As part of the structure of the Creative Destruction Series, we have conducted and curated several conversations with different great thinkers and doers in the field. This includes researchers, designers, technologists, artists, owners, end-users and a few left-fielders.
For this part, I interviewed Donald Marinelli, who gave one of most compelling, wild and informative presentations on next generation audiences I ever heard at TEA Connect’s 2013 SATE (Story + Architecture + Technology = Entertainment) conference in Savannah, Georgia.
Donald Marinelli is Director of Innovation for Inven Global, a video game media company based in Korea and the US. He also currently serves as Associate Director of the Entertainment Technology Management program at Columbia University in the City of New York and is a Visiting Professor in the School of Arts, Media, and Engineering at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.
Dr. Marinelli retired from Carnegie Mellon University in April 2012, concluding an illustrious 31 years of service to the university in a variety of capacities. Together with the late computer science professor, Randy Pausch (The Last Lecture), Dr. Marinelli co-founded the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC).
EK: I’ve been really inspired by that presentation you did on Generation Z in Savannah at SCAD. What are some insights into who they are?
DM: Unlike millennials, when you’re talking about this generation that we call the plurals (Generation Z), it is precisely because from day one, from their very evolution as a baby into a toddler into an adolescent, they have known technology as being part and parcel of their world. It’s not even a tool so much as it is an extension of their very being, and that has had very interesting consequences. For those of us who are not of that generation, there are ways in which we need to adjust to their way of thinking, and it’s not "all good" because I think that we're seeing a rise of a different way of thinking. I like to refer to them as the first true generation of whole-brain thinkers. Thanks to technology, there seems to be much more of a melding of artistic, creative and technical. If we take a look at technology, it is a means to an end for them and that end is very much a multi-disciplinary world. For example, in everything from the portals that they use to the reasons they’re using them, it’s about storytelling, it’s about sharing photos, it’s about sharing experiences. It is about seeking recognition and identification among your peers, and it's about doing so in a way that is much more immediate and spontaneous than in previous generations.
EK: This ties directly into this revolution in education of whole-brain-thinkers, no?
DM: Yes. They're forcing a revolution in education. This has a great deal to do with the mindset of the plural for whom, for example, perceptions of time and space are much more flexible than in previous generations. Increasingly, the idea of going to school from 8:00 to 2:00 is almost absurd.
EK: Do you know why? It’s a 19th-century agricultural model, that’s why.
DM: Exactly. It’s the idea of having the summers off because we need to go out and tend the crops. It’s like…excuse me?
EK: When it's all automated now.
DM: Exactly, and so this is much more of a tailoring of life’s demands to the desires of the individuals. I don’t see that coming to an end because it's beyond narcissism. I say that because it’s not simply about me, it’s about me in the context of the world that has meaning to me, which is my friends, my family, the subjects that I consider of interest, the things that thrill me.
They’re truly the first generation that lives a multi-dimensional existence. They simultaneously inhabit the real world and the virtual world. Thanks to technology, they are able to perceive an augmented reality where what they see can be immediately split into historical perspective, impact, purchasing...you name it. And then, so many of them have an alternate reality through an avatar. So, you’ve got at least four different realities or dimensions of reality that decide who they are.
EK: This would also impact design and architecture?
DM: The impact is on every level and that’s why for many of us, what we perceive as today's distraction is not a distraction, it’s really paying attention to the multiple levels of existence. For example, I’m a big baseball fan, and I sometimes wonder, my God, how did anybody go to a baseball game before cellphones—because the plurals all have them out. But when you think about it, it’s all about my tweets showing up on the Jumbotron. It’s about sharing my photos with my friends on Facebook and everything else. So the game is going on and they are on their phones and to an old fart like me, I’m thinking, damn it, why don’t they just watch the game? Then you realize they're enhancing the game by sharing their experience.
EK: There’s an article in Fast Co Exist by Jeremy French and he’s talking about the idea that the plurals have already gotten a bad rap, and media and marketing agencies are saying they are screen addicts with the attention span of a gnat, which he says is not true.
He talks about these “eight-second filters;" it’s not that they don’t get engaged in stuff, it’s that there’s so much information that they need a good way of filtering things out and demonstrating what’s attention-worthy.
DM: Part of the assumption there is that we older folks have a much better attention span and that having a longer attention span is intrinsically better. And to that, I’m going to say it’s hogwash because what’s perceived as a longer attention span may very well be a tolerance of boredom or a tolerance of lack of understanding or a laziness that the plurals are not willing to tolerate.
You know, I was one of those teachers who early on demanded students shut off all the electronics when I was talking and then realized how egocentric that was, assuming that every single thing that I’m saying is of value or is relevant or pertinent and I realized it’s not the case. The real challenge is to present something at a level that is worthy of you engaging with me. Since I speak all over the place, I’ve noticed that audiences filled with mature people now have as short an attention span as children do. They are on their phones, they're on their laptops and they're talking to each other. It’s not a lack of attention, it's a reprioritization of what is worth my attention.
I always laugh when people say, look at these kids on their phones. I would say that’s the wrong question, the question is “gee, I wonder what they're doing on their phones”, because if they're sitting there on a game, they're probably bored with whatever you are doing. If they are sitting there texting their friends, it's because they value friendship and the interactions with their friends more than whatever they're doing now…
EK: Or they’re checking something that you’re saying; they might be verifying facts.
EK: One of the things you’ve talked about is the ideas that the plurals don’t see a lot of relevance in traditional institutions. It can be very exciting, but in some ways could cause a lot of problems.
DM: There is serious upheaval going on. We don’t know what will replace traditional institutions. For example, religions are undergoing tremendous challenges right now. I think that there's a tremendous rise of relativism in terms of religion and philosophy and politics, and it’s a relativism that technology can fuel because if you have a particular outlook, it is now very easy to connect with those of similar outlook anywhere around the world. And that's not necessarily good.
In other words, if you want to be a Neo-Nazi, you're able to use technology to connect to other like-minded Neanderthals around the world. As a result, there's no discourse and no debate. So, there's a tremendous rise of relativism. I don’t know what replaces the current government system that we have. There are no pure democracies but ironically the one thing technology has led to is a democratization of just about everything else. There's a democratization of photography; anyone with a cellphone can take a photo and put it on Instagram. Some of them are mind-blowing.
EK: Don’t you think you still need to have organizations that have legitimacy and authority and can be a voice? In other words, there’s a big difference between the CDC discussing a viral outbreak than Joe the plumber from Poughkeepsie, yes?
DM: Yeah, the rub there is the requirement of trust. Because of the access to information, you find that every organization, every institution has flaws.
EK: Don’t you think that transparency would be a positive change agent?
DM: I think what's happening is that there's much more honesty—genuine reflection of the pros, the cons, the good, the bad, the strengths, the weaknesses. Unfortunately, our mainstream media (which most young people completely ignore) comes at these things with a “we're right” approach that young people realize is bull**it. That's why we’ve got The Daily Show, Last Week Tonight and the like, because what we might perceive as sarcasm is simply a revolution of truth.
EK: Last thing—I know you’re writing a book…
DM: It’s called Homo Digitus, it’s a lot of a reflection on not just the reality of digital humans, but what it means sociologically, what it means in terms of the rise of rationality versus philosophy or spirituality and all of those things. We acknowledge now that technology has fundamentally changed a lot of human thought so what are the impacts on our traditional understanding of things?
EK: Do you think these trends in using technology would have an actual impact on cognitive models—to feed back into the physiology?
DM: Oh, yeah, I definitely do. I mean, for example, we didn't even discuss DNA research in genetics. Technology is giving us new insights into who we are, now that we are able to look at our DNA profile and then recognize that this connects me with millions of humans around the world, and what had seemed foreign is now a lot more familiar.
Creative Destruction Series: Introduction
Creative Destruction Series Part 01: Palpitations on the Slopes of Technology