Skip to comments.War of the Worlds: The Human Side of Moore's Law (technology, culture, and education commentary)
Posted on 03/23/2008 6:51:28 AM PDT by FreedomPoster
There is a technology war coming. Actually it is already here but most of us haven't yet notice. It is a war not about technology but because of technology, a war over how we as a culture embrace technology. It is a war that threatens venerable institutions and, to a certain extent, threatens what many people think of as their very way of life. It is a war that will ultimately and inevitably change us all, no going back. The early battles are being fought in our schools. And I already know who the winners will be.
This is a war over how we as a culture and a society respond to Moore's Law.
The real power of Moore's Law lies in what the lady at the bank called "the miracle of compound interest," which has allowed personal computers to increase in performance a millionfold over the past 30 years. There's a similar, if slower, effect that governs the rate at which individuals are empowered by the technology they use. Called Cringely's Nth Law of Computing (because I have forgotten for the moment what law I am up to, whether it is five or six), it says that waves of technological innovation take approximately 30 years - one human generation - to be completely absorbed by our culture. That's 30 years to become an overnight sensation, 30 years to finally settle into the form most useful to society, 30 years to change the game.
The key word here is "empowerment." Technologies allow us to overcome limitations of time, distance, and physical capability, but they only empower us when they can be gracefully used by large, productive segments of our society. The telephone was empowering when we all finally got it. Now it is the Internet and digital communications.
Let's be clear about what we're measuring here. It has very little to do with specific technologies and everything to do with our adaptation to technology as a culture. What Cringely's Nth Law of Computing predicts is our rate of adaptation to technological life. This happens not at the rate technologies are developed but at the rate we are capable of broadly absorbing them. We've seen this sort of thing before, of course. I used to work in user interface design and noticed long ago that it took about a decade for every new interface standard to be absorbed by technical culture. This dates back a lot longer than most of us might guess, all the way back to microfilm readers in the 1960s. Older engineers couldn't stand reading microfilm while younger engineers found it effortless. Same for microfiche, which followed microfilm. The same effect could be found in typing: older people - mainly men - wouldn't adapt to it, but those who used a typewriter in high school or college quickly learned they could not live without it. Ditto for computers, first with batch processing, then time-sharing terminals, then command-line PCs, then graphical user interfaces, and now emerging mobile platforms. Each new technology is difficult for the older generation and easy for the younger, which explains why I am a PC master but a texting idiot. I'm just too damned old.
Here, buried in my sixth paragraph, is the most important nugget: we've reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.
I came to this conclusion recently while attending Brainstorm 2008, a delightful conference for computer people in K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin. They didn't hold breakout sessions on technology battles or tactics, but the idea was in the air. These people were under siege.
I started writing educational software in 1978. The role of instructional technology has changed since then from a gimmick to a novelty to an effort to an essential component of any curriculum. Kids can't go to school today without working on computers. But having said that, in the last five years more and more technical resources have been turned to how to keep technology OUT of our schools. Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults.
But does it?
These are kids who have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. But far more important, there is emerging a class of students whose PARENTS have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. The Big Kahuna in educational discipline isn't the school, it is the parent. Ward Cleaver rules. But what if Ward puts down his pipe and starts texting? Well he has.
Andy Hertzfeld said Google is the best tool for an aging programmer because it remembers when we cannot. Dave Winer, back in 1996, came to the conclusion that it was better to bookmark information than to cut and paste it. I'm sure today Dave wouldn't bother with the bookmark and would simply search from scratch to get the most relevant result. Both men point to the idea that we're moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what's wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?
This is, of course, a huge threat to the education establishment, which tends to have a very deterministic view of how knowledge and accomplishment are obtained - a view that doesn't work well in the search economy. At the same time K-12 educators are being pulled back by No Child Left Behind, they are being pulled forward (they probably see it as pulled askew) by kids abetted by their high-tech Generation Y (yes, we're getting well into Y) parents who are using their Ward Cleaver power not to maintain the status quo but to challenge it.
This is an unstable system. Homeschooling, charter schools, these things didn't even exist when I was a kid, but they are everywhere now. There's only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart - ISO certification.
I've written about this for years and nobody ever paid attention, but ISO certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy. With ISO 9000 there was suddenly a way to claim with some justification that a factory in Malaysia was precisely comparable to an IBM plant on the Hudson. Prior to then it was all based on reputation, not statistics. And now that IBM plant is gone.
Well reputation still holds in education, though its grip is weakening. I know kids from good families who left high school early with a GED because they were bored or wanted to enter college early. Maybe college is next.
MIT threw videos of all its lecture courses - ALL its lecture courses - up on the web for anyone to watch for free. This was precisely comparable to SGI (remember them?) licensing OpenGL to Microsoft. What is it, then, that makes an MIT education worth $34,986? Is it the seminars that aren't on the web? Faculty guidance? Research experience? Getting drunk and falling in the Charles River without your pants? Right now it is all those things plus a dimensionless concept of educational quality, which might well go out the window if some venture capitalist with too much money decides to fund an ISO certification process not for schools but for students.
The University of Phoenix is supposedly preparing a complete middle and high school online curriculum available anywhere in the world. I live in Charleston, SC where the public schools are atrocious despite spending an average of $16,000 per student each year. Why shouldn't I keep my kids at home and online, demanding that the city pay for it?
Because that's not the way we do it, that's why.
Well times are changing.
Steve Jobs rejects the idea of Apple making or distributing e-books because he says people don't read books. He's right, book readers are older. Young readers graze. They search. Look how they watch TV. Steve didn't say people are stupid or we're all going to Hell in a handbasket. He just said we don't read books.
Technology is beginning to assail the underlying concepts of our educational system - a system that's huge and rich and so far fairly immune to economic influence. But the support structure for those hallowed and not so hallowed halls has always been parents willing to pay tuition and alumni willing to give money, both of which are likely to change over a generation for reasons I've just spent 1469 words explaining. We are nearing the time when paying dues and embracing proxies for quality may give way having the ability to know what kids really know, to verify what they can really do, not as 365th in their class at Stanford but as Channing Cringely, who just graduated from nowhere with the proven ability to design time machines.
Great read...Interesting take on public education, and I am sure the lefty teachers who listen to PBS are not pleased.
Ping, for your consideration.
Actually, the article has some truth; but it's squarely in the PBS camp in a lot of regards. He and our educational establishment both believe that kids really don't have to know stuff. He buzzwords it as "moving from the knowledge based economy to the search based economy." That is just another excuse for not teaching stuff to our kids.
The reality is that you can have the biggest, most powerful search engine in the world and it doesn't mean a thing if you are searching for information about Brittany Spears. Being able to search is founded on a knowledge base that tells you that you need to search, that a search of a particular sort may be useful, and the whether the result are meaningful.
So instead of dumping all that silly "knowledge" stuff, the internet makes it MUCH more important. Ironically, the best education right now is a classical education. Very broad and designed to instill context. The internet is meaningless without that info being put in context.
I didn't see a distinction made between "medium" and "method" and how these affect "perception," something I would think would be front and center on an educator's radar...
Finally, if society's collective intelligence, after a generation so, is based on machinery and common databases, then I suppose the old saw "knowledge is power" takes on a whole new meaning - one that ought to put the fear of God into everyone. And what sorts of citizens will we be by then; and what sorts of citizens will we be when the foundations are manipulated or rendered useless?
> They are ready to dump our schools.
Anyone who thinks this even possible, seriously
misunderstands the purpose of government schools.
They have nothing to do with topical education.
The goals of government schools are:
1. Perpetuation of the government school system.
2. Indoctrination of teacher union dogma.
3. [irrelevant - everything else is subordinate to 1&2]
Someone who thinks that is probably wrong about a lot of other things too.
If anything 'destroyed' the US manufacturing, and there is very little actual evidence that it's destroyed, it's the myraid of OSHA, EPA, ADA, and a scores of other Leftist regulations that punish employers for hiring people, using our God given natural resources (trees and oil come to mind), or for selling a product at a profit.
Pretty well so, as predicted by the Iron Law of Bureaucracy.
The Washington DC public schools spend over $13,000 per pupil per year. 12 x $13,000 = $156,000 to educate a single child.
But this school system reports that less than 10% of its graduates are proficient in math and science at graduation.
$156,000/0.10 = $1.56 MILLION! to graduate a single young adult who is proficient in math and science from this school district.
Let the excuse-making begin! When can we admit that the entire process of public schooling is a abject failure, one that wastes both enormous amounts of money, and wastes an enormous number of lives of the students who fail to achieve proficiency because of the very nature of the factory education the system insists on delivering?
> ISO certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy.
Probably the truest statement that I seen in a long time.
I’ve worked for 2 ISO certified companies (both out of business) and one company that made a conscious decision to never go ISO. It is thriving. I remember of CEO making a public statement 6 years ago that ISO culture is the quickest way to the unemployment line and it is true.
These certain things that are learned is the "Body of Knowledge". What Body of Knowledge do you need to watch Jeopardy and what Body of Knowledge do you need to be a contestant. I may not be able to answer all the questions on Jeopardy fast enough, but I could go to the library and look them up, or could buy reference books for home use to look them up, or now use the internet to look them up.
But, there has to be a body of knowledge that is common to everyone and used by everyone in society, or sub-groups of society. And, the Body of Knowledge that a society uses defines the society.
Agree completely with your comments. But the ability to access information will change the world, which I think is the main point of the commentary. Instead of only the elites of the world having this ability, soon everyone will...if they want it.
The basis for all education is wonder. Those that wonder why and are motivated, will find the answer. These are the knowledge seekers and ultimately the ones who move us forward. Now all of the seekers of answers to important questions have the means to get them. That has never been the case before.
But I believe that the only real problem we have here in America is that we do a poor job of educating those that wonder. I think the authors point is that now poor schools will get bypassed, and that’s a good thing.
How did ISO destroy the manufacturing?
I wouldn’t disagree with your statements.
The key point her brings, from my perspective, is Why does that core set on knowledge have to be imparted via the traditional education system? If you can independently certify that knowledge is in place, who cares about a degree from XYZ high school or ABC university?
All manufactures have always used or conformed to some type of certification. ISO is no different, only wider in scope.
Jeez, need more coffee.
The key point here, from my perspective, is Why does that core set of knowledge have to be imparted via the traditional education system? If you can independently certify that knowledge is in place, who cares about a degree from XYZ high school or ABC university?
I think this is a good article.
With college tuition and expenses increasing at a rate of at least 5% to 10% per year it is increasingly hard for parents to justify guaranteeing an additional, seemingly automatic $2,000 a year more for student loans.
One of my sons witnessed those increases of $2,000 a year over 4 years for what? And the problem is, the student loan people keep loaning more money as if it justifies the increases in education spending. And exactly WHAT was improved that cost $8,000 more the 4th year that it did the 1st year of College?
Same with public secondary and elementary education. The costs keep going up, supported by tax formulas that keep going up. But the quality keeps going down. At what point do people start saying enough is enough? Can they continue supporting an automatically higher costing status quo? Or even worse, a decline or reduction of quality standards of education when not justified by increased costs?
Technology could indeed render traditional group schooling obsolete. Obviously the teachers unions and school administrators are going to fight to maintain their controlling grip on the educational standards they deem necessary for students. But the overriding motive behind traditional educators maintaing their grip on schooling is to maintain their legitimacy as employable and not expendable.
I have to flag this very idealistic statement:These are the knowledge seekers and ultimately the ones who move us forward.
The structure of modern civilization which is being overturned before our eyes used to vet and required proof of fitness for any who would rise to significant places of influence and/or power. That structure, where it hasn't already been undone, has decreasing credibility and effectiveness. In other words, insitutions that once protected are now doing so less and less; in fact, many have become hostile to their constituents.
When the means of power and influence are "open to all as never before [to paraphrase]" the question of fitness for it becomes paramount.
Those who are going to "move us forward:" are you sure you want them to?
In this wild-west of means that society is becoming, morality is the guidance and strength that is utterly required. But of course, the most persuasive and desirable of power seekers will be completely devoid of it.
The ramifications are startling.
"Knowledge is power" is now become a threat, because what passes for knowledge is but a shell of it and can be created on the fly and delivered en masse to...anyone, regardless of motive.
because "traditional education" is a social experience, and humans are social beings.