One of my favorite questions to a young prospective job applicant goes like this :

Imagine you are on a deserted island with no phone or other internet enabled device. You have never been to NYC. Now, if I asked you how many Thai restaurants are in NYC? How would you try and find that out? What considerations might be important to answer this question?

Responses have varied, but here are some which are fairly common for the Millennial Generation:

“So, like, can I call someone who has a computer?” No, remember you don’t have a phone.

“Hmm… can I walk to an internet cafe?” There are no cafes here.

My friend lived in NYC. I could ask her”. There is no post office or phone booth here to call her or send her mail from.

….and so it goes.

Most never reach the point at which they actually begin to solve the problem.They are too busy trying to find out how they can get to someone who might get them to Google!

Critical thinking needs imagination, insight, and even thinking outside the box. What is far more common nowadays, is thinking “in the box” – which in this case, is the “box” in your pocket (your smartphone) or even in your hand (tablet).

The next time you ask a Millennial a difficult question, notice how quickly they reach for their phones. The phone is an extension of their mind. Not tomorrow. Today.

If Google can answer it – why should I know? I don’t need to know, because Google knows! That space in the head, and the critical skills which working a problem bring to the fore – may be under some threat. This should concern us. There are some really smart folks in Silicon Valley from this same generation who are inventing remarkable technology, and in turn are making this world a more connected and hence a more informed place – a better place.

But there seems to be a large segment of that same generation which is just as comfortable outsourcing critical thinking to the smart devices which they own.

Another manifestation of the same technology is a seeming lack of focus. Time is now being lived in very small segments as we multitask through a plethora of competing distractions. This is turn makes sustained focus on one issue much more difficult and is bordering on a lost art. We live in a time where everything important needs to be said in 140 characters or less, and then we move on. Some studies have shown that it can take us between 4-8 minutes before we can refocus after a distraction.

More analysis and studies of these phenomenon will need to be done before any long term trends can be identified with any precision.

Was a previous generation just as alarmed when calculators first became ubiquitous? Did they worry that math would become a lost art?

Time will tell…