Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Not so Fast--Pondering Rate of Change

       When does something become cliched? Is it when the frequency of use reaches a certain level? When it captures a truth we now all accept but people still attempt to use it for shock value? I'm not sure; the answer is probably some combination thereof. I am, however, positive that it has become rather cliched to use the following (or some sort of variation): "If you think the rate of change, mainly forced by technology is fast now, just you wait cuz you ain't see nothing yet!" If used it myself, such as in this post. I've used what's happened the past three decades to make the argument for schools changing for years, in writings and in presentations such as this one. I still believe the part about schools needing to change in response, but lately I've been wondering about the continued acceleration. This is happening for several reasons.
       I don't question that we live in a time of extreme, rather relentless change. I feel it every day in some form or fashion. However, humans tend to be rather short-sighted about history, and we usually believe that the time in which we live is the most whatever. But just as every age has had its share of doom criers, I'm certain each has felt the angst of extreme change. After all, in many ways this is a relative phenomenon, dependent entirely on that to which one is accustomed. Right now we 're seeing the extreme direct effects of digital technology on our lives, and we envision it dragging us in its wake right towards the Kurzweilian singularity before we can even realize what's happened. It's as if we believe Moor's law is universal and applies to everything--not just processing power, but disruption and influence and implementation. But humans don't progress per Moore's law.
       Actually, neither does technology. Yes, the rate at which processing speed has doubled since the invention of the microchip has enabled incredible advances. But those advances actually are simply building upon decades of work, much of it begun with the work of Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the mid 1800s. Walter Isaacson's The Innovators makes very clear how the development of current technology is the result of many, many people, often working independently, attacking the same challenges for a long time. It's a classic case of multiple forces coming together in various ways at assorted times. For the most part, progress was slow, with sudden breakthroughs at key times. 
       I'm reminded of a short writing assignment I had to do in graduate school for a course called The History of American Ideas. The professor challenged us to come up with an original metaphor tto capture how history proceeds. I compared history to a Slinky. My contention was that various factors come together over time, and the there is a gigantic springing forward. Then the cycle repeats.
       I wonder if now we're somewhere in the springing forward, and perhaps towards the end of it. Things may slow down for a bit, gathering for another unleashing. Of course, I easily could be wrong. After all, cliches become so because people discern some truth in them. Either way, we still need to make sure we're educating kids for their futures, whatever they may be.
     There's another reason it really doesn't matter who's right about the rate of technological change. Too often we act as if technology is happening to us, and certainly it often feels that way. But to invoke another cliche, as a human creation, technology is just a tool. It's value neutral. Rather than worrying so much about the rate of change, we need to spend more time talking with young people about what needs to change. Not just regarding technology and in schools, but everywhere. And maybe to bring about that desired change that much more quickly.

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