Book Review: Future Minds by Richard Watson

Given the cover and sub-title “How the digital age is changing our minds…”, I have to confess that I approached futurist Watson’s second book with the same trepidation a twelve-year-old feels when faced with a Winter cross-country run. I expected it to “do me good”. But I didn’t expect it to be so enjoyably engaging.

This isn’t a geek’s treatise. I’m pleased to report that Richard is a humanist rather than a techie and a pragmatist rather than a dogmatic zealot perpetuating the marketing myth that life begins and ends with so-called social media; mobile phone functionality and the whims of Microsoft and Apple.

Some time ago I published a piece titled “Facebook will never replace Facetime”. It was targeted at the non-sensical hysteria surrounding so-called social media and reminded people of the importance of deep thinking; relationship management and development and the necessity of contact and connections flesh to flesh rather than via an ISP. My treatise is primarily based on experience of facilitating change within organisations. Watson’s thesis is based on extremely well researched fact.

Here are some of his challenging observations:

–          Gen Y “screenagers” have become better at IQ tests than their predecessors, yet the No1 gripe from employers is a lack of basic reading, writing and arithmetic

–          The effectiveness of multi-tasking is largely a myth

–          Online crowds are drowning out individual wisdom

–          The culture of pace for the sake of it and rapid response (reaction rather than reflection) is perpetuating mistakes and half-truths

–          The anonymity of the web is eroding core relationship skills like empathy and promotes virtual courage over real emotion and accountability

–          As so-called social media grows at the expense of true social interactions there are increasingly fewer opportunities for serendipitous encounters (a great phrase)

–          The next working generation will be less resilient as they have a “re-boot” mentality

–          The increase in on-screen reading at the expense of books and paper may improve the pace and volume of apparent reading but it  is already having a detrimental effect on problem-solving & deep thinking

–          Handwritten correspondence is staggeringly more successful at engaging recipients than electronic messages

–          We have to try harder to allow children to be child-like for longer

–          Workplaces are very seldom conducive to generating ideas

–          Humour is hugely important to forge relationships and break conventional patterns of thought

–          Personalised, intrusive advertising is imminent

–          Mental privacy will become one of the hottest issues in the next 30 years

–          Expect to see a return to the real and the growth in localism and crafts

These are just a few of the well thought through and provocative arguments which run through this book. Interestingly, many of his points echo similar phases in social evolution like the emergence of the Arts and Crafts movement as a reaction to industrialisation and mass production, for example

But before the tech heads start to cry “Tolpuddle martyr”, it’s important to stress that the ultimate thesis of Future Minds is a plea for balance and a blended approach to technology.

It’s clear that Watson believes in the power of so-called new media. But what he does very well in this book is re-visit the biology of thinking as well as the sociology of relationships to appeal for individual and collective responsibility for re-framing how man uses machines “Technology should sometimes be forced to adapt to us” and not the other way round. And he makes a compelling case with the help of a great deal of hard, factual evidence, expert testimonial and provocative, sometimes disturbing case study. Perhaps the most shocking is the couple who let their real baby starve because they were obsessed with caring for a virtual infant online!

Ultimately, this book is a timely reminder that our technology should be an enabler not an end in itself. Actual experiences will always take precedence over virtual ones and we need to determine the technology agenda and set and remain in control of the rules “It seems to me that what people seem to want more than ever these days is the opportunity to be touched emotionally by the thinking and experiences of other people ….What should we do if we are concerned about the invasion of screen culture into our everyday lives? Bluntly, we should think.”

Far from being a geek-fest, Future Minds is controversial; thought-provoking; easy to read (I finished it in 1 sitting) and most importantly, entertaining. I never expected to be confronted by a chapter concerned with the Sex Life of Ideas, for example, and the wisdom that “For new ideas to be born you need two or more old ideas to jump into bed and get frisky”.

In the ever-evolving debate about existing and emerging technology, it’s refreshing to see someone straddle the old school (no pun intended) and the new so very comfortably yet is grounded by an admirable value set and a gift for appreciative critique. I highly recommend you pick up a copy as I’ve little doubt you’ll find yourself nodding in agreement as you turn the pages, at least most of the time, even if it may feel a little heretical to point at the elephant in the room or acknowledge what I’m sure most of us are thinking.


5 thoughts on “Book Review: Future Minds by Richard Watson

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