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Third-Wave Thinking

Survival Skills for the New Age

Karl Albrecht

Question: what critical skills, knowledge, and attitudes will you need for personal and career success in the information age?

The short answer: we don't know for sure. The long answer: your personal conclusion will depend on your own assumptions about what life will be like in this brave new world. Consequently, you may as well consciously adopt some particular set of assumptions - rather than none - and base your personal development plan on a worldview of your own choosing.

If you believe we'll all eventually morph into large heads carried about by vestigial bodies, and that life will be all about processing enormous amounts of information in our brains, then by implication, you get one set of survival skills. If you believe that human physical contact will become obsolete and that we'll be connected electronically to all other humans at the same common denominator of digital intimacy, you get another set of survival skills. If you believe that societies will partition into information haves and have-nots, with the haves holding the advantage in material standard of living, you get still another set of skills. And if you think none of those "gee-whiz" scenarios will materialize, you might already have - or know how to acquire - the skills you'll need.

Paradoxically, the first information survival skill we'll need will be the skill of decoding propaganda and demythologizing our highly commercialized and entertainment-based culture. Psychologists politely call it "resistance to enculturation." Novelist Ernest Hemingway had a less elegant term for it: he called it the skill of "crap detecting." Whatever you prefer to call it, you can start practicing on the very topic of the information environment itself. How does it work?

We first have to realize that most of the breathless pronouncements we're hearing and reading about things digital are basically conjectures, regardless of the air of confidence or the decibel level the various pundits apply as they bombard us with them. We also need to keep in mind that the vast majority of the people who are trying to explain the information age to us have a vested financial interest in the scenarios they promote. Hardware and software firms, Internet service providers, content providers, Web site operators like portals and gateways, IT consultants, authors, publishers, technical magazines, business magazines, and even the popular press all stand to gain from the popularity of digital technology. They are the ones willing and able to pay the costs of getting our attention.

Currently, several notions dominate the popular discussion and much of the unconscious thought process about the information age, and particularly the Internet (it's time we stopped capitalizing these words). If we're going to think like good futurists in considering the likely scenarios, we need to question and measure a whole range of assumptions against the yardstick of common sense. Three assumptions in particular deserve careful scrutiny.

1. The Internet Will Change Everything - And Everybody.

We hear that the Internet, and particularly the worldwide web, will change virtually everything about our society, more profoundly than any other technology that has ever come before. Will this turn out to be true? Not really. Let's not get swept along with the religious fervor of those who hope to make their living by selling the rest of us a whole range of techno-toys and techno-services. We'll ending up buying what we find valuable and we'll pass up the rest.

Consider the Internet industry - meaning, not those who use the Internet as a practical tool, but those who want to sell Internet"solutions" to those who do. Internet marketers portray it variously as a global community, a mysterious form of collective intelligence, or a giant marketplace. But let's get a grip on our fantasies.

Strip away the magical thinking, and the Internet is basically a distribution system, much like many others we use every day: oil and gas pipelines, the electric power grid, the mail distribution system, the railroad system, the telephone system, the parcel shipping system, the radio & TV broadcast system, and the airline system. Something of value - data - flows through the worldwide network, much as water flows through the pipeline distribution system in your city. To assume that one or another of these distribution systems is somehow profoundly more important or more meaningful than all the others is to fall prey to the kind of magical thinking that Internet promoters need to sell us.

The Internet and the Worldwide Web, as valuable as they are, will probably turn out to have roughly the same impact on our society as other major distribution systems, like the US interstate highway system. All of these systems speed things up, reduce costs, and make the movement of valuable commodities more efficient. What's the evidence for the assertion that moving data around the world quickly and cheaply is somehow more significant and valuable than, say, moving people around the world with the global air travel system? They both create value in different, but comparable, ways.

2. Eventually, All Human Beings Will Be "Connected."

Ads and commercials for Internet access services, and more recently a whole raft of wireless Internet access devices, unfailingly project the same unspoken proposition: "you gotta have it." The ever-present mantra of inevitability signals the foregone conclusion that everybody wants the same thing from digital technology - constant, uninterrupted access. This view of the Internet as a kind of giant electronic nipple hints at a rather pathetic form of psychological dependency. The implication that a person can no longer survive without constant access to e-mail, telephone messages, and streaming data portrays the human of the future as addicted to some kind of digital "fix."

Except for a small fraction of people in certain circumstances, very few people will ever need to be continuously connected. I don't carry a cell phone everywhere I go, and I read e-mail about once a day, except in unusual circumstances. I don't measure my importance or my worth as a person by the number of people who can interrupt me whenever they please.

A corollary to the proposition of the PCH (permanently connected human) is the notion that "we're all waiting for broadband," i.e. the widespread availability of high-speed Internet access by cable TV hookup, satellite, or special phone lines like DSL and T1. This putative "next big breakthrough" will supposedly attract everybody who isn't already a PCH into the ranks of the enlightened.

It won't, of course, for a number of reasons. First, only a few specialized (or compulsive) users really need to move huge amounts of data in and out of their PCs. Second, although broadband promoters tend to gloss over the fact, an enormous investment is yet to be made in the capital infrastructure needed to extend high-speed service beyond the 50 percent of the American population who could possibly sign up for it now. The big telecom companies of the world will find the total consumer demand for broadband access insufficient to justify the outlays needed for 100 percent availability.

This notion of finite consumer demand seems completely alien to the thinking of the Internet promoters, who take as an article of faith that everybody wants the same thing.

3. People Will Have to Learn a Completely New Way of Thinking.

This is another of those glittering generalizations that are fun to say but ultimately mean little. Any prediction that rests on the assumption that a very large number of people will behave in a highly uncharacteristic way has no future. Notwithstanding the brave new world scenarios about technology changing people, the fact is that people will change technology. How? By the simple process of buying some of it and turning up their noses at the rest. The proper study of technology is not technology, but human beings.

Even in the affluent societies like America, human differences in appetite for information will prevail, and these differences will ultimately drive the architecture of technology. Peter Drucker's concept of the knowledge worker needs updating. We must recognize two categories of workers: knowledge workers and data workers. Knowledge workers include scientists, researchers, planners, managers, writers, teachers, designers, consultants, doctors, lawyers, and others whose contribution depends on their grasp of information and their ability to apply it.

Data workers, forming a lower "caste," are those who handle formatted information in predetermined ways. Information technology has made a whole range of low-skilled workers more productive, not by transforming them into different kinds of thinkers, but by transforming their work into data work. The 19-year-old counter clerk in McDonald's doesn't have to know how to add up the customer's order, or even know what prices to charge. He or she just punches a coded button and the software does the knowledge work. At the upper end of the scale, semi-skilled medical technicians now use information technology to perform laboratory analyses that were beyond the skills of even the experts a decade ago. In these and many other cases, the technology actually reduces the demand for knowledge and information skills rather than increasing it.

One could argue for an in-between category, i.e. the information worker, who does more than simply manipulate data in routinized ways, but does not create new knowledge or deploy it in original ways. The escrow clerk in a real estate office, for example, may need to know a few basic things about property transactions, but for the most part this person carries out higher-level tasks designed by someone else.

It's only an illusion to think that a bank teller has a more knowledge-intensive job than, say, an auto worker who attaches bumpers to cars. They handle different kinds of raw material, but the knowledge content they add to their respective products is roughly equivalent.

The most successful applications of information technology will not fit people to the technology, but will fit the technology to the people. Ultimately, there will be little choice. The corollary to this questionable proposition of the DMH (digitally-minded human) is the notion that "People without computer skills will be left out of the job market."

Try this exercise: make a list of as many jobs as you can think of that require very little knowledge work, and perhaps even very little data work. Start with the millions of food-service workers; then add construction workers of all kinds; add transport workers who drive trucks, buses, and cabs; add assembly-line manufacturing workers; add front-line retail sales clerks; add domestic workers who clean and maintain buildings; add auto repair workers; add bank tellers; add telephone customer service workers; add barbers, hair stylists, and beauticians; add mail carriers; add security guards; you can stop there for now.

Now, ask yourself: "How many of these jobs will information technology eliminate or revolutionize?" The answer: almost none of them. Information technology may well make some of them more productive by enabling the workers to accomplish more with the same skills. But there is little support for the proposition that they will somehow have to transform their minds. And, by the way, the much-ballyhooed telecommuters will remain a small fraction of the overall workforce.

The Digital Pecking Order

There are two kinds of people in a highly developed society: infophiles and infophobes. Infophiles habitually seek information, read actively, study, enjoy learning and manipulating ideas, and feel comfortable and competent in analyzing things. Walk into a typical bookstore and you'll see mostly infophiles.

Infophobes, on the other hand, have never developed a comfortable relationship with facts, figures, and ideas, and consequently deal with them only by necessity. You seldom see them reading nonfiction books, business magazines, or classical literature. They are less likely to attend courses voluntarily, and they typically don't hang around libraries and museums.

I assert that most people fall into one of these two distinct categories, and that their habitual preferences dominate much of what they do in their lives. Infophiles tend to choose occupations involving the skillful use of knowledge. Infophobes tend to choose occupations that do not. The worker who puts the roof on your house might possibly have a secret life as a museum curator or Web site designer, but most people in that occupation don't. Conversely, one doesn't meet many illiterate college professors. This preference for - or antipathy toward - information, factual knowledge, and conceptual process is strongly associated with education. Regardless of whether you prefer to think a particular person's infophilia or infophobia comes from genetic factors or learned experiences, this distinction tends to be fairly clear and relatively permanent throughout life.

It's a simple but important truth that people who are fascinated with information technology tend to be infophiles. What very few of them seem to understand, however, is that the majority of the general population are infophobes, not infophiles. For those people, dealing with data, information, and knowledge holds no special fascination, and indeed often makes them feel uncomfortable and inadequate.

Unfortunately, infophiles tend to project their own mental preferences into their perceptions of everyone else, with little consideration of these differences. Thus their unvoiced and unquestioned assumption that everyone else is just as fascinated as they are with computers, software, the Internet, and the worldwide web.

So, What's Really New?

So much for the brave new world of digital humans, permanently connected. Once the promotional diatribe fades, we'll discover that the personal success formula hasn't changed all that much in the information age. Thinkers and thought leaders, by and large, will still be in charge and still make the rules. A homespun philosopher I once knew used to say, "You know, if they took all the money in the world away from everybody, put it all together, and then divided it up equally, within about six months the ones who had it before would have it back again."

The critical coping skills of the information age have little to do with handling data, and everything to do with handling knowledge. Education (not to be confused with schooling) will certainly remain the primary distinguishing factor between the winners, the also-rans, and the losers. As the general educational level continues to rise, even in America, we may well see a larger fraction of people growing up to be infophiles, but it is doubtful that they will ever outnumber infophobes. Data workers are not much more likely than physical workers to be infophiles. And knowing how to work a PC, use word processing software, and surf the Internet have become practical, entry-level skills, not key competencies in themselves.

So, what macro-skills will the successful infophile need in this not-so-brave new world? How does one become one of the elite of the elite? What will it take to get that next promotion, make the next sale, or close the next big deal? Here are my candidates:

Interpersonal Effectiveness. Look beyond the invented media stereotype of the bewildered geek who has blundered into fabulous wealth and you'll see an ancient and immutable truth: the ability to sell, explain, persuade, organize, motivate, and lead others still holds first place. Making things happen still requires the ability to make people like you, respect you, listen to you, and want to connect with you. And by connect, I mean connect personally, not digitally. Paradoxically, information technology connects but cannot create intimacy; indeed, it limits and regulates rather than amplifies intimacy. The more wired human beings become, the less truly connected they will feel. The human connection will always, always, always outrank the digital connection as a get-ahead skill.

  1. Filtering: the Ability to See Through the Clutter. As the sheer quantity of information increases, its quality inevitably goes down. Mass and class are incompatible. The steady proliferation of agendas of all types, and the tendency of the Internet and the news media to level all information to the same common denominator of mediocrity, makes it crucially important to evaluate the quality of what you see, hear, and read. In short, caveat expertus. If you're willing to base your investment decisions on the advice of a bunch of strangers in an Internet chat room, you deserve what happens to you. It has become quite easy now to fall into information overload; you simply don't need and couldn't process all of the information that's pouring over you. Now you must consciously reject much more than you accept. It makes good sense to find a few sources of high-quality information and ideas you can trust, and tune out the rest. You really aren't missing much if you don't watch TV or hang around chat rooms. And, by the way, e-mailing those insipid jokes to 50 people at a time adds to the clutter; take me off your list.
  2. Propaganda Resistance. Over the past fifty years, people in the developed countries like America have experienced an exponential increase in the flow of imagery injected into their sensory systems. Today's citizen experiences and reacts to a vastly greater diet of synthetic experience than ever before in our history. We have moved from a culture of oral and written tradition to one of pictorial tradition: a video society. Along with this visual technology has come the inevitable tendency to manipulate, or "improve on", the truth. Witness the cynical decision by the editors of a major news magazine to doctor the police mug shot of sports star O.J. Simpson, who was charged with the murder of his girl friend. By digitally increasing the contrast of the black-and-white photo, and giving it a grainy look, they supplied visual and emotional cues to suggest that he was already known to be guilty. The popular media, whence most people derive their "knowledge" of their contemporary world, are securely in the hands of business operators who value entertainment far above knowledge and intellectual process. The commercial news media routinely practice the journalism of sneer, jeer, and leer. The Hollywood values of emotionality, immediacy, self-gratification, sexualism, and anti-intellectualism dominate the interpretation of virtually all subjects from war, to presidential elections, to the Olympic games. A deeply cynical journalistic establishment tries to create the illusion of unbiased, critical news coverage, but has merely succeeded in alienating a whole generation of young people from their culture. The national political discourse is reduced to sloganizing and name calling, by a cadre of narcissistic talk-show hosts, whose only qualifications seem to be loud mouths and lots of opinions. Several of the more right-wing commentators have rediscovered an ancient truth: make people think they're thinking, and they'll love you; make them really think and they'll hate you. Anyone who listens to, watches, reads, and recites the content of these sources without consciously superimposing his or her own judgments and interpretations on the information provided risks becoming a third-wave zombie, incapable of original thought.
  3. Breadth of knowledge. While specialization will be a path to career success for many, there will also always be a need for big-picture thinkers. Those who can reach far beyond the current topic of preoccupation to find inspiration, meaning, context, examples, analogies, metaphors, lessons, and primal themes have the edge when it comes to figuring out what comes next. The best futurists are those with an enormous intellectual reach. Knowing a bit about the Iliad, the Magna Carta, archaeology, anthropology, world history, geography, psychology, DNA, and black holes enables a mind to stretch its boundaries and entertain possibilities not previously conceived. Science fiction writer Robert Heinlein asserted that "A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
  4. Tolerance for Ambiguity. Alvin Toffler defined "future shock," in his 1980 book of the same title, as a feeling of unease and apprehension, associated with the loss of a sense of permanence and certainty, caused by rapid and unrelenting change. Not only is the infrastructure of modern societies changing, but the very social fabric that has always kept them together is changing as well. In the United States, there is no longer a single dominant "all-American" value system overshadowing all others. We have moved into an age of cultural and ethical relativism: "Do your own thing and don't worry about what anybody else thinks." Paradoxically, while people are bombarded by universal images and icons, they are becoming ever more differentiated and tribal in their self-identification. Racial and ethnic divisions, age and gender gaps, and a proliferation of social and political agendas are taking away the comfortable sense of certainty and simple answers. Issues like gay marriage, capital punishment, abortion, the right to die voluntarily, genetic engineering, and a host of others have created a sense of irresolvable conflict and ambiguity across whole cultures. And in business, information technology is destroying whole industries, creating others, and turning others upside down. A person with a high psychological need for structure and order will face more and more stress as the rules and answers become less and less clear. Conversely, the skill psychologists call tolerance for ambiguity will become more and more important for a person who wants to thrive, succeed, and lead others in this new age.
  5. Intellectual Courage. During the peak of the "dot-com" mania, when delirious investors were clamoring for shares of the so-called New-Economy miracle companies, it became fashionable for stock market pundits to poke fun at Warren Buffett, formerly considered one of the world's wisest investors. Buffett's "value investing" approach seemed grotesquely out of date as the "profit-someday.com" firms became the darlings of Wall Street, and shares of his Berkshire Hathaway sagged for almost two years. "It looks like the grand old man has had his day," they said. "He just doesn't 'get' the New Economy." With characteristic humility, Buffett said simply "I only invest in things I understand." It turned out that the Oracle of Omaha understood the game far better than those who had condescendingly pronounced him over the hill. As the dot-com bubble burst, E-commerce firms began dropping like flies, and venture capitalists stopped chasing geeks with hypothetical business plans, the smart money returned to value. As Berkshire Hathaway's shares steadily rose to far outperform the NASDAQ and Internet 100 indexes, Buffett was entitled to the last laugh, although he didn't take it. He knew that capital eventually flows to value, and he knew that psychological bubbles don't go on forever. Intellectual courage is the ability to discern truth when that truth is unpopular, and to trust your own wisdom instead of following the herd. As our world becomes ever more complex, and the message environment becomes ever more confused and conflicted, intellectual courage becomes ever more valuable as a survival skill.
  6. Only Fools Worship Tools

    Ultimately, all the digital gadgets - computers, printers, scanners, copiers, faxes, networks, cell phones, personal digital assistants, and all the rest - are only tools. They are means to accomplish certain ends. If we can't figure out what we want from them, we can't distinguish the means from the ends. Albert Einstein counseled his colleagues: "The concern for man and his destiny must be the chief aim of all scientific endeavor. Never forget this amongst your diagrams and equations."


    About the Author:

    Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy.

    He has pioneered a number of important new concepts in the business world. For example, he is widely regarded as the father of the American "customer revolution" and service management. His book Service America: Doing Business in the New Economy (co-authored with the late Ron Zemke), sold over 500,000 copies and has been translated into seven languages.

    He is also a leading authority on cognitive styles and the development of advanced problem solving skills. His recent books Social Intelligence: the New Science of Success, and Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, together with his Social Intelligence Profile and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are widely used in business and education. The Mensa society honored him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.

    Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.