The Greater Good; or Thinking About How We Think

I posted a brief note a few weeks ago in which I stated that I have some difficulty maintaining my social networking due to the sheer volume of available options.  The digital revolution has transformed our personal and professional ways.  Author Nicholas Carr devoted an entire book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, to the subject.   As the title implies, Carr lamented not just the way we conduct online business or interact “socially,” but also how we fundamentally think in the digital age.  (You can find my full review on Goodreads or Amazon).

Carr provided several examples of technological changes throughout time that preceded the digital revolution.  As far back as Socrates, the timeless philosopher adamantly opposed the very concept of writing as a cheap substitute for abstract thought.  He may have had a point that human philosophy suffered incalculably as a result of spoon-fed intellect in print form.  Fortunately for modern western civilization, Plato did not hold his orator mentor’s ill sentiment for writing.

Much later, Gutenberg’s press led ultimately to mass production of literature.  The new availability of print media brought forth a societal literacy that forever changed how humans solved problems, communicated emotions, and conceptualized ideas. But, others thought that the press brought forth a new era of cheapened literary quality.  Profiteers began to proliferate widely items that could loosely be classified as trash.

Now, in our modern era, the Internet and social networking provides us with knowledge on virtually every topic known to humanity.  But, folks like Carr also see the new technologies as next abominations destined to further trivialize human intellect. Further, “trash” may be gross understatement for some web sites that modern profiteers can produce at very little cost.

The common thread in these examples is that well-developed, well-regarded individuals actually opposed ideas and innovations that we do not even consider today.  In that context, is the Internet and social networking really so scary? Are we simply reluctant to embrace the new at a predetermined cost of losing the old?

Not all changes are so profound as those listed above.  Some changes may be minimal when viewed practically.  For example, nowadays young students no longer write in cursive – so I’m told.  That was a startling revelation to me.  Yet, does that really matter?  Did cursive writing ever add much value to literacy beyond some intriguing personal signatures?  Similarly, math students use calculators more than ever before.  This was anathema is “my day” and prior eras.  Yet, it is hardly given much thought today.  Perhaps the use of calculators allows students to expend precious energies on deeper mathematical concepts rather than on multiple-digit calculation.  It is very easy to get stuck in a rut because “that’s how we’ve always done things.”

This leads me to how we view generally anything that is simply regarded as change.  Jonah Lehrer, in How We Decide, calls such inherent resistance to new ideas consistency bias. Different regions of our natural brain are in constant turmoil against each other.  The human brain struggles with reason against emotion.  But, the brain is uncomfortable with conflict.   So, the frontal cortex takes over and filters information that may be disconcerting to us.  The result is often that we disregard valuable input.  This is why one rarely can change the mind of another otherwise intelligent, yet highly-ideological individual.  Any information that upsets a pre-selected worldview is immediately filtered by the brain.  It is more than simply being stubborn.  It is a biological defense mechanism.  Our brains want to be comfortable.

Some folks become more entrenched and more filtered as they age and learn.  Others become more conflicted as they train their brains to allow conflicting inputs. Neither reaction is positive or negative in the abstract.  The greatest victory is recognizing that the phenomenon exists.  The holy grail of human intellect is finding the balance between conflict and decision.  In other words, as Lehrer notes, we should “Think about how we think.”  There is a fine line between being decisive and being stubborn. Similarly, tolerance and indecisiveness are also two sides of the same coin.

One rarely finds a perfect answer, especially in the public sphere with seemingly infinite perspectives.  Everyone must deal with change in some form.  Public managers (or private managers, for that matter) must constantly weigh the pros and cons of change in various contexts.  Subordinates may propose a new system.  Or, they may vehemently oppose innovation.  Newly- elected officials may have very different ideas.  For nearly every gain; something is lost.  We simply try to use our best judgment. We receive input from our peers and our board members. We make the best decisions possible under the circumstances.  The best strategy is generally to simply acknowledge the winners and losers – the pros and cons – rather than to gloss them over and pretend that they do not exist.  Every action has a reaction – even if it is not always equal and opposite.  If government sometimes runs slowly, it may be because every choice that a policy maker decides is going to affect multiple constituencies.  All those inputs can becoming very difficult to manage.  That is not a small responsibility.  We have to acknowledge the losses as well as the gains; and hope the ends justify the means.  In short, we seek The Greater Good.

Post Script: This was a challenging column to write.  I revised it several times.  It is difficult to articulate an abstract subject that has no obvious conclusions.  I’ve always been one to seek the perfect solution.  I have a natural propensity for black and white thought.  I work best with measurements and the scientific method.  Anything worth doing can be analyzed and tested.   I fancy myself a creature of the enlightenment, much like my hero, Thomas Jefferson (more on that one later).  But, I have also come to acknowledge that even the most time-tested, or the most innovative, solutions have their drawbacks.  My filter is less stringent than it used to be, for better or worse.  The books by both Carr and Lehrer were average taken as a whole.  But, several interesting developments noted above spurred much thought to me regarding what denotes “bad change” versus “good change,” or if there is a distinction.   After several revisions, I still am unsure how well I have delivered the process of decision-making and judgment.  I only hope I have found through these revisions: The Greater Good.