The most important skill of the 21st century

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Something strange happened with the birth of the internet; something changed about how we understand our identity and our existence. And that something was that our sense of self got translated into 0s and 1s so that we could project a part of our being as a single node into a global network of nodes made up of other-selves.

In a way, this is no different from how we interact with our more local cultures, whether they be our families, our communities, our corporations, or our nations. All of these entities are cultures of interconnected selves in a network that changes and evolves relative to the thoughts, the emotions, and the behaviors of the individuals that make up the collective. The culture influences us just as we influence culture.

The way that the internet is different, however, is the speed and the scale of the network. Things move quicker in the digital world, and on top of that, it is — as the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan put it — a global village. The reach of this network extends to each and every corner of the world rather than just the bubbles that physically surround us in the day-to-day world of atoms. Like with most great technologies, these facts have combined to augment both the best and the worst of humanity. The core that builds out this augmentation, however, is this: We are now crowded by more information than we have ever previously had to make sense of.

Growing up in a generation even as recent as the mid-20th century meant that your sense of self was mostly shaped by a combination of your local cultures, popular media culture, your education, and whatever life experiences you accumulated living in the real world. Today, however, things are slightly different. The internet has not only completely shattered and broken what we think of as popular culture into million little pieces, incapable of making a coherent whole, but it has also equipped us with all of humanity’s knowledge. Now, access to the diversity of information and cultures and knowledge can lead to power, but too much information and too many cultures and too much knowledge only overwhelm, and given how the human mind works, leading us to confusion. As the late psychotherapist Carl Jung put it:

“The pendulum of the mind oscillates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong. The numinosum is dangerous because it lures men to extremes, so that a modest truth is regarded as the truth and a minor mistake is equated with fatal error.”

Our mind has filters to deal with information overload, breaking things down and making them simpler for us to consume, but as Jung insinuated, these filters aren’t necessarily the paragons of rationality. They don’t filter between what is objectively right or objectively wrong, but rather, they filter how well the information coheres with our existing state of mind, our existing sense of self, to maintain its sanity in a world far more complex than it could wish to comprehend in a limited amount of time.

In the past, growing up in local cultures in the physical world, we had these same filters in place, of course, but we also had more time and less information. Your parents may have conditioned you one way, your teachers another, and your friends, too, but there was a limit to how much they could communicate with you. This meant that you had both the time and the space to think, and if the conditioning wasn’t useful, your sense of self would eventually be aware enough to have an easier time rejecting it, even if you filtered for coherence and short-term sanity in the beginning.

In the global village created by the internet, on the other hand, the node of your digital self is constantly bombarded by the larger network, which is itself shaped by hidden algorithms, mostly manipulated by those who happen to shout the loudest. For the average person, the amount of consumption far exceeds the amount of time they have to rationally make sense of it. And when they can’t rationally make sense of it, they take shortcuts, which is clearly apparent in the rampant and blind tribalism on most social media networks. And, of course, those who refuse to take shortcuts often get punished for this by a state of constant and bewildering confusion they feel regarding their place in all of this.

The internet is still young, and it is still learning to organize itself. But until it does, the most important skill in the 21st century will be the ability to rationally refine the sense-making apparatus of our mind. Rather than blindly following the automatic filters and biases of the brain, it will be to create our own information filters. Rather than simply being a node in the grand network, it will be to see the network as a whole as it continues to evolve. Rather than pretending that the information we consume has already been filtered for right and wrong just because our own sense of self has an attachment to a particular tribe or an idea that makes us feel emotionally secure, it will be to ask why that information might be right or wrong from someone else’s point of view.

At its core, this kind of sense-making has two components: The first is to do the work to figure out which information should be consumed and which should be discarded — consciously, beyond our personal biases, and ideally, from as many diverse perspectives as possible; the second is to just step away from it all to simply think about what is consumed and how it all connects.

The American philosopher Ken Wilber likes to assert that everybody has some important piece of the truth. This applies to people, as well as to ideas. And yes, while the words of, say, a racist might make objectively false language claims, the emotional experience that underlies those claims has a sliver of truth because it explains their complex relationship to reality, however misguided their words and any subsequent actions may be, or however uncomfortable that may make us. And if you take a hundred or a thousand different little truths, dig a little deeper into each of them rather than blindly dismissing whatever threatens your attachment to your own sense of self, what you end up with is a mosaic of interrelated experiences that collectively guide the global culture. A network of truths unveils itself rather than whatever truth is most comforting to you.

In the modern world, we have far more information than we know what to do with. It’s perhaps far more than we could wish to reasonably make sense of no matter how many filters we intentionally create, no matter how long we step away to think about our consumption. That said, this simple fact is a gift or a curse relative to what we do about it. If we take the easy way out, which is the way of blind association to whatever part of the network it is that conditions our own personal node, then we all suffer. If, however, we are more intentional in how we choose to interact with this information, we can start to put together enough pieces of the puzzle to at least peek at some important parts of the picture without even having to fully complete it.

The most effective people learn to close the gap between what makes sense and what is right. What makes sense is what is coherent only if you ignore anything that doesn’t suit your existing narrative. Rightness, on the other hand, is the willingness to embrace temporary incoherence — or a state of confusion and nonsense — long enough that a broader and more honest mental model of the world can be created. One accepts only what makes it feel comfortable; the other seeks out and corrects errors to make itself better aligned with the actual workings of reality.

The scope of our sense-making apparatus has grown from local to global within a generation. Not only is there more daily pressure applied to it, but the amount of time it has to respond to these challenges is getting shorter. What matters isn’t what we consume, but how the grand total of our consumption is made sense of, and increasingly, in this latter regard, we are fighting an uphill battle that is edging us towards an unconscious perception of reality rather than a truthful one.

If we don’t effectively use our tools, our tools end up using us. In the 21st century, the difference will be determined by how we manage information.

This article first appeared on DesignLuck.com.