I have loved seeing non-healthcare experts rushing in to help with COVID-19. There are many talented, smart, and capable people in science, technology, finance, arts, academia, and all walks of life that are being drawn into this fight. We need the mental focus and the creative problem solving from every profession, from every field of endeavor, and from every walk of life. We need to lay aside the superficial and the shallow, the trifling and the trivial, and get serious about putting our time, talents, and focus towards making a difference in the lives of millions who are now suffering the first order effects of COVID-19. Furthermore, we need to be prepared to address the second and third order impacts that will surely come as we deal with the long-tailed financial, economic, and societal consequences that will follow. Doing so will require a massive change in our priorities, not just to attack the immediate issues of the pandemic, but also to foster the right sort of change long-term.
This redirecting of a massive amount of cognition fascinates me, as does the human mind — its architecture, functionality, evolution, and capacity. In fact, the idea of “Cognitive Capacity” has been rolling around in my own brain for the last several years—not necessarily from a place of excitement about the future, but more as a growing sense of the potential for a digital dystopia that would create a cognitively bleak landscape.
While I won’t wade into the ethics or morality of the attention economy here, a corollary of my concern is the amount of brainpower that has been dedicated to improving ad targeting and click bait entrapments, which has then led to hours of social media scrolling and massive multiplayer online role play games. As a father of teenage boys, I have had plenty of arguments about the virtues and values of responsible social media usage. These “conversations” often gravitated toward the vices and vagaries of Grand Theft Auto, Fortnight, Call of Duty, and any number of other titles. Beyond the violent realism and role playing behaviors that would never be acceptable in society, the even more grievous issue to me was the monumental loss of time to these activities.
You are generally familiar with the statistics showing that the average teenage boy will play 10 hours per week (which I believe is grossly underreported). Ironically, the very age group spending the most time gaming now is 26-35 year olds is also the very demographic we should be looking to for our greatest creativity, our most complex problem solving, and ultimately species-improving cognitive effort. I feel this misdirection of cognition capacity is highly irresponsible at a minimum, but could be intellectually and progressively devastating at the species level (ie, a little Lotus Hotel, anyone?)
Events like COVID-19, and their associated existentialism, definitely have a way of getting us to think about these issues at a species level. While the pandemic may have started in one geographic location, this outbreak, more than any I can recall in my lifetime, is highlighting how interconnected we are as a species. Given the hyper connectedness of our modern world—everything from aviation to the internet, from monetary systems to global corporations—we are much more aware now than ever before, of how locally-geographic decisions can have global implications. I also hope this will be a big wakeup call for how individuals will consider their own and our collective cognitive capacities and how much time is spent on which endeavors.
The mental power available from humans across the globe, when appropriately harnessed to species-enhancing endeavors, is nearly unlimited. Let’s continue to recruit more brain power to the most pressing challenges of our day. Can you imagine if all those bright, beautiful minds currently obsessed with Final Fantasy Remake, could be devoted instead to creating new testing methods, enhancing digital contact tracing, being involved with production and logistics of essential PPE equipment, helping to expand ICU capacity, and creating new technologies, communications, and other infrastructure to assist with this pandemic? Beyond gamers, I can think of other “pools” of cognition that are readily available and would love to engage, such as the unemployed, underemployed, and others with capacity that is underutilized (retired, imprisoned, etc.). This isn’t a matrix style coercive fantasy, but rather a positively optimistic view of voluntary cooperation to participate and contribute to our most pressing species level problems.
My mental model for this is open source communities. These have convincingly demonstrated the possibilities of collective coding, as well as related global projects around ancestry indexing, and shown the willingness for a global community to contribute to the common good. Again, this is not meant to be a screed on the ills of social media or the merits of gaming (or absence thereof). I certainly could never be accused of being a digital luddite. It is intended, however, to be a call to a greater and higher use of our collective cognitive capacity. To introduce a more serious tone; not only to address the current crisis but to be involved in more meaningful work that redirects cognition generally, and its capacity specifically, to the benefit of the entire species. That could be a remarkable silver lining to a remarkably scary time.
Cognitive Capacity, Part 2 explores how Crossover Health is managing the cognitive capacity of our own care teams while moving to a 100% remote care delivery model given the current COVID-19 limitations.
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