That is all…
That is all…
Finished Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” yesterday and it’s now on the top of my list in terms of books that explain the state of the world in a cogent, balanced, even-tempered way. It’s not a book about education, per se, but it’s a book by an educator who brings a teacher stance to the conversation. And it articulates clearly and without hyperbole the shifts and challenges that are presenting themselves right now.
Before getting to some of the more salient quotes, let me just say that I’m feeling a great deal more urgency about this conversation at the moment. Between reading the book and watching some of the videos from the FastForward blog on the future of enterprise, it just feels like the tsunami is bearing down on us and we don’t even know there’s much of a wave out there on the ocean. (Take a few minutes to watch this vid interview with John Hagel, for instance. How are we as schools developing “talent”?)
Early in the book, Shirky makes the point that while traditional institutions are facing competition, they are not going away. But they are going to have to change:
None of the absolute advantages of institutions like businesses or schools or governments have disappeared. Instead, what has happened is that most of the relative advantages of those institutions have disappeared–relative, that is, to the direct effort of the people they represent (23).
The value of the services that institutions provide is changing as individuals become more and more able to undertake “ridiculously easy group forming” and do everything from share music to create the sum of human knowledge online. That ability is what changes the rules, Shirky says, and that can be a good thing (Wikipedia) and a bad thing (terrorists). But it is profound, nonetheless.
We are plainly witnessing the restructuring of the media businesses, but their suffering isn’t unique, it’s prophetic. All businesses are media businesses, because whatever else they do, all businesses rely on the managing of information for two audiences–employees and the world. The increases in the power of both individuals and groups, outside traditional organizational structures, is unprecedented. Many institutions we rely on today will not survive this change without significant alteration, and the more an institution or industry relies on information as its core product, the greater and more complete the change will be (107). [Emphasis mine.]
Which says a couple of things to me. First, we need to move away from this idea (as driven by current assessments) that information is our core product and that second, we need to set information free in our schools. If we don’t, how will we ever be able to teach our kids how to use well the power they can now wield with their networks?
Shirky also points out that this is not going to be fast nor will it be easy.
As with the printing press, the loss of professional control will be bad for many of society’s core institutions, but it’s happening anyway. The comparison with the printing press doesn’t suggest that we are entering a bright new future–for a hundred years after it started, the printing press broke more things than it fixed, plunging Europe into a period of intellectual and political chaos that ended only in the 1600s (73).
I wonder, however, if time runs at the same speed today as it did back then. 100 years feels like an awfully long time for all of this to shake out.
There is much more to think about here, but I’ll end where Shirky ends, with some thoughts on how we first have to change our own frames before any of this will begin to truly make sense. Apologies for the long snip, but I think it’s worth the read:
For us, no matter how deeply we immerse ourselves in new technology, it will always have a certain provisional quality. Those of us with considerable real-world experience are often at an advantage relative to young people, who are comparative novices in the way the world works. The mistakes novices make come from a lack of experience. The overestimate mere fads, seeing revolution everywhere, and they make this kind of mistake a thousand times before they learn better. But in times of revolution, the experienced among us make the opposite mistake. When a real once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad.
…young people are taking better advantage of social tools, extending their capabilities in ways that violate old models not because they know more useful things than we do but because they know fewer useless things than we do. I’m old enough to know a lot of things just from life experience. I know that newspapers are where you get your political news and how you look for a job. I know that music comes from stores. I know that if you want to have a conversation with someone, you call them on the phone. I know that complicated things like software and encyclopedias have to be created by professionals. In the last fifteen years I’ve had to unlearn every one of those things and a million others, because they have stopped being true. I’ve become like the grown-ups arguing in my local paper about calculators; just as it took them a long time to realize that calculators were never going away, those of us old enough to remember a time before social tools became widely available are constantly playing catch-up. Meanwhile my students, many of whom are fifteen years younger than I am, don’t have to unlearn those things, because they never had to learn them in the first place.
The advantage of youth, however, is relative, not absolute. Just as everyone eventually came to treat the calculator as a ubiquitous and invisible tool, we are all coming to take our social tools for granted as well. Our social tools are dramatically improving our ability to share, cooperate and act together. As everyone from working biologists to angry air passengers adopts those tools, it is leading to an epochal change.
Read the book.
My aggregator is piling up and I’m in one of those “no-time-to-read-my-feeds” stretches, especially when I get a new book in my hands that really makes me think. Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody” is probably about the most level headed deconstruction of what’s happening with the Web that I’ve read yet, and, while it’s not nearly as sexy as Pink or Friedman, so far it’s pretty brilliant and much more grounded. He’s one educator who “gets it” in a very measured way. I’ve been marking it up like crazy and want to revisit a lot of it before I attempt some longer thoughts here, but there was one section that connected for me when I somehow landed on “Why We’re Powerless to Resist Grazing on Endless Web Data” from the Wall Street Journal last week.
In short, the article says that neuroscientists are finding evidence that we are addicted to new information, and in an era where new information is everywhere, that can be a problem:
In other words, coming across what Dr. Biederman calls new and richly interpretable information triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it. The reverse is true as well: We want to avoid not getting those hits because, for one, we are so averse to boredom. It is something we seem hard-wired to do, says Dr. Biederman. When you find new information, you get an opioid hit, and we are junkies for those. You might call us ‘infovores.’ ” For most of human history, there was little chance of overdosing on information, because any one day in the Olduvai Gorge was a lot like any other. Today, though, we can find in the course of a few hours online more information than our ancient ancestors could in their whole lives…We are programmed for scarcity and can’t dial back when something is abundant.
Hmmm…Twitter like opium, huh?
Believe it or not, I can relate to that “junkie for new information” description. (No, really.) And I really like that term, “infovore”. Definitely works. And it adds another layer to the whole balance issue. If we really are addicted to this, what does that say about how we teach our kids?
Shirky comes at it from the “creator of new information” stance and supplies a nice brain hit as well. In a chapter titled “Personal Motivation Meets Collaborative Production,” he talks at length about what makes Wikipedia work, that it’s more than simply a desire to work together. In fact, he says, Wikipedia “exists not as an edifice, but as an act of love.”
Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context. This does not mean that the people constructing it always agree, but loving someone doesn’t preclude arguing with them… What love does for Wikipedia is provide the motivation both for improvement and defense (141).
And it’s that last part where the info opiates kick in for me. The reason that vandals fail on Wikipedia is
because Wikipedia as a tool provides them with the weapons to fight those groups. Those weapons are taken up only by people who are willing to fight. Were that willingness to fade, the most contentious articles in Wikipedia, the articles on abortion and Islam and evolution, would be gone within hours, and it’s unlikely that the whole enterprise would survive a week (141)
And finally, there is this concluding paragraph to the chapter:
We don’t often talk about love when trying to describe the public world, because love seems to squishy and private. What has happened, though, and what is still happening in our historical moment, is that love has become a lot less squishy and a lot less private. Love has a half=life too, as well as a radius, and we’re used to both of those being small. We can affect the people we love, but the longevity and social distance of love are both constrained. Or were constrained–now we can do things for strangers who do things for us, at a low enough cost to make that kind of behavior attractive, and those effects can last well beyond our original contribution. Our social tools are turning love into a renewable building material. When people care enough, they can come together and accomplish things of a scope and a longevity that were previously impossible; they can do big things for love (142).
I know…quite a Kumbaya moment. But he’s right. Wikipedia was simply not possible before. So much more is possible today and will be possible for my kids, and I want them to feel the love, not just of learning new things, but of doing new things as well.