On the impact of technology on creative thinking

Innovation breads new technologies; so much is obvious. But what about the opposite interaction: Does technology have an impact on innovation? More precisely: Does the Digital Revolution affect our innovation skills, our inventiveness, our creative thinking? Triggered by the recent debate on negative impacts of social media, I’ll try to scratch the surface today in order to frame a few questions for further discussion in 2018.

In hindsight, 2017 was a difficult year for the tech giants from Silicon Valley, if you ignore the business side of their business, and look at their public standing instead. Since last summer, there is the ongoing techlash discussion: as these companies are growing too big, regulatory action might be required to curtail their influence. The senate hearing in October about the impact of social media on the outcome of the U.S. presidential election added fuel to those flames. And just a few weeks ago, several former Facebook executives publicly expressed their serious concerns about the negative influence of the very platform they themselves had helped establish. As the most prominent example, Sean Parker, the founding CEO of Facebook, publicly pointed out that the design of Facebook deliberately exploits the vulnerabilities of human psychology, and he worried that god only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.

You might derive at least a partial  answer to Parker’s implicit question from Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (published in 2011, when Facebook had “only” about 800,000 monthly active users). Over decades, Turkle had studied college students, changes in their communication patterns and their preferred mode of interaction with other humans. She found that those students growing up with new technologies like cell phones, texting, and messaging clearly preferred communication with their peers through a technology interface. More startling yet, these students felt insecure in classical face-to-face communication, thus relying even more on technology as a buffer between humans, as a moderator of interactions. That’s a clear token of the impact that technologies have on human behaviour, and on the underlying psychology. Moving to 2017, we must add smart phones, mobile internet, and social media to the available technology mix. As each of them is far more capable than their precursor technologies, we must assume that the development observed by Sherry Turkle have continued and taken even deeper roots.

One reason for this change in human behaviour might be found in the difference between what humans need and expect, and what technology provides. David Brooks boiled down that dilemma quite nicely last month in How Evil Is Tech?

Online is a place for human contact but not intimacy. Online is a place for information but not reflection. It gives you the first stereotypical thought about a person or a situation, but it’s hard to carve out time and space for the third, 15th and 43rd thought.

Online is a place for exploration but discourages cohesion. It grabs control of your attention and scatters it across a vast range of diverting things. But we are happiest when we have brought our lives to a point, when we have focused attention and will on one thing, wholeheartedly with all our might.

So here we are, starting with digital technology and ending up speaking of vulnerabilities of human psychology, changing communication preferences, scattered attention. All of that is somehow related to our psychology and our thinking, and all of that is presented with an acute sense that something is moving in the wrong direction.

But how exactly does digital technology affect our thinking? I’m curious to understand what we’ve gained since the beginning of the Digital Revolution, and crucially, what we’ve lost. Ultimately, the question is whether the price is worth the gain. To tackle this question it’s essential to gain a fundamental understanding for how our brains work (what we call thinking). And I couldn’t think of a better starting point than Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking – Fast and Slow. Published in 2011, this volume summarises his ground-breaking research in behavioural economics, which earned him –a psychologist– the Nobel Prize in economics.

His book has been on my list for a longer while. And I think the time to finally read it has arrived. In the context of the ongoing discussions outlined above, I’ll look in particular for our biases (what are they good for?), our vulnerabilities (are children at higher risk than adults?), and our creativity (how does our inventiveness work?).

Of course I will not hesitate to share the findings of my research with you as my thinking about thinking matures.

Thanks a lot for your interest in 2017.

And my very best wishes for a peaceful and productive 2018. 


  1. rhythimashinde says:

    Enjoying your blogs. So were you able to find an answer to this? Is the price worth the gain?

    • Thanks a lot for your feedback and interest. I must admit that this question turned out more challenging than I had imagined, so that question is still open. More reading required, more homework to be done on my part. Stay tuned.

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