Different by Design

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Mr Shane Skillen, Co-Director of Technology Studies (Digital Pedagogy)

I often find myself involved in conversations from various perspectives, about young people and the nature of deep thinking. Increasingly my research on this topic leads me to a paper, or an article lands in my inbox about neuroplasticity, the differences between deep and surface learning or perhaps the changing adolescent mind. More often, however, I find tirades against the use of technology and the role it plays in the acquisition and development of knowledge. So I am frequently struck by our deep ambivalence and dichotomous disposition towards technology: it is our great saviour and at the same time, our nemesis. Despite the antipathy, I will argue that the information age continues to unveil disruptive technologies with the potential to radically change and shape the way we live, and even the process of decision making. Technology has ushered in the era of Design Thinking!

In the scope of human history, the information age is but a speck on the lens. I read somewhere once that the wage for a Roman legionnaire remained the same for 300 years. The industrial revolution had its roots in the fifteenth century and developed for almost four hundred years before culminating in the onset of mass production in the early twentieth century. The information age is but fifty years in the making and really only took off with the rapid expansion of the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Fast forward twenty short years and we are now witnessing the emergence of 3D printing as a consumer level process which is threatening to turn the concept of manufactory on its head. These technological innovations and their associated complexities have rapidly become essential to our way of life. So why are there so many detractors simultaneously prophesying the end of human thought?

Technology is often imagined in popular culture as the cause of our demise. Science and speculative fiction ask of technology, ‘What if?’ The answer often looks like HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Odyssey, SkyNet from Terminator, or Ultron from the Marvel Universe. Technology is often the arbitrator of evil in such scenarios. On 22 October 1895 the famous derailment of Gare Montparnasse garnered worldwide media coverage. Even today the famous image of a steam train ending up on the Parisian sidewalk of Place de Rennes is still today emblazoned on retro art posters as a reminder of the malevolence of technological advancement. Hindenburg, the Y2K/Millennium bug and most recently the bot net conspiracy all reiterate this fear.

A famous historical image that is still today  used as a reminder of the malevolence of technological advancement.
This famous image is still today used as a reminder of the malevolence of technological advancement.

Technophobia runs deep in our common imaginations, but my observations are that it features far less in those of the young. Their answer to the technological ‘What if’, is a very different one. While some of us have grown up and old with the worry that computers will eventually outsmart us, the young seem safe in the knowledge that it has and will continue to improve us. In this age of mobile apps, Photoshop and high definition visual effects, young people are sceptical about our fears, resistant to our warnings of computer derived dystopias, and questioning of our perceptions. After all, thanks to Your Baby Can Read DVDs, Reading Eggs, Mathletics and most recently apps, they have experienced the acquisition of knowledge through technology for the entirety of their short, busy lives. The thought processes of our young digital natives is not diminishing or becoming shallower; they are merely developing differently.

Is it hard to imagine a world in which people are inspired to push boundaries and think deeply about a concept in a YouTube video or the fictional freedom of a novel or film? It shouldn’t be; in fact it is most certainly happening. A study in the UK found that one third of university students were drawn to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) not through the laudable examples of Brunel or Curie, but through film and other media. A quick iTunes search reveals a plethora of zombie and vampire movies. Rather than decrying this trend, can we not see in it the likelihood that it may inspire a generation of potential immunologists, virologists, anthropologists, all unknowingly theorising and discussing the best approaches for pandemic disease control. Films like Iron Man and Star Wars, and computer games such as Mine Craft are potentially inspiring a generation of architects as well as electrical, mechanical, and biological engineers.

Anton Chekhov once wrote: ‘Man can be better when you can show him what he can be like’. Technology can show this just as readily as it has shown us doomsday at the hands of tech-gone-wrong—so perhaps we can better recognise how our young are establishing thought processes if we look to their surroundings. The possibilities of a limitless future, the bombardment of information and the uncertainties of their own career pathways are forcing them to filter copious amounts of information, retrieve what’s relevant or of interest and store it for later, a process quite comparable to what a computer uses to replicate thought.

In ancient history, religious piety and fervour structured thought. The advent of Guttenberg’s Press and the printed page propagated free thinking and the expansion of machines and science fostered our desire and established a process by which to understand, catalogue, process and control our natural world. This boom in science conceived the information age and the advent of the knowledge worker where people can network, trade, crowd-fund or crowd-source ideas, and micro-finance for social good and socialise in virtual environments. This expanse of seemingly limitless possibilities is a boon for creative thought and endeavour. Adaptation is everything, and remaining static and single-minded is a sure way to find yourself on a Parisian sidewalk in the Gare Montparnasse sense.

So how can we approach or define the process of deep thinking with any relevance to the present? How does a productive young person begin to solve complex problems? I think part of the answer lies in what has become known as Design Thinking. Spending time with the question, ‘What if?’ This is the foundation of creative endeavour! It isn’t the realm of daydreamers, time wasters and procrastinators. The first stage of Design Thinking is to empathise or understand all of the possibilities before fine-tuning or selecting an area of emphasis: ‘What if we could … ?’. The next phase, Ideation, returns to the question: ‘What if it looked like … ?’ Prototyping, testing and evaluating follows on and the consensus is once again on repetition, interaction, linking ideas to knowledge and critical analysis, all undoubtedly qualities of deep thinking and all skills that can be further developed in an engaging manner through technology. Arguably there’s one emergent skillset is causing a significant and disruptive impact on our way of life — the ability and willingness to augment the use of technology. These experimental interactions with technology combined with a collective of agile minds leads us to discoveries which nobody knew we needed to discover, and inadvertently evolves us.

Deep thinking hasn’t left our young; it hasn’t departed the tracks, plummeted as a flaming fireball or diluted itself over the World Wide Web. The majority of our young people are asking, ‘What if?’, spreading their networks, storing knowledge and crowd sourcing to foster their understanding, discover what’s important, and determine what relevance this knowledge has in their lives. It is hard for our young to philosophise on the world and the way in which it works. Their fear perhaps is in dwelling with a thought for too long in case all other things change.

If I can offer them any advice to span their productive lives it would be in the sage reflective words of HAL9000 and put yourselves ‘ … to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.’


Chekhov, A. P., & Linscott, R. N. (1940). The stories of Anton Chekov. New York: The Modern Library.

Hurd, G. A., Cameron, J., Schwarzenegger, A., Hamilton, L., Biehn, M., Winfield, P., Henriksen, L., … MGM Home Entertainment Inc. (2001). The Terminator. Santa Monica, CA: MGM Home Entertainment.

Kubrick, S., Clarke, A. C., Dullea, K., Lockwood, G., Sylvester, W., Richter, D., Lovejoy, R., … Warner Home Video (Firm). (2001). 2001, A Space Odyssey. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.

Marvel Comics, Marvel Universe: Marvel Comics

Titzer, R. C., Dozier, B., Dozier, L., & Penton Overseas, Inc. (2005). Your baby can read! Carlsbad, CA: Penton Overseas.

Published 14 March 2014