“How Are Things In The Office, Professor”?


Publication date:

December 09, 2021


Worrying, especially when I reflect on what I see as an educator. Human intelligence seems to be stalling while artificial intelligence is racing ahead. I worry about where we are headed and what the consequences might be. Let me take a step back, reflect on what I see in my office, and comment on why it worries me.

First some encouraging  news, and a sign of hope: after wondering whether I would ever see this, there was someone reading a book and not just a textbook. I mention the latter because, out of school time, my office becomes a study center with many kids doing their homework under the watchful eye of a parent. In fact, I can set my watch on who is in my office.

Reading – and the learning that comes with it – is key for human intelligence to keep pace with artificial intelligence, and enable fruitful collaboration between the two. We all get constantly bombarded with tidbits of information. Our task is the create a comprehensive and insightful picture (or pictures) from these tidbits. This requires fitting pieces together where they do, recognizing which ones do not belong, and filling in the gaps. Our ability to do all this depends on the depth and perspective we can bring to the task. Reading tunes that ability.

When everything is distilled into tweets, video clips, or sound bites, it is incumbent on us to go beyond what we see, read, and hear, and build a comprehensive understanding of what is unfolding around us. This understanding requires us to read more, think more, and reflect more. Casual observation in my office indicates that these are about the last things most of us do these days. We are all busy just doing, and as a result do not invest in becoming more infoliterate. What we need the most, we invest in the least, and that can only lead to more naivety and ignorance. That never leads to anything good.

Let me back up because some of you might be horrified to read that someone was reading a book in the office. To me, reading is excellent news as I want everybody to do more of that. Unfortunately, very few of us do and, hence, my excitement when I saw an officemate do exactly that this morning. It was the first time in months that I saw someone, besides me, reading substantive literature.

My office these days is the Starbucks around the corner from my home in Shanghai. Having retired from academia a couple years ago, I no longer have an office, a desk, a secretary, or assistants. Everything lands in my lap, and stays there unless I do something about them. For those who are not retired yet and are used to a support infrastructure around them, you are in for a big shock: in retirement, everything begins and ends with you.

My working corner on the second floor of the Starbucks is a comfortable seat and a low coffee table by a window with a socket in the wall right next to it. I can charge my iPad as I orchestrate my life with it. A major reason for camping out at Starbucks is that it provides internet access that does not block VPN. The latter is unfortunately necessary in China for anyone wanting to reach out to the world across China’s digital wall.

The odd thing about me being at Starbucks is that I do not drink coffee, and have not done so for some 20+ years. Before that, I was one of those people who needed a cappuccino to get going in the morning. I stopped drinking it (and eating meat) after a body-cleansing cure. Coming out of that experience – which involved not eating anything for 2 weeks, I rediscovered the subtle tastes of simple foods. Appreciating them, I decided to get rid of all strong and overpowering tastes and aromas in my eating habits. As a result, coffee and meat disappeared off my menu. To the delight of my Belgian genes, I did not give up on a good hot chocolate.

Let me describe what I see on a typical day in my Starbucks office.
This morning was an average weekday, and there were 13 people on the second floor. One of them was reading a book. I tried hard to see its title but did not succeed. The others were all glued to their phone screens. On some days, there are a couple of people working away on their laptops but this was not the case this morning.

Everyone was deeply immersed in whatever they were doing on their phones. Incidentally, none were making any phone calls which makes you wonder why we still call them phones; these devices have become much more than just phones to make calls with.

Taking in the scene, I was very much the only one looking up and around. There were no conversations taking place and, apart from the background music, it was pretty quiet in the office. Everyone was busy doing something.

Curious about what people might be doing on their phones, I walked around to take a stealth peek at the screens. No one noticed because their minds were definitely not where they were sitting. Most of us seem to crave for – and find joy in – the great escape from reality and the moment that our tech toys enable us to make. The yoga/meditation center across the street is doing a brisk business bringing us back.

Walking around, five people were holding their phones horizontally and evidently were watching a movie or a video clip. Three were playing games, an absolute addiction (and big business) in China. At lunchtime, many young kids who work in the office buildings in the neighborhood decent on Starbucks for their lunch break. Few eat anything as most of them get on their phones to play multi-player online games. They get deeply immersed into these games, and only talk to one another when they are playing the same game. Today’s rudimentary version of life in a metaverse world.

Three officemates were busy typing away on WeChat, the social media platform Chinese use to do absolutely everything. Many Chinese spend more than half their time every day on WeChat. Few have much use for the internet as WeChat enables everything they need and crave for. Billions of messages pass over the platform every minute, creating a virtual world where they live the life of their avatar twin.

Two people appeared to be reading short stories on their phones. I inferred that from the pictures that accompanied what they were reading. Ebook reading is rare in China. In fact, and the basis for my worry, reading anything substantive is rare. Almost everyone seems to be contend with just cycling through short, unedited, and unverified (except for the ever-present censors) tweets and posts. Whether they have the infoliteracy to make sense of the world based on these sound-, picture-, and word-bites is questionable.

What I have also noticed over the years is that many people can no longer think once they are in front of a screen. Just think for yourself for a minute: can you carry on a conversation looking at a screen?  I observed this when I used business simulation games teaching corporate executives. In this experiential learning setting, executives run businesses and input decisions online. In almost every instance, they were eager to get to the input stage at which point all discussion, reflection and thinking ceased.

With thinking and reflection being at the core of learning, I wonder how much of it is still happening with all of us constantly glued to our screens. They are called smart phones but I doubt that we can delegate much of our thinking to them.

My point is that the more we are exposed to diverse, fragmented, and incomplete information, the greater our need is to sit back, read, think, and reflect. Only that can make us smarter. What I see in my office, however, is that many of us prefer escaping reality over equipping ourselves with the intelligence needed to make sense of it all. Hence, my fear that human intelligences is stalling – or worse – at a time when artificial intelligence is speeding ahead.

I am an avid reader. I usually read 4 to 5 books in parallel, and on average finish a week. Most, but not all, I read cover to cover. I have always found it necessary to be well-read and well-informed. The latter is not about knowing more but about bringing more depth and understanding to what I know. For example, I read opinions, but even for those whose opinion I respect, I will still check the sources and facts for myself. This is perhaps a result of my training as a scientist but it is a handicap that serves me well. It is one we should all aspire to have in this day and age.

The sad reality is that, as we all get exposed to more, most of us absorb less, lose perspective and depth, and as a result stop learning and hollow out intellectually. Without realizing it, we are losing ourselves and our ability to cope with the reality we face. No wonder, so many of us feel the need to escape it when they can.

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