Promoting entrepreneurship is increasingly seen as a way to revive stagnant economies. Below, Terence Tse and Mark Esposito argue that excessive use of technology can harm our ability to create innovative ideas, and suggest that going low-tech is the way to break out of our creative boundaries.
A New Way of Promoting Entrepreneurship
Promoting entrepreneurship is policy makers’ ‘prized pony’. It’s become one of their favourite undertakings in the last 10 years. And there is no sign that their enthusiasm is abating. If anything, we have observed an increase in the number of encouraging calls for more people to start their own businesses, particularly those that incorporate an innovative twist. There are at least two very good reasons for galvanizing entrepreneurs these days: they have the potential to collectively revive dormant economies, and they could play a large role in alleviating the thorny predicament of high youth unemployment. These issues also happen to be two of the most acute and urgent challenges facing Europe today.
Inspiring people, especially the younger set, to start their own businesses makes a whole lot of sense. Young, aspiring entrepreneurs are more likely to propose cutting-edge ideas that could change the world. They also possess the essential energy to push their innovative ideas into new products and new markets. At the same time, they are also creating jobs for themselves and others.
With all of these promising benefits in mind, many business experts have offered up their recommendations on how to instil greater entrepreneurial flair in budding business people. There is no shortage of suggestions: introduce entrepreneurship early in school; make more capital available; give easy access to build the skills needed; plant the seeds of cultural acceptance of failure, etc. No doubt these are all valuable recommendations. Yet, they are not exactly innovative ideas themselves; we’ve found all of these suggestions time and time again in a wide array of reports and articles.
[su_pullquote]When it comes to surging past our creative boundaries: go low-tech! We suggest entrepreneurs consider eschewing Internet technology, from time to time, because ‘unplugging from the Matrix’ creates a more conducive environment for generating new ideas.[/su_pullquote]
While we wholeheartedly agree on the necessity for societies to promote, support and nurture entrepreneurs, we need to raise a contrarian concern on what seems to be a widely accepted yet erroneous assumption: more technology leads to more innovation-driven entrepreneurship. The belief that greater exposure to tech allows us to come up with more innovative ideas is not hard to explain. People who are astute with technologies know how to best adapt them for new purposes – and they have their fingers on the pulse of constant, rapid-fire changes. We need only look at the latest string of start-ups turned successful corporate giants, just look at Facebook and Twitter, not to mention Google. They all started with one really great idea. So how do we generate more of those?
Rather than throw ourselves deeper into technology, we advocate doing the opposite when it comes to surging past our creative boundaries: go low-tech! You read that correctly. We suggest entrepreneurs consider eschewing Internet technology, from time to time, because ‘unplugging from the Matrix’ creates a more conducive environment for generating new ideas – even the occasional lighting strike. Our bottom line is this: excessive use of technology can harm our ability to create innovative ideas – in at least three ways.
How Excessive Use of Technology Can Harm Us
1) It impedes the learning process.
While many educators advocate the need for introducing more technology in the classroom (just observe the number of business schools giving out iPads and laptops to their enrolled students for ‘free’), the benefits of this are far from conclusive. A recent study that looks at boredom among university students found that 59% find lectures boring half the time, and 30% are bored by most or all lectures. The survey cites that the root cause of classroom boredom is the instructors’ use of PowerPoint slides, which are now a standard (and lazy!) teaching tool.1 Is it any wonder, then, that to alleviate boredom, many students resort to texting, surfing the web and engaging in social media?
Surely, the excessive use of – and reliance on – PowerPoint as a teaching medium is an obstruction to optimal learning. But we believe that the problem lies deeper beneath the surface. For example, the trouble with texting too much is that it may do more than just hamper the learning process; it may actually affect intelligence. In a study of children, ages 11 and 12, researchers found that those who used their mobiles to send three or more text messages a day had significantly lower verbal and non-verbal reasoning test scores than children who sent none.2 And here’s a surprisingly Luddite titbit: in technology laden Silicon Valley, parents are more likely to send their children to schools that reject the use of technology in the classroom, than those that embrace it.3 Another recent study showed that heavy use of social media impedes academic performance.4 Granted, academic performance doesn’t correlate to creative ability, which is an essential component of innovation. Yet, we suspect that a minute spent on social media is a minute away from reading books (digital or hardbound), which can stoke students’ creative spark by introducing them to new ideas – and inspire them to come up with their own.
2) It’s shortened our attention spans.
The Internet is changing how we absorb information. The way that a web page is organised – peppered with hyperlinks – is allegedly making us much better at multi-tasking. Yet this gain in skill comes with the loss of something important: it chips away at our ability to concentrate and contemplate, and it alters the brain’s natural function to process concepts in-depth.
First, ‘multi-tasking’ is a glorious way to describe rapidly switching attention between tasks. In addition to the fact that such actions draw a lot of mental effort away from focusing on the task itself, it also takes away brain power that could otherwise be devoted to deeper thinking and deliberation.5
Second, there is an increasing amount of evidence, albeit anecdotal, that we are gradually losing the ability, or at least the patience, to read long articles, particularly online. While our ‘software’ is becoming faster at processing, it has become less capable of retaining what we have read. We now prefer short articles because there are so many elements – email, YouTube, Facebook updates, new Tweets – that are competing for our shrinking attention span. Indeed, many online features are actually designed to divert our attention because we want to be distracted. Just ask yourself this: what do you do when you receive an email while trying to focus on another task? What happens when you receive several in quick succession? The Internet has dramatically altered the manner in which we absorb and process information. Our ability to concentrate is decaying as a result. In fact, a study last year shows that most surveyed high school and university students in the US managed to focus for only six minutes on a task before turning to technological distractions.6
[su_pullquote]There is an increasing amount of evidence, albeit anecdotal, that we are gradually losing the ability, or at least the patience, to read long articles, particularly online.[/su_pullquote]
We have also become more selective in our reading. This is not as much about choosing what to read as picking out what to read within a single document. In the presence of hypertext, we have become more orientated towards ‘nonlinear’ reading, often to the detriment of ‘in-depth’ reading. We convince ourselves that we are more concerned with determining the ‘big picture’ rather than getting stuck in the weedy details, but the result is that we now read at a much more superficial level, precluding us from opportunities to think deeply.7
By contrast, reading a book not only trains us to be more focused with one task, it is also a meditative act that allows us to replenish our minds, forcing us to pace ourselves as we read. Readers who exclusively take in online-specific content will miss the opportunity to disengage from the outward flow of fleeting stimuli and engage more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.8 Reading online – often quickly and selectively – does not allow us to filter out distraction and to quiet down our minds. It prevents us from engaging in deep thinking, a by-product of which is much more profound creativity.
3) It detracts from our ability to grow our creativity.
This has happened to many of us: we struggle to come up with new ideas, so we ‘park the problem’ for a while and return to it later, at which point all those ideas that had formerly eluded us, suddenly strike. But it’s difficult to refresh our perspectives – a fundamental way to create a burst of creativity – if we are constantly swimming in data. Perpetual online information—with its accompanying pings and beeps – offers little opportunity to disengage, even momentarily. When we are overwhelmed with information, our thought process narrows, making it a lot harder for new ideas to make their way to us; there’s just no room. We’re less able to think for thinking’s sake and reason out a problem. The danger in this is that it makes us more inclined to hold on to conventional ideas and solutions, because it’s just easier. But what we should be doing is challenging those established views with new thinking!9
The rise of social media has another nefarious by-product—it can cause people to withdraw from social, in-person interactions, and limit their worldview to a small circle of friendships that are mostly nurtured online. They suffer the concurrent losses of living in the moment and what is happening in the world around them. One example of this is how we now search for information: we are increasingly reliant on seeking and receiving assurance through online communities, forums, and over-simplified collective opinions to reinforce our existing beliefs, rather than challenging them. We are less inclined to open up new horizons, and we don’t allow ourselves exposure to different sets of dots (much less connect them), so subsequently we have become more narrow-minded than ever. It’s nearly impossible to spark creativity in this status quo.
It’s Time for a New Era of ‘low-tech’
The so-called ‘rich media’ of web technologies has made us rich in many respects. It’s allowed for many new inventions, opening up new opportunities for younger generations to start companies based on products and services only futurists could have predicted. At a personal level, it’s even possible that heavy exposure to Internet technologies can even be good for us.10 But there’s also no denying that they have made us ‘poorer’; they have taken a toll on our ability to learn beyond short bursts of data, reflect, and hone our creative proclivities.
[su_pullquote]When we are overwhelmed with information, our thought process narrows, making it a lot harder for new ideas to make their way to us; there’s just no room.[/su_pullquote] By no account do we claim our arguments above to be scientific. But as professors of business, we are both societal and economic observers. We know there is a profound need for greater creativity in the business world – and to form solutions for increasingly complex global problems. We do not take for granted the entrepreneurial benefits of a technologically intense society. But we also know that true innovation-driven entrepreneurship requires fluidity and introspection – elements that are absolutely necessary. Innovation is more than just apps, Facebook and Twitter, which we salute as a valuable means to an end, but not the end itself. Technologies are powerful tools that can turn innovative ideas into reality. Yet, those ideas are ultimately derived from insight and observation, both of which sprout and then flourish when we opt to go low-tech.
About the Authors
Dr. Terence Tse is an Associate Professor in Finance at the London campus of ESCP Europe Business School. He is also the Head of Competitive Studies at i7 Institute for Innovation and Competitiveness academic think-tank at ESCP Europe. He began his career in investment banking at Schroders and Lazard Brothers, and later as an independent consultant to a University of Cambridge-based biotech start-up and various major corporations. He worked as a consultant at Ernst & Young in London. He holds a PhD from the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge, UK.
Dr. Mark Esposito is an Associate Professor of Business & Economics at Grenoble Graduate School of Business in France & Instructor at the Harvard Extension School in the USA. He serves as Senior Associate for the University of Cambridge Program for Sustainability Leadership in the UK. He is the founder of the Lab-Center for Competitiveness and has advised governments, the UN, and the NATO over the past 10 years on development and sustainability issues. He holds a PhD from the International School of Management in Paris/New York.
1. Mann, Sandi and Robinson, Andrew (2009) “Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students”, British Educational Research Journal, 35(2), 243-258
2. Plester, Beverly, Wood, Clare, Bell, Victoria (2008) “Txt msg n school literacy: does texting and knowledge of text abbreviations adversely affect children’s literacy attainment?” Literacy, 42 (3), 137–144
3. Rittel, Michael (2011) A Silicon Valley school that doesn’t compute, The New York Times, 22nd October, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/technology/at-waldorf-school-in-silicon-valley-technology-can-wait.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
4. Walsh, Jennifer L., Fielder, Robyn L., Carey, Kate B. and Carey, Michael P. (2013) Female College Students’ Media Use and Academic Outcomes: Results From a Longitudinal Cohort Study, Emerging Adulthood, 1(3), 219-232
5. Citing Jordan Grafman in Cheshire, Tom (2013) “How hyperstimulation is making us smarter,” Wired Magazine, December, 110-117
6. Rosen, D. Larry, Carrier, L. Mark and Cheever, A. Nancy (2013) “Facebook and texting made me do it: Media-induced task-switching while studying”, Computers in Human Behavior, 29, 948-958
7. Liu, Ziming (2008) Paper to Digital: Documents in the Information Age, Westport: Libraries Unlimited
8. Carr, Nicholas (2010) The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, London: Atlantic Books
9. Citing Jordan Grafman in Tapscott, Don (2009) Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World, New York: McGraw Hill
10. Cheshire, Tom (2013) “How hyperstimulation is making us smarter,” Wired Magazine, December, 110-117