Next Generation

By Warren Bennis  |  Posted 11-11-2002 Print Email

As a geezer, I was initially distressed by what I saw as a lack of substance in the choices of our geeks. And then I remembered that our geeks are as much children of their time as I am of mine. Unlike those of us who grew up with radio and movies, their eyes and minds have been trained by television and the computer to process information at strobe-like speed. They are gobblers of information (the image that pops to mind is of Pac-Man), not sippers. They do not retrieve information as my generation did (and often still does)—by patiently reading books from cover to cover in a dogged search for useful, nuanced data. The new leaders expect to find what they want to know now.

One of our geeks—Ian Clarke, who founded Freenet in his early 20s—gave a passionate defense of the instantaneous educational process he prefers. He described the joy of discovering something he is interested in and being able to contact the author by e-mail and get an almost immediate response. In praise of this whirlwind approach to learning, he says: "[The Internet is] just this huge collaboration of people, many of whom are very, very smart, irrespective of geographic location…I view it as one huge university."

My guess is that Ian is an example of what I call the only-child syndrome. Unlike siblings, only children don't have to queue up for anything—not for second helpings at dinner, not for their parents' affection or attention. The computer reinforces this condition—you don't have to stand patiently in line when using the computer either. It's an enviable position in many ways.

Ian Clarke and his generation feel the need for speed. And that is an invaluable reminder to my generation of the importance, in today's world, of making decisions quickly, in collaboration with others and often without all the information most older decision-makers prefer to have.

In the year or two since we did our interviews, the world has changed dramatically, especially for our geeks. Some have lost the leadership roles they had created for themselves in the New Economy. In the current economic turmoil, many are experiencing uncertainty for the first time. We don't yet know how these setbacks will shape the future leadership styles of our geeks. But we do know that they are creative, adaptive people who will find valuable lessons in whatever is thrown at them. My guess is that the current crisis has given our geeks a more sober view of technology. The United States patent office is as busy as it has ever been, and yet the last few years have made clear that while technology is necessary for survival in today's economy, it is no guarantee of success.



 

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