The Cognitive Age: Why Social Media Matters

Our economy is down, gas prices are up, jobs are being lost and outsourced, we’re at ‘war’ with possible escalation (e.g., attacking Iran), and there is tremendous uncertainty in nearly every industry being disrupted in some way by the connecting of the globe and the increasing influence of the Internet.

Let me submit for your consideration that the impact of social media — technologies, software and approaches connecting any of us willing to participate with them online — is pointing the way toward new systems and behaviors that will enable us all to move higher up the value chain as we learn how, together, we can create and deliver what the world needs in new and innovative ways.

One of the best op-ed pieces I’ve read in some time, The Cognitive Age, was published in the New York Times on Friday by David Brooks.

In this piece he’s putting globalization in context in this election cycle, which is chiefly on competition with other countries and the policies of government that ostensibly is accelerating job loss in the US. Brooks puts forth this premise which bears emphasis:

“The chief force reshaping manufacturing is technological change (hastened by competition with other companies in Canada, Germany or down the street). Thanks to innovation, manufacturing productivity has doubled over two decades. Employers now require fewer but more highly skilled workers. Technological change affects China just as it does the America. William Overholt of the RAND Corporation has noted that between 1994 and 2004 the Chinese shed 25 million manufacturing jobs, 10 times more than the U.S.

Then he outlines his central argument which, I should add, I completely agree with:

“The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information. This is happening in localized and globalized sectors, and it would be happening even if you tore up every free trade deal ever inked.”

What does this have to do with social media and why does that category of technology matter?

Brooks had this to say about the impact of a global Internet and what area needs to be addressed (i.e., our minds) in order to be competitive in the world going forward:

“The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches — the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?”

Social media allows us to “get it” in ways we never could before. If you don’t understand something — some new technical development, the influence of some new discovery or approach on your work or a personal problem or health issue — chances are someone else has a slightly different twist, perspective or resources they can point you to that you’ll find useful. With social media we can connect with people of like minds — and those of truly unlike minds with differing opinions — instantly and in ways we never could before in history.

A great example of that is the effect of the blog conversation or “memetrackerTechmeme. When a significant tech announcement, news article or scoop appears, there is an almost immediate reaction from the blogosphere as tech bloggers create, link to others, and publish their posts surrounding this same topic.

As a consequence of this tracking, it’s possible to view multiple opinions from both traditional media bloggers and columnists to any blogger who has linked to other blog posts.

In just a short time, it’s easy to get a fairly exhaustive 360 degree perspective of the impact of such an announcement or news piece.

What is harder to quantify and measure about the impact of this social media connection is this: people often discover one another in this way. I’ve often read a blogger’s opinion or the new facts they’ve added to the conversation and ended up either adding that blogger to my reading list or connected with them personally. Sometimes we’ve ended up as strong acquaintances and other times we’ve carried on an ‘argument’ or discussion via email or talked on Skype.

Twitter is another technology that allows people to follow one another and read each other’s “tweets” (140 character input that is persistent and can be read online). Often people make comments about ongoing issues, submit links to important posts, articles or resources, and generally connect with each other.

Lastly, social networks (e.g., Facebook, Myspace and “roll your own” engines like Ning) are rapidly allowing people to group together by interest, affinity or shared goals and objectives and are doing so by the tens of millions.

I’ve been privy in the last six months to startup senior executive networks (with highly stringent credentialing requirements, invitation only, and close monitoring of activity in-network); one for engineers in a highly specialized industry; another for doctor’s in two separate specialties that want a way to connect with one another to more rapidly push forward on the state of knowledge in their disciplines.

Crowdsourcing is another area that is gaining traction (Stanford even has an event this month on the subject) and a June 2006 Wired article by Jeff Howe is coming out as a book this July (and is being excerpted on his blog).

In my own use of social media, I’ve been able to easily connect with the thought leaders in this space. Major authors, professors, industry pundits — and others doing the sort of consulting and education I’m doing — and I couldn’t be in this space without these people and the connections with them social media use has facilitated.

Do I have concerns about social media? Yes, but mainly it’s a cross-cultural and language concern. There is a guy in Munich, Germany I connected with last month about a post I did and his English is as bad as my German. We muddled through, but we haven’t connected much for a couple of weeks and I’ll bet he’s feeling like I am: it’s just too hard to deal with the language barrier.

Another instance was a young woman in the Philippines whose English was perfect…but my suggestions and recommendations to problem solve for her job goal was so sadly out of alignment with her present reality (her annual income in Manila is $2,000 and she’s doing well!) that I was embarrassed I’d made them and been so clueless.

Here’s the punchline: None of us know exactly how all of us will connect and whether blogs, Twitter, social networks or crowdsourcing software will somehow automagically take us into the Cognitive Age.

What I do know is that we must get involved with these new technologies and connect with others in our own countries and around the world. We need to test them and see what works, what doesn’t and what might make them better. It’s imperative we seek out and join affinity groups that are central to what we do, what we’re interested in and connect with others in order to move whatever it is forward.

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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Podcasting hit the mainstream in July of 2005 when Apple added podcast show support within iTunes. I'd seen this coming so started podcasting in May of 2005 and kept going until August of 2007. Unfortunately was never 'discovered' by national broadcasters, but made a delightfully large number of connections with people all over the world because of these shows. Click here to view the archive of my podcast posts.