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Happy Birthday dear (innovation-killing) web

Working on your creativity. Kaptain Kobold, CC BY-SA

Happy Birthday dear (innovation-killing) web

As we hit our online quarter century it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that technology has been the making of us. But for innovation in tech entrepreneurship it might just be our undoing.

Many experts, and governments, say with conviction that promoting innovation (and creating innovation-based entrepreneurs) requires the deployment of more and more technologies throughout a person’s education.

Let’s get this straight. We know you have to be IT-savvy to operate successfully in today’s world, but we want to point out what seems to be a widely accepted yet erroneous assumption: that more technology leads to more innovation; to more high-tech creativity from business.

Such thinking is not hard to understand: people who are well-versed in technologies know how to best adapt them for new purposes - and fast. You don’t need to look beyond Facebook and Google for evidence. But this is missing the point. What is important is that they all started with one really great idea and not the technology itself.

There is a strong case to be made for a less conventional suggestion: surging past our creative boundaries is more about staying away from online technologies. You read that correctly. We recommend people step away from the screen, give the internet a rest, because “unplugging from the Matrix” creates more mental space for generating new ideas – even the occasional eureka moment.

Distractor fan

Going low-tech can overcome many of the problems that high-tech applications have introduced insidiously into our lives. Our reliance on the internet, for example, can very easily distract us from what really matters.

Evan Williams, the founder of Bloggers.com and Twitter, once shared the secret of his success, saying that technology does not have to involve “inventing new things”. Instead, it is about using it to help us do things more conveniently. Sure, we need to be in touch with technologies and know what they can do. But more important is an understanding of the low-tech/offline side of human living.

Take another example. Paul Lee is an entrepreneur who invented ACEHearing, a simple device - and a blessing - to help the hearing impaired. To him, there is really nothing technologically new about his product. Instead, the value of the invention lies in being in touch with the human condition and seeing what can be improved. Contributing to society does not come from technologies; it comes from addressing peoples’ needs.

But it’s more than that. We see evidence that technology can actually impede the learning process, and as business school professors, we are guilty as charged. A recent study concluded that the root cause of classroom boredom was the instructors’ use of PowerPoint slides, which are now a standard teaching tool. Many schools have now encouraged both students and instructors to make use of as much technology as possible in class.

Yet, one of the major downsides of this is that these tech devices leave us fighting for students’ attention. It is highly probable that we are really boring professors; however time and time again, we have seen that when it comes an attention competition between teachers and Facebook, the latter wins most of the time, if not every time.

Fingers and thumbs

Excessive text messaging may also do us harm. The trouble with texting too much is that it may hurt our learning and even affect intelligence. In a study of children aged 11 and 12, researchers found that those who used their mobiles to send three or more texts a day had significantly lower verbal and non-verbal reasoning test scores than children who sent none. This perhaps explains why in technology-laden Silicon Valley, parents are sending their children to schools that reject the use of technology in the classroom..

Technology is also, probably, serving to narrow our attention spans. The heavy dependence on online technologies is gradually taking away our ability, or at least our patience, to read long(ish) articles. We now prefer short articles because there are so many elements competing for our time and curiosity. At the same time, we have become more selective in our reading and read at a much more superficial level too. The problem with this is that we deny ourselves the opportunity to think deeply. We miss out on that meditative act that allows us to replenish our minds and to engage more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions.

And perhaps most crucially, technology is detracting from our ability to grow our creativity. This has happened to many of us: we struggle to come up with new ideas, so we set aside 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 facing a non-stop onslaught of incoming messages from email, SMS, Facebook updates and tweets. And the result of such information overload? Our thought process narrows, making it a lot more difficult for new ideas to make their way to us; there’s just no space.

Innovation is more than just technologies - they are just powerful tools that can turn innovative ideas into reality. Yet, those ideas are ultimately derived from the kinds of insight and observation on which people like Lee and Williams have based their success. But both of these only sprout and then flourish when we opt to spend less time online and more time offline.

In short, maybe you would have been better off without reading this article. Sorry.