Lowest Content Denominator

Hoisted from the journal:

David Graeber has a far too long essay in The Baffler, which is not worth reading in full. In the end, though, it comes to a common but worthwhile point: the structure of research today can’t be open-ended in any real way, due to creeping managerialism, and this kills any possibility of revolutionary technology:

That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

This is a major problem in technology, though maybe not for reasons Graeber would identify. The main problem with our current setup, where companies make tools for broad edtech markets, is you lose the synergy between technology and practice. As Engelbart noted, the Tool System is only one half of the equation. True progress uses the Tool System to leverage change in the Human System, and in turn uses changes in the Human System to identify necessary tool modifications.

Engelbart’s solution to this, still underappreciated, was to have a team of developer-users that could alternate quickly between designing tools and constructing the culture and practice around them. That takes time, but as the Mother of All Demos showed, it can have fantastic results, because sometimes the future is only comprehensible when delivered as a package.

Current models of development don’t allow that sort of development to occur, and while that is not the reason that flying cars never came about, it is the reason that computer technology has advanced so slowly since the 1960s.

If you wanted to really revolutionize educational technology, for example, here is what I think you could do. Get together a representative group of developers to pair with a small laboratory school, and work so closely with it that the developers could walk in each day and observe ways in which the latest build had succeeded or failed. Talk with teachers about what works and what doesn’t. Organize technology around a new curriculum, then organize the new curriculum around the new affordances of technology.

Do this with ten, twenty, fifty schools, each school no larger than 500-1000 students. Leave these experiments alone for seven years.

I guarantee you at the end of seven years, one of those schools will have truly revolutionized education, and produced more innovation and “progress” than we’ve seen in the past 50 years. And the reason would be that the practice and the technology and the culture and the curriculum all grew together, reacting to the possibilities each exposed, rather than being developed separately.

Ee can’t do that sort of thing because we get too concerned with “waste” and “metrics” and “accountability” (as Graeber notes) but more importantly, we can’t do that because market-driven design *has* to design for *existing* culture. Without the “bootstrapping” framework of Engelbart we plod along at a snails pace.


For a related view see Phil Hill’s post on the LMS as a barrier to innovation.

3 thoughts on “Lowest Content Denominator

  1. AltSchool is doing something close to this. They have the funding and tech chops to be able to start from scratch with their technology. Should be interesting to watch.

  2. “Engelbart’s solution to this, still underappreciated, was to have a team of developer-users that could alternate quickly between designing tools and constructing the culture and practice around them.”

    So, wouldn’t applying this model to education actually mean that the *students* would be developing the curriculum and technology around themselves, bootstrapping themselves to a better education?

    After all, the point of Engelbart’s bootstrapping approach (at least at that stage) was that the team would create tools to allow themselves to think more effectively, so they could create better tools for thinking even more effectively, so they could create…

    If we imagine that a goal of education, likewise, is to enable students to think more effectively, then wouldn’t a proper bootstrapping model be about the students designing an education to allow themselves to think more effectively, so they could design a better education for thinking even more effectively, so they could design…

    I’m not necessarily advocating this, just suggesting that I might see Engelbart’s feedback loop in a different place than you do.

    Some of Engelbart’s later work on moving these systems out of the research lab and into organizations might provide a different model that’s relevant (e.g. the “A”, “B”, and “C” levels). e.g. http://www.almaden.ibm.com/coevolution/pdf/engelbart_paper.pdf

    • Thanks for the link.

      You’re absolutely right, and this would be something like how I’d run things if I happened to get hold of one of those hypothetical schools. This tracks in education with what we’ve been calling the PLE (Personal Learning Environment). In the example above I wanted to be a bit more catholic about the experiments – depending on your educational philosophy your user can be the student, the teacher, or the course designer/developer (or likely all three, but in different proportions). (looking around I’m realizing there’s not a decent summary online of PLEs ten years into this movement, and there’s a lot of shoddy work on it out there, but I’m guessing you get the idea intuitively).

      In the PLE version of this, the developer-users in this case would include the teachers, students, and course designers, but the focus would be on getting the students to eventually take control of their own environment. I think the teachers and developers would have to be people with a talent for breaking student preconceptions about what learning looks like, and people who actively extend, modify, and hack their own PLE. My experience thus far with the PLE approach is you can’t just hand students it — because they a) come with a lot of baggage, and b) we don’t really have truly hackable technology to do this yet.

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