KNOWLEDGE IS OUT, FOCUS IS IN, AND PEOPLE ARE EVERYWHERE
Filtering, not remembering, is the most important skill for those who use the Internet. The Internet immerses us in a milieu of information — not for almost 20 years has a Web user read every available page — and there’s more each minute: Twitter alone processes hundreds of tweets every second, from all around the world, all visible for anyone, anywhere, who cares to see. Of course, the majority of this information is worthless to the majority of people. Yet anything we care to know — what’s the function for opening files in Perl? how far is it from Hong Kong to London? what’s a power law? — is out there somewhere.
I see today’s Internet as having three primary, broad consequences: 1) information is no longer stored and retrieved by people, but is managed externally, by the Internet, 2) it is increasingly challenging and important for people to maintain their focus in a world where distractions are available anywhere, and 3) the Internet enables us to talk to and hear from people around the world effortlessly.
Before the Internet, most professional occupations required a large body of knowledge, accumulated over years or even decades of experience. But now, anyone with good critical thinking skills and the ability to focus on the important information can retrieve it on demand from the Internet, rather than her own memory. On the other hand, those with wandering minds, who might once have been able to focus by isolating themselves with their work, now often cannot work without the Internet, which simultaneously furnishes a panoply of unrelated information — whether about their friends’ doings, celebrity news, limericks, or millions of other sources of distraction. The bottom line is that how well an employee can focus might now be more important than how knowledgeable he is. Knowledge was once an internal property of a person, and focus on the task at hand could be imposed externally, but with the Internet, knowledge can be supplied externally, but focus must be forced internally.
Separable from the intertwined issues of knowledge and focus is the irrelevance of geography in the Internet age. On the transmitting end, the Internet allows many types of professionals to work in any location — from their home in Long Island, from their condo in Miami, in an airport in Chicago, or even in flight on some airlines — wherever there’s an Internet connection. On the receiving end, it allows for an Internet user to access content produced anywhere in the world with equal ease. The Internet also enables groups of people to assemble based on interest, rather than on geography — collaboration can take place between people in Edinburgh, Los Angeles, and Perth nearly as easily as if they lived in neighboring cities.
In the future, these trends will continue, with the development of increasingly subconscious interfaces. Already, making an Internet search is something many people do without thinking about it, like making coffee or driving a car. Within the next 50 years, I expect the development of direct neural links, making the data that’s available at our fingertips today available at our synapses in the future, and making virtual reality actually feel more real than traditional sensory perception. Information and experience could be exchanged between our brains and the network without any conscious action. And at some point, knowledge may be so external, all knowledge and experience will be shared universally, and the only notion of an “individual” will be a particular focus — a point in the vast network that concerns itself only with a specific subset of the information available.
In this future, knowledge will be fully outside the individual, focus will be fully inside, and everybody’s selves will truly be spread everywhere.
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