#likeminds - Benjamin Ellis on the We Generation

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

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The 70s. Big Hair. Big Ties. Bell Bottoms. And Benjamin Ellis‘s first computer. He’s been part of the online culture since his childhood – and now he has four children as his own experiment group. And he’s been spending a lot of time thinking about how the access to information the internet has granted us may be shaping our thought-processes and decision making.

When we’re immersed in a technology, we don’t really think about it. Ellis broke his mobile phone, and the week that it took him to sort out a replacement taught him how much he’d come to depend on it. When we’re immersed in technology, we don’t think about it. He can’t get his kids to imagine what a world without search engines is like. They have no concept of how we found things out before The Google.

“I’m living in a world of barely planned behaviour,” says Ellis. Once we were in a world of five year business plans and long terms decisions – and now we’re in a world of lots and lots of micro-decisions. Look at Swarms on FourSquare – lots of micro-decisions leading to a badge of many – but influenced by each others’  behaviours. These micro-decisions are group consensus-based.

The amount of knowledge available to us has exploded – a few hundred years ago it was almost feasible to gather all human knowledge together in one place. Two types of knowledge – explicit is the stuff we learn at school, and write blog posts about. Tacit is the sort that is more important to business, like “is this person a good prospect?” We think we know more than we do, because we’ve got so good at documenting explicit information. Curation of information in business is crucial. But how does the curation process turn knowledge, which we have in abundance, into knowledge, which is, uh, not?

Context takes knowledge and makes it into wisdom. We’re obsessed with knowledge we can manage and store, but it’s not the most valuable kind. Narrative is what allows us to process information – it allows us to take knowledge and transform it into wisdom. Knowledge, suggests Ellis, is being aware that a fall from five feet will kill his MacBook, but wisdom is knowing that leaving your rucksack unzipped on the tube with the MacBook in it will lead to disaster. And that anecdote is the narrative that transfers knowledge to wisdom.

View Benjamin’s Presentation

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.