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Spring IT reading with some philosophical detours into brain circuitry
Delaney Turner 270002T14M firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  cognos spss cio cio_study analytics smarter_planet
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Some encouraging and surprising choices in CIO Insights list of recommended spring reading for IT pros.
Encouraging because like Leading Outside the Lines, by Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan or Young World Rising, by Rob Salkowitz or The Language of Trust, by Michael Maslansky, most titles dealt with business skills like negotiation, talent development and leadership - another sign - if we really needed one - of the increasingly business-oriented nature of the IT function and the CIO's increasing prominence within the C-suite.
Surprising...but not really
But surprising, too, because of the first book on the list - The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, by Nicholas Carr.
At first blush I thought it odd that the editors of CIO Insight would top their list with a book that, based on its title alone, sounds decidedly anti-tech. Carr, as you may know, introduced his latest hypothesis in his July 2008 Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
If you're not familiar with it already, here's a sample passage:
"Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle."
From the book excerpt Carr has posted, it looks like he's taking these ideas further - lamenting the loss of intellectual depth at the expense of instant, oft-unthinking communications:
"The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion. . . ."
Carr's not alone. Today's infographic from Fast Company, titled "The Age of Crap" explores the user-driven proliferation of news "tidbits" at the expense of thorough journalism:
"More and more people are deciding they'd rather get tidbits of bunches of stories, as they develop, for free--and less and less want a tightly bound, carefully selected group of stories once a month, when the news has already been trampled on by hundreds of blogs. That's modern publishing in a nutshell."
Even The Onion took a humorous look at the issue with its March 9 article, "Nation Shudders at Large Block of Uninterrupted Text":
"Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text. Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words."
Same vein, more serious tone
In the same vein but in a more serious tone, this is precisely the dynamic that Carr explores - a cultural shift from contemplative, linear thought to instantaneous lateral connections and its repercussions on our intelligence.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Every new technology recasts information according to its own rules, whether it's clay tablets, Morse Code or movable type. And thanks to our remarkably adaptable brains, humans can adjust in turn to understand our new environment. Some, admittedly, make the transition more easily than others. But the pervasiveness of technology and blurring of of home and work, of consumer and corporate, mean this trend will no doubt continue.
CIOs must understand the new landscape
It's essential that a CIO understand how their constituents are responding to this new environment. Across their organizations are marketers, sales reps, procurement pros and supply chain managers - not to mention executives - all of whom need to synthesize increasing amounts of increasingly disparate and disconnected information. CIOs need to understand how their users approach this information - where they get it, what they expect from it and how they use it. A CIO's information strategy - an Information Agenda, if you will - must maximize the value of this information and the effectiveness of people's decisions in this strange new world.
Like The Numerati, this is a book I'd read even if it didn't have a business dimension. Sometimes I am inclined believe the worst predictions about the impact of IT on our intelligence. Typically this happens on my weaker days, when my password's been rejected for the umpteenth time or I'd rather bookmark an article than actually read it. But on my better days (of which there are more and more) I realize it's not a zero-sum game. The initiatives stemming from the IBM Smarter Planet vision are ample proof that great things can happen when some of the most thoughtful and innovative people in the world get ahold of its fastest and and most powerful technology and use it to solve major world problems.
It's not either/or...yet
Nor is it an "either/or" proposition: from my own experience I can recapture that linear, thoughtful approach - provided I'm physically nowhere near a computer, iPod or anything else electronic. But I realize it's a luxury other information workers may not enjoy. And - more importantly over the longer term - this alternate approach may not apply at all for those who in Don Tapscott's words have "grown up digital" and know no other way to think. These are the people CIOs will eventually recruit, using techniques outlined in the other books on that list.
The cold business reality
Philosophy aside, the cold truth of business is that daily decisions now demand instant information and IT has a role to play in enabling them. But it's incumbent on business users to explore ideas, trends and concepts at length and in depth. After all, it's thoughtful analysis and a sound strategy that drive long-term growth.
Ultimately, I agree with Carr's main point. The benefits of balance - whether in business, our personal lives, the arts or elsewhere - are too important to be lost in the twitterstream. Sometimes, we do need to unplug ourselves from the Web and take time to think. With The Shallows, Carr will tell us why balance matters and hopefully show us a way to recapture it.
Maybe that's why CIO Insight put it at the top of the list.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)