“It’s tough to make predictions,” the great Yogi Berra once said, “especially about the future.”
And yet, after just a decade, or so, of massive social and technological change, we are, now, beginning to see clear indications of how digital technologies are beginning to dramatically affect both human culture and human consciousness.
Because we are now starting to see how human consciousness can be modified, by exposure to new knowledge, experiences and technologies. Not just on an evolutionary level, over the course of millennia, but also on an individual basis over the course of just a few years.
Key to understanding the speed of this process of this, are the recent discoveries in “neuroplasticity”. The phenomenon where dramatic physical and cognitive changes can take place, not just in the infant human brain, but also in the adult human brain.
As Sharon Begley puts it so eloquently in “How The Brain Rewires Itself”: For many “the conscious act of thinking about their thoughts in a particular way rearranged the brain. The discovery of neuroplasticity, in particular the power of the mind to change the brain, is still too new for scientists, let alone the rest of us, to grasp its full meaning. But even as it offers new therapies for illnesses of the mind, it promises something more fundamental: a new understanding of what it means to be human.”
A good barometer for the way technology is changing “what it means to be human” is, of course, TED. TED, is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design a non-profit organization formed to support “ideas worth spreading.”
And this ability to spread new ideas, has made TED an unparalleled phenomenon in the history of communications. Talks from the various TED conferences have been available online since June 2006. By January 2009 the talks had been viewed more than 50 million times. In June 2011, that figure stood at more than 500 million, and by November 2012, it was over one billion.
TED talks cover a wide variety of subjects, but the most watched TED talk of all time (with over a million views) is still one of the first. Given six years ago, by Sir Ken Robinson, it is an impassioned description of how our educational systems are no longer serving the needs of our societies.
Another much watched TED talk is one by Jane McGonigal which describes the extraordinary impact that digital gaming is beginning to have on our societies.
As we have seen, two of the key drivers in the shape of things to come are going to be gaming and education. And, by TED standards at least, McGonigal and Robinson are the two people who are leading the conversations on each.
As McGonigal says, there is much suspicion about electronic gaming. Particularly amongst non gamers.
But in April 2009, players of the game “Halo 3” celebrated an extraordinary achievement… by any standards.
After 565 days fighting, in the third and final campaign in the Great War to protect the Earth from their enemy, The Covenant, players had achieved the milestone of 10 billion kills.
They had set themselves this goal, averaging 17.5 million kills a day… and along the way they had assembled the largest army the Earth has ever seen. More than 15 million people had fought on behalf of United Nations Space Command. That’s a larger army than twenty-five of the largest armies in the world combined.
Each week over three billion hours are spent playing video games.
In the United States alone, 183 million people are playing an average of thirteen hours a week.
Of course many of these are kids, and teenagers with time on their hands, but many are also nine-to-fivers who come home to apply all of the talents that are underutilized at work in multiplayer online games.
Not to mention the 5 million gamers in the United States, who are playing an average of forty-five hours a week, for whom it has become the equivalent of a full time job.
As McGonigal puts it, these figures are: “a sign of something important, a truth that we urgently need to recognize. The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.”
But, despite its title, Reality is Broken is not a rallying cry for mass rejection of the world and a retreat into digital fantasy. According to McGonigal, games can teach us how to live better in the real world.
Because games are potent engines for teaching us how to have enhanced emotional experiences.
And all great games deliver these enhanced emotional experiences by placing the player in a state of “flow”— a state of complete absorption in the activity at hand – and keeping them there.
The science of happiness, and the emotional evolution of digital gameplay are two major historical trends that are now intersecting in this concept of “Flow”.
The concept of “flow” was first articulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, one of the world’s leading researchers in positive psychology. In his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi explains how people are happiest when they are in a state of flow— a state in which they are so fully immersed in what they are doing that nothing else seems to matter. During which time their usual concerns, like keeping track of time, realizing that you need food, or sleep are often ignored.
In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described being in “Flow” as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
To achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be constantly matched and high; because if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.
It is the unique ability of electronic games to keep you poised at this point, at just the right level of difficulty to keep you constantly engaged, and in a constant state of flow, that is the key to their addictiveness.
As McGonigal writes “As one journalist put it, the Microsoft game testing lab “looks more like a psychological research institute than a game studio”. This is no accident. Game designers and developers are actively transforming what was once an intuitive art of optimizing human experience into an applied science. And as a result, they are becoming the most talented and powerful happiness engineers on the planet.”
And a generation that has been exposed to these regular and extended “flow” experiences will have very different expectations to previous generations, regarding the happiness potential of other aspects of their lives such as education or work.
Not least because their brains are hard wired to do so through the phenomenon of “neuroplasticity”.
In many ways the concept of “flow” within the world of gaming adds real depth to the predictions of Ahonen and Moore in “Communities Dominate Brands” and Mark Prensky in his highly influential paper on education published in
The concept of “flow” is also of great importance to our other TED speaker, Sir Ken Robinson.
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk is entitled “Do schools kill creativity?” and he opens the proceedings with this blistering broadside: “all kids have tremendous talents and we squander them… pretty ruthlessly.”
To illustrate the fact that, left to their own devices, children are not frightened of making mistakes he tells a great story about “a little girl who was in a drawing lesson, she was 6 and she was at the back, drawing, and the teacher said this little girl hardly paid attention, and in this drawing lesson she did. The teacher was fascinated and she went over to her and she said, “What are you drawing?” and the girl said, “I’m drawing a picture of God.” And the teacher said, “But nobody knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “They will in a minute.”
Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Because they’re not frightened of being wrong. And as Sir Ken says, “What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong… And the result is, we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”
He adds “Picasso once said that “all children are born artists. The problem is to remain an artist as we grow up”. I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”
And this is because the world’s great public systems of education were developed in the 19th century specifically to meet the needs of an industrialised society.
The hierarchy of subjects, with mathematics and languages at the top, humanities in the middle and the arts at the bottom, reflect the requirements of an industrial workforce.
But this is now starting to show signs of it’s age, not just for students, but for society as a whole: “In the next 30 years. according to Unesco, more people worldwide will be graduating through education than since the beginning of history. Suddenly degrees aren’t worth anything… kids with degrees are often heading home to carry on playing video games, because you need an MA where the previous job required a BA, and now you need a PhD for the other. It’s a process of academic inflation. And it indicates the whole structure of education is shifting beneath our feet.”
As Sir Ken says: “We need to radically rethink our view of intelligence.”
In most countries, industrialism has passed it’s peak as the major form of employment and wealth. In America in 1965, manufacturing accounted for something like 30% of employment. Whereas today currently less than 12% of employment. Manufacturing output has increased and is still a very important part of the economy, but it doesn’t employ as many people.
Throughout the world, the real growth era is the intellectual industries, including the arts, software, science and technology. These are areas where new ideas matter most. . Many countries recognize now that the future of national economies depends upon a steady flow of innovative ideas.
Elsewhere, (Presentation by Sir Ken Robinson to Education Commission of the United States National Forum of Education Policy, July 14, 2005) Sir Ken has written that: “We’re all trying to work out how to educate our children to survive in a world we can’t predict and to maintain a sense of cultural identity in a world that’s changing faster than ever.”
He tells one other great story which describes one child who was allowed to discover her sense of”flow”.
Gillian Lynne is the choreographer responsible for Cats and Phantom of the Opera. Sir Ken once asked Gillian how she had become a dancer.
“… She said it nearly didn’t happen. She said that when she was in the elementary school she was a terrible student. Her handwriting was awful, she didn’t concentrate, couldn’t apply herself and was always looking out the window and being disruptive. As a result she was constantly in trouble. Eventually, the school wrote to her parents and said, “We think Gillian has a serious learning disorder.” ( I think now, by the way, they’d say she had Attention Deficit Disorder and put her on Ritalin.)
Anyway, she remembers being sent to see a specialist with her mother… for about 20 minutes her mother described to him all the problems she was having at school and all the problems she was causing. All the time he was watching her intently. At the end of it, he stood up and came across and sat next to her. And he said, “Gillian, I have been listening to all the things your mother’s told me – all the problems you’re having at school and I really now need to speak to her privately, so I’m going to leave with her and leave you on your own, but we’ll be back. We won’t be very long – just wait for us.” She said okay and they got up and left the room. But as they went out of the room, he leant across the desk and turned the radio on that was sitting on his desk.
She found out later that as they got into the corridor he turned to her mother and said, “Just stand here for a moment and watch her.” There was a window back into the room. The moment they left the room, Gillian was on her feet moving to the music, all around the room. They watched for a few minutes and then he turned to her mother and said to her, “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick – she’s a dancer. Take her to dance school.”
Gillian never looked back, she has had a glittering career helping to create some of the most successful musical theater productions in history, she’s given
pleasure to millions and is probably a millionaire. Somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down.
As Sir Ken says: “Now my point really is that there are millions of Gillians. We are all of us Gillians in our different ways looking to find the thing we can do. People achieve their best when they’re in their element – when they do the thing that they love”.
Sir Ken Robinson and Jane McGonigal are very different people, from very different backgrounds, but on this point these two TED speakers are in complete agreement.
The future is “flow”.