Review: Future Minds


Future Minds by Richard Watson is an easy read. It’s a book preaching for balance between the analogue and digital, physical and virtual, ancient and modern world, in order to ‘save’ the quality of our thinking and idea generation. Watson argues that idea generation requires a balance between having a peace and quiet thinking spaces for deep thinking and our interactions with objects and environments to bounce off ideas. This book focuses on harnessing the potential of the digital ‘revolution’ while minimizing its negative sides. He lays out “how the digital age is changing our minds, why this matters, and what we can do about it.”

Watson believes that our over reliance on digital technology is affecting our ability to do creative, conceptual thinking, which only happens when we make time and space to ‘deep think’. In his view, our constant attachment to our digital and electronic gadgets is not only distracting us, but also creating lesser opportunity to create an original mind, is affecting our ability to concentrate, and turning our society into an impatient, isolated, and detached from reality kind of society. A society composed of ‘individuals who are unable to think by themselves in the real world.’

He highlighted some of the dangers of the current emerging trends; including:

  • Web Anonymity – ‘The anonymity of the web is eroding empathy, encouraging antisocial behavior, and promoting virtual courage over real emotion. At the same time, oversharing information about our precise location or interests may let us know who else is in the vicinity, but it is also making us vulnerable to everyone from advertisers to burglars. Digital immortality also means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to forget previous actions or to get past our past.’
  • Rapid Information Transmission – ‘One of the consequences of rapid information transmission is that we increasingly fail to think properly about the validity of incoming or outgoing information; we are too busy and there is too much of it.’
  • Multitasking Mayhem – ‘Screenagers (teenagers who read on screens) have a predilection for multitasking and parallel processing’. However, several studies have found that multitasking had an adverse effect on learning. ‘Scientist discovered that ‘the constant switching required to multitask effectively is damaging some of our high-level brain functions, especially those related to memory and learning.’

There are also a couple of findings or ‘realization’ in the book that I found interesting to be shared here:

  • ‘The talk of the two sides of the brain is actually highly misleading. The two sides are intimately interconnected and we cannot function well unless both halves are working correctly. Indeed it might be better to think of the two brains rather than one brain split into two. Watson quoted a researcher, Robert Ornstein, stating that “it’s simply that one side is much better at some things and vice versa. But it is still better for each side of the brain to rub and polish itself against the other.”
  • A key finding of a ‘mini’ research undertaken by Watson for the book, is – most people’s best thinking is done away from the workplace, because arguably ‘the brain needs to be in a relaxed (non work) mode to do this’. Watson believe that one have to stop thinking before you can get an idea. (I can vouch for this – I got the connection to my data and the findings to my thesis, while I was walking home from my office one evening. It was such a eureka moment, I quickly ran through the whole idea again into my mobile phone’s voice recorder and afterwards almost ran all the way home in total joy. The week before that I was so overwhelmed that I was sitting on too much data that I could not process any of it.)
  • Sustaining a business is very much like gardening.
  • There’s actually benefits to boredom 🙂
  • In generating ideas, Watson points out that Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman argue that a little disorder can be healthy: “Moderately disorganized people, institutions and systems frequently turn out to be more resilient, more creative and in general more effective than highly organized ones.” The trick is according to Watson is to find a good balance between chaos and order and to clean up your desk every so often. Even Albert Einstein was quoted saying: “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?”

In overall, Future Minds’ emphasis, lies in the claim that due to the ‘invasion’ of these gadgets (and their screens) in our lives, the future ‘will belong not to logical men and women who can acquire, digest and regurgitate data, but to deep thinkers and innovative organizations that can spot anomalies, ask original questions, and dream up fresh ideas – deep thinkers that will make the world a better place’. As knowledge is becoming instantly available to almost everyone, one skill he argued that people will need to acquire in the future is ‘not spot knowledge or knowing things per se, but knowing how things relate to one another… value will lie …in the ability to create and cross-fertilize ideas to create new knowledge. This is the world of multiple types of intelligence and deep thinking.’

So how then do we create deep thinkers in this digital age?

The final part of Future Minds outlines ten tips on fostering creative, wide and reflective thinking. It discusses what we can do to improve the quality of our thinking and strive at striking a balance between our use of digital devices and our relationship with each other. Watson emphasized that we should take steps to reclaim the time and space to think. His main concern – computers are starting to prevent us from thinking, instead of being tools to help us think. He claimed that “we have now become so obsessed with asking whether something can be done (invented) that we leave little or no time to consider whether it should be done.”

His final thoughts were ‘…currently, we are still the smartest things around and if we do not like what we can see in the future, there’s still time to change it. It might be a good idea to sit down, open a window, and ponder this thought for a little while.’

This book is published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2010. You can get it online from with a starting price of RM52 (including postage).

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