens, to stay focused on one topic or task for any length of time? We check in with Balkam for a preview of the discussion.

Your seminar is titled, “How Technology is Changing Us: How We Think, Relate, and Lead.” Are humans devolving as technology evolves?

It seems we’re wired for distraction, at least, the primitive parts of the brain that keep a watchful eye for animal predators or sudden dangers that existed in our hunter/gatherer days. Neuroscientists report that we receive a squirt of dopamine every time we receive a text message or a tweet – a seemingly pleasurable experience that leads us to wanting more. And, author, advocate, and professor Tim Wu has argued that our computers have become “distraction machines”, not only weakening our brains, but also making it harder for us to achieve great feats of concentrated effort.

Many worry that this generation of young people reared on Snapchat, Instagram, and selfies will simply fall apart if tasked with any mental exercise that requires more than a quick search on Wikipedia. When the average teen sends and receives over 100 texts per day while also checking Twitter, Tumblr, and Tinder, it’s not a huge leap to suggest that we are fast losing our ability for deep thought.

On the other hand, Wired’s Clive Thompson argues in his new book, “Smarter Than You Think,” that the new technology is both making us smarter and better connected, even providing an ESP-like awareness of the world around us. Every new technology has created similar panics and concerns (Socrates worried about the impact of the written word) yet we learn to adapt to the new while retaining what’s good of the old.

How has digital technology and social media changed the way we relate to each other?

Go to any family restaurant and you’ll see the same scenario play out: mom, dad, and kids all looking down at their shining screens, too preoccupied to actually talk to one another. Our mobile devices increasingly get between us and those we’re closest to. Young people relate, date, mate, and separate via apps on their mobile phones. We have become, in Sherry Turkle’s famous phrase, alone together – virtually connected like never before, while seemingly distanced when in each other’s company. 

And yet, from Grindr to Skout, people are finding new ways to find each other and connecting in meaningful ways. If you marry someone you’ve met online, does that make your relationship any less real or happy?

Has Twitter transformed or trivialized the way politicians communicate with us?

It’s hard to remember a time when a campaign did not have social media as a core component to its messaging. Politicians tweet and update their social media pages from the floor of the House and Senate. There is an immediacy and almost intimacy in receiving the instantaneous thoughts of prominent people – whether they be law makers, business moguls, the Pope, or the President. And, needless to say, there is ample room for manipulation, untruths, and cynical posturing from our elected leaders.

In the meantime, we are seeing a flowering of inventive use of social media from the Arab Spring to to tweeting Ambassadors. Digital technology has the capacity to flatten hierarchies and connect the disenfranchised in ways unthinkable pre-Web 2.0. How the next generation of leaders will govern using the devices, platforms, and apps they have grown up with, will be fascinating to watch.

For more on the weekend’s schedule, click here. To join the conversation, register here.

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