The Stupidity Effect & the CIO

Ivan Schneider, Writer, specializing in financial technology | 10/15/2013 | 8 comments

Ivan Schneider
Alex S. Jones, lecturer on the press and public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, recently spoke to Harvard alumni in Seattle, and he pointed out that the invention of the printing press presaged 150 years of war, upheaval, turmoil, and anti-scientific sentiment. He then compared the Internet to the printing press and presented the possibility that another century and a half of upheaval is on its way.

Centuries after its introduction, it’s easy to overlook the turmoil caused by the printing press when it was first introduced. Rather than use the printing press to increase the spread of, say, scientific papers written in the then lingua franca of Latin, the original mass publishers “used the technology to make people stupider,” Jones contends.

The clear implication is that our own “Gutenberg moment” is nigh; that the ability for anyone to publish anything may send society into a protracted decline from which it may take decades or centuries to recover. Based on ample evidence of stupidity in the public sphere fueled by the Web, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the downward spiral has already commenced.

Jones didn’t offer any precise forecasts for how that might unfold in practice or prescriptive advice for how to cope, except to recommend that we recognize we’re in the midst of an historic shift, that we attempt to preserve our values throughout that shift, and that we talk to one another about what we might do to counteract the negative trends that may arise.

The relevant questions for Enterprise Efficiency readers: Should IT professionals prepare their enterprises for 150 years of turmoil? If so, how?

The answer to the first question is obviously yes. That’s part of your job, to prepare for turmoil. That’s why the practices of disaster recovery, business continuity, and information security were invented.

But how do you defend against stupid? What if your biggest customer temporarily votes itself out of business, or on a whim stops paying its creditors? What if continued unemployment translates into higher levels of protectionism, leading to economic decline? What if populist reprisals against “banksters” lead to severely contracted domestic credit availability?

What if word leaks that a secret government agency has a pipeline into your customer records, and now nobody outside of the country wants anything to do with your online services? What if real gangsters successfully launder their ill-gotten gains into the above-board economy, turning legitimate companies into subsidiaries of criminal enterprises?

These are just a few examples of the stupid outcomes that can happen (or have happened) when people and politics turn sour on business. Yet IT doesn’t have to just sit and watch. CIOs can have an important advocacy role in pushing for a healthier education system, the core requirement for a participatory democracy. The more informed the citizenry, the better answers we’ll get to some of these very challenging “what if” questions.

The technology industry already clamors for more IT training in the schools. A more strategic investment would be a greater investment in education in civics, political science, and economics -- and the humanities and liberal arts in general.

I can envision a curriculum that puts our present situation into an historical context. We should show young people that they’re not the first generation to be born into an age with technology changing the world around them, and that Gutenberg’s contemporaries also found themselves in a much broader conversation than they had known previously.

With a broader perspective, we can combine what we’ve learned from history, what we know about today, and where technology can take us tomorrow. We need to give students the intellectual tools to spot the dangers and avoid 150 years of turmoil, so that we may gain consensus on a way forward.

Do you see our Gutenberg moment approaching? What do you think we can do about it?

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kstaron   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/29/2013 2:30:14 PM
train train train
Just as the 'masses' were not trained to know that not everything you read it correct, now we have to educate everyone (not just the young people) which sites are most likely telling the truth, that wikipedia is not a credible source, that just because they read it, doesn't make it true, or safe, or fun. In the internet age you have to be even more skeptical about what someone is telling you, espeicially if they scoff at things like references or proudly say they got it on wikipedia.
LuFu   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/16/2013 4:34:47 PM
Re: Can't keep up with Stupidity
I think I've stayed there. Hardly any water pressure which was a good thing since it didn't drain anyway.
zerox203   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/16/2013 1:28:17 PM
Re: The Stupidity Effect
@Ivan, Yeah, I just meant the idea of young people growing up with the internet and their politcal views as one example. Where in the past a 'stupidity effect' population meant just that - people who couldn't get the information if they wanted it - in this case, it may mean people who are selectively informed and know X but not Y, among other things. 

The printing press is an apt comparison to the internet in a lot of ways, but I'm not sure this is one of them. It's not that I didn't understand the point, just that I didn't agree with it. Thanks for all your insight, though. I do have concern about those elections that just won't go down...
Ivan Schneider   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/16/2013 5:31:29 AM
Re: The Stupidity Effect
@zerox: The point isn't so much shaking a fist at "young people these days" and saying that if only they knew their civics, we wouldn't be in such a mess.  Quite the opposite, I would say. It's the older generation that's fumbling the handoff.

Even more, it's not about apportioning blame but more answering the question of how can a society adequately prepare itself for the historical shift currently underway. I already used my quota of sports analogies in the last paragraph, so I'll go with a pharmacological parable instead.  

You're given a powerful drug. It makes your eyes widen, stops you from sleeping. You start having delusions that you have total control. You can see everything, go anywhere, do anything. You can read people's thoughts, an overwhelming rush of power. But then you realize that other people have also taken the drug, they also have the same power, they are reading your thoughts, some are better at it than you are, the paranoia sets in because the worst person you know is inside your head. The tinfoil hat, it's not working! 

Now, should you be operating heavy machinery right now?

We're all connecting our neuroplastic brains to a giant electronic network in a worldwide, no-control science experiment, and surprise surprise, there are unintended side effects. You may experience symptoms of nausea. See a doctor if you have an election lasting for more than four years. 

The least we can do is tell people they're just having a bad trip, that they can ride it out and it'll be fine.



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Broadway   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/15/2013 10:12:34 PM
Re: Can't keep up with Stupidity
@LuFu, I recently stayed in a relatively inexpensive hotel in NYC and the shower barely worked. I do not think, though, it was because people barely used the shower before me.
LuFu   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/15/2013 7:59:05 PM
Can't keep up with Stupidity
A good friend of mine popped in from Argentina last week and we were planning a get together. He stayed in a low-cost but new hotel down in Silicon Valley. He wanted to call me from his hotel room phone. It didn't work. He went to the lobby to use a pay phone. There were none. He drove to the good old standby for public phones to call me - the gas station. No phones. Before giving up he asked to use the station attendant's cell phone and called me.

No one uses the phone in the hotel room because they charge additional fees. No one uses it, no one complains it doesn't work. No one complains, no one at the hotel knows it needs to be fixed...
zerox203   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/15/2013 1:22:25 PM
Re: The Stupidity Effect
I don't know about the original point of Mr. Jones' article, I don't think I can agree with it. I think the modern situation, especially for young people, is far too complicated to describe in any one broad way (besides 'complicated', I guess). Today's young people are smart and talented in different ways - some of them are certainly strangely ignorant of politics, for example, given the wealth of information available to them. However, they may possess a certain 'internet street smart' quality that helps them know when they're being lied to... which is half of what there is to know about politics, isn't it? That's just one example, but I think it's telling as to how this age will play out differently than the one sparked by the printing press.

Regardless, your article is still very useful to IT professionals and really professionals of all stripes trying to make their way in that same world, Ivan. Challenges are more nuanced and varied, and decisions made must take a keener eye with respect to both how they'll affect the future, and if they'll still be holding up when the future gets here. This goes both for something like pushing for education reform, as you describe, as well as, say, installing new hardware. There's no escape from the ire of future you if you mess up anymore, I think.
Pedro Gonzales   The Stupidity Effect & the CIO   10/15/2013 11:42:52 AM
changing the stupidity effect

I would start by teaching successful habits and good decision making methods. For me, I'm noticing that young people get into bad habits early on, for example: watching too much TV; such habits can lead a person the wrong path in the future. Few people can make decision effectively, a bad decision can also have lasting effect for years, fortunately, and there are easy decision making tools to help a person make a good decision.

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