How to successfully navigate the information-rich digital world

10 July 2017

Article by Whit Lee

We live in an age of information, powered by technology. Where once a collection of Encyclopedia Britannica was required to find the answer to an obscure question raised in a lively pub discussion, now all that is needed is a 4G signal on one of the many devices inevitably resting on the table.

There are immeasurable benefits to technological development; for one, the wealth of our individual knowledge has grown colossally. But value doesn't lie in information itself. Even a mountain of data and information does not necessarily equate to better intelligence and decision-making. Value comes from applying analytical and critical thought processes to that information.

The loss of analytical thinking

Over the last few years, studies have started to emerge revealing that we are gradually adapting to respond to information in an automatic, uncritical way. A generation of 'digital natives' will be entering the workforce in the coming decade, remarkable for their intrinsic aptitude for technology, but worrisome for their lack of critical nous.

In a Stanford University study published in November 2016, students were asked to evaluate the reliability of information posted online in order to assess their ability to apply critical thinking. For those of us who grew up using libraries, the findings are somewhat alarming: 82% of younger high school students were unable to differentiate between sponsored ad content and genuine news posted online, and nearly 40% of older students believed that a photo of misshapen daisies proved that there were toxic conditions around the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan – despite it being a viral post with no identifiable location characteristics or source given.

We are inundated by information, so it's perhaps unsurprising that the Z Generation find it hard to distinguish between fact and fiction. But what it does highlight is the importance of maintaining skills in analytical reasoning. In order to successfully navigate the digital world, we need to adopt a scientific approach of critical, rational and effortful thought. In short: we all need to think like lawyers.

The rise of the machine

Hollywood has long visualised the future of machines, and fact is now surpassing fiction…though some may say the advent of artificial intelligence is far less exciting than we have come to expect; machines will not be taking over the world. But we still need to be prepared for further rapid technological advancement.

We know that the digitally-powered information-overload is not going to slow, but what we will see in the future are tools powered by artificial intelligence that take the analysis of data out of our hands, presenting us just with the most accurate and relevant answers we require. So why maintain skills in analytical thinking ourselves? Well, an answer doesn't necessarily equate to a decision. A human element will always be necessary to assess and evaluate answers – which are, of course, simply condensed pieces of information.

The analytical thought process of a human is inherently different to that of a machine, because a human can take into account personal experience, empathy, and external drivers across a wide range of topics. Intelligent machines will remove the ambiguity of confirmation bias and the fallacy of false news, but are devoid of emotional intellect; humans are what give information meaning.

In practice management, as artificial intelligence tools start to enhance workflows and provide improved outcomes for lawyers and clients alike, intellectual agility will still be required in the analysis of information in order to make decisions and take actions that best suit the business. So while investment is made in the latest technology, so too must investment be made in that almighty gadget we each possess: our brains.

The future belongs not to those who will build the digital world, but those who will work in collaboration with it to deliver excellence that has undercurrents of both machine and emotional intelligence.

This article was originally published on the ALPMA Blog.

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