Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Are socially connected people unable to think for themselves?

I recently saw an interesting take on connectedness on a post on GovLoop. Louise K described a hypothetical incident in which a girl went to purchase some shoes. Here's part of Louise's scenario:

A girl walks into a shoe shop with a friend. In the process of walking back out again with a pair of shoes she will: take pictures of the selection of shoes and ask her friends which one they like. Narrow it down to two pairs and ask her friends via text which one's she should pick after also sending photographs of herself wearing aforementioned shoes. Then, once she has crowdsourced the decision, she will buy the pair of shoes, and then tweet a picture of her leaving with them.

Louise described some other possible online interactions, and then assembled her conclusions. Some of them are not surprising - for example, that she is always reachable. Some of them have been discussed by security specialists - for example, that she has constantly revealed her exact location. But a couple of Louise's conclusions hit me out of the blue:

She has made no decisions on her own
She has not had a single moment 'to herself'

And again:

She has crowd sourced her taste in shoes and not made a decision for herself

I began to wonder - is our connectedness truly turning us into non-independent, unthinking animals?

Personally, I think not.

Here's how this same incident would have progressed thirty-five years ago. And no, I am not a girl, but I have known a lot of girls, so I think I'm right on this.

A girl walks into a shoe shope with a friend. Before she even gets to the cash register (back in those days, people paid with something called "cash"), the girl asks her friend what she thinks about the shoes. She also asks the friend whether Doug would like the shoes. They see Julia walking by in the mall, and they ask her to come over and look at the shoes. In the process of walking back out again with a pair of shoes she will take out her Polaroid camera and take a picture of her shoes. When she gets to school the next day, she'll slip the picture into Gretchen's locker.

In this example, the girl exhibits the same type of crowdsourcing that the modern, connected girl exhibited in Louise's example. Of course, the modern girl can connect to more people, but both girls are performing the same activity. Do we say that the 1976 girl makes no decisions on her own because she asked her physically present friends about the shoe purchase?

At the same time, just because you are connected doesn't mean that you will automatically crowdsource. Back on October 28 I purchased some music. I shared my purchases on Google+ - but only after I had made them. I could have crowdsourced the decision, but I chose not to do so.

And even when decisions are crowdsourced, does that mean that we are not making decisions? I think not. Whether you look at Louise's modern texting girl at the mall, my 1976 non-connected girl at the mall, or whether, at the end of the day the person who was asking others about the decision made the final decision herself. OK, she could have set up a poll and vowed to abide by the poll, but then what if some of her friends deviously cast votes for the combat boots?

While modern communication technologies can influence the amount of feedback that you can receive, and the speed at which the feedback is received, the technologies themselves do not change the way in which decisions are made.

Take the American Revolution, and the crowdsourcing that took place in the years before that event. The Committees of Correspondence spent a lot of time...well, they spent a lot of time corresponding. And while network speeds were pitifully slow by modern standards - transmissions would take days or weeks to reach their intended recipients - you had the same type of crowdsourcing behavior. Don't believe me?

A girl (Abigail Adams) walks into Boston Harbor with a friend. She sees a bunch of people dressed up as Indians throwing tea into the harbor. The girl's husband "texts" all of his friends and reports what the British did in response to this. The husband and all of his friends narrow down their choices of how to respond. They schedule a few meetups to talk about things some more, eventually meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the summer of 1776 to develop version 1.0 of a new standard. (Version 2.0 would be developed 11 years later.)
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