By “everything's alive,” I mean we’ll soon be living in a world where any object of interest has awareness of what it is, knowledge of the context in which it operates, and some social connectivity. Previously, these characteristics were restricted to higher animals. We used to think of non-human actors as outside this ecosystem. That’s going to change…and sooner than we think.
It’s clear that we’re moving data and connectivity down and down the ecosystem. At the end of WWII, there were a half-dozen computers in the world—in the 50’s and 60’s, IBM dominated the computer industry; in the 70’s and 80’s, it was DEC mini computers; in the 80’s and 90’s, it was PCs. Now it’s cell phones and PDAs. The trend is clear: smaller, faster, smarter. So where does that trend go? I think it goes down to the individual object—to the level of a specific microwave oven. Your 2007 car has 30 or 40 CPUs in it. Soon there will be intelligence, literally, everywhere.
One of my favorite quotes is from Alan Kay, one of the early designers at XEROX PARC and Apple, who said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it." I think he meant it in a slightly more hands-on way, but I’m struck by the way that a couple of modern fiction authors have led the way to opening up new ways of thinking about technology that, you can argue, created the future we’re living in today.
Initially, technology offered a world distinct from our own—a world that sits parallel to, but is not really attached to our world, except where a computer terminal was plugged in. This first generation of technology was defined in John Brunner’s novel Shockwave Rider and more popularly in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which won lots of awards, generated boatloads of buzz, and defined the term “cyberspace.” In this initial generation, the data world was abstract, organizational, non-representational—what Gibson calls a “shared hallucination.” Gibson’s cyberspace is a world that visual artists have to represent for us—a literary construct. There’s no way to ground it in physical reality. The movie Johnny Mnemonic, based on a Gibson story, made an attempt to visualize cyberspace, and it's no surprise that the director was Robert Longo, a painter-turned-filmmaker.
The second generation of technology offered a kind of parallel world, a metaverse that mimics the appearance of the world we live in day to day, but that gives us control over things like the laws of physics. Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash is the model for this version of the relationship between dataspace and physical reality, and this relationship mimics reality. Second Life is almost a direct lift from Snow Crash. Linden Labs, the people who built and run Second Life, acknowledge the lineage. So think about what Hollywood would call the “arc” of the story. We’ve started with an abstract data world, disconnected from "First Life". Now we’re at Second Life, a mimic of our reality that can be manipulated.
So what’s next? As I’ve learned to think of it, the future’s in beta. Always in beta. I think that to get in touch with the current state of things, we might as well go back to Gibson. His new novel, Spook Country, begins to meld the virtual and the real. His term, “everting the internet”, describes this third generation of thinking. Previously we had to get abstract, to live in some parallel universe and go inside to experience dataspace. An interesting universe, but the connections to First Life were more or less abstract and tenuous.
Now we’re overlaying the two worlds—we’re fusing dataspace and realspace. In the same way I can meet a person and ask them, “So, tell me about yourself. Who are you? What do you do for a living? Who are your friends?”, I can now do this to the physical world. Today you can go into an art museum, rent an audio guide, and as you walk through the gallery, you can get a narrative about the history, connections, and stylistic family on individual works of art. You can do that in any order since the individual works are tagged with RFID tags, little radio transmitters that say, “This is who I am.” And a special computer knows what to do with that information.
In this third generation, devices won’t have to be wired together in order to talk to each other, any time, any place—what the network people call “ubiquitous untethered connectivity.” We’ll gave an ecosystem made up of actors with a range of self-awareness (some biological and some not) with differing degrees of communication channels available to them, possessing various degrees of sociability. Various municipalities are already sponsoring free municipal wireless networks. Coupled with wireless standards that greatly extend the range of a single transmitter, we’re looking at an environment in which you can always get a good fast signal just about wherever you go.
So this new generation internet is another way of looking at a future in which “everything is alive.” The two are different perspectives on a single fact: the world is getting ever more responsive, ever richer and deeper…ever smarter and aware. In some sense, when we look back, we’ll say that our generation built the nervous system of Gaia. In its various versions, the idea of the noosphere was (and is) very prescient.
So given what we’ve talked about so far, where do we go? How does all this have anything meaningful to say about learning? OCOT is ultimately an educational forum, concerned with the ways in which technology and learning intersect and interact. What does all this mean to the educational enterprise? Other than intellectual interest, what does this tell the reader about what to do on Monday?
I believe that educators have a responsibility to help people make their way through their lives with dignity and effectiveness. What Rousseau called the “social contract” is currently broken. Social contracts are essentially the deal the individual makes with the larger society. I behave by these rules and in return, you give me this back.
We need a new social contract, one that reflects the changed conditions that mediate our shared responsibilities between the individual and the society and its instruments, as well as one that takes account of the new ecosystem we discussed in the first part of this discussion. Specifically, we need a new view of how learning occurs in the context of the world we live in today and will live in tomorrow.
So hold on to this idea about self-aware objects and the intermingling of data space and real space for the moment. In the next part of this piece I’ll talk about the implications of all this for the future of learning and the professions that serve that goal.
Guest blogger Murry Christensen has 20+ years of experience in solving the people-process-technology equation. He currently works for JetBlue Airways as Director Learning Technologies, where he applies the range of available technologies to the learning and performance needs of the premier provider of low-cost air transport services.