What Will Happen

October 15th, 2010

On Tuesday the 12th, I gave a talk at Queens College with the hubristic but hopefully provocative title “What Will Happen, What Could Happen, What Should Happen.” It was a fairly long talk — brevity is not my strong suit — and so I thought I would break it (and the title) into three parts.

This first part is, I confess, the least interesting. At least when I was teaching in it, we pretty much proscribed predictions in the Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Program at the Grad Center (though we did spend a fair amount of time making fun of analyzing predictions gone awry). So the only predictions I do are no-brainers.

What will happen, then? Teaching and learning will be increasingly tech-mediated. (I’m not saying it will be better or worse, just that the involvement of technology will be increasingly ineluctable.) Does anyone believe that’s not true? Does anyone think will get this particular genie back in the bottle?

That the genie’s out is not the hard part to figure out. Making out just what the genie is up to — now, that’s not so easy.

We know that because what will happen has happened. And I’m not talking about technological determinism (declamations of which are also proscribed by the GC’s  Tech & Pedagogy program), but I am talking about what the Wall St types like to call game-changers. In the history of technology, these may be easiest to see in military history, from the smelting of metals to the long bow and the siege engine, from the invention of gunpowder to the Manhattan project.

And it has happened in the history of higher ed. We are at a point roughly analogous to what has happened in 15th Century: you had 30,000 texts in Europe at the beginning at the beginning of that century, and 9 million at the end, because you had a tech revolution in the middle. The impact on the clergy is well known: these keepers of sacred texts and traditions were worried about an unmediated transmission of them to the laity.

But those who taught in the relatively young universities of the time also felt threatened — potentially automated out or existence, as it were, or at least endangered by the printing press. (Let’s say you were an expert on Aristotle; what would it mean if Aristotle himself could “speak” to your students? What need for you to tell them what he said, then?) This was of course  a failure of imagination since a professoriate that could not imagine surviving the book has become one that can’t imagine life without it. The apparent threat was a boon, like the VCR and now the DVD to the movie industry.

There are important differences. It took a long time then. The rise of the reading public took centuries and another revolution (the industrial, and the rise of the bourgeoisie). But then it’s easy to see that, of all the important differences, the most important is the rate of change.

I’m awful with dates except ones that I can get killed for forgetting — like the birthdays of my children — so I know, for instance, that the birth of my oldest (1983) coincides with release of CD players/discs, and that of my youngest (1990) with Tim Berners-Lee’s gift of HTTP and HTML to the world (making the World Wide Web possible).

Getting a handle on the accelerating  rate at which we’ve adapted to and adopted new technologies, you probably should go back less far. For instance, the students coming to us now were born with public access to the web (1993). Here are some other watershed dates and what they represent the advent of now. Try to imagine life without them, even the most recent.

1995 the DVD 2003 Facebook
1996 Google 2005 YouTube
1999 Napster 2007 the iPhone and the Kindle
2001 the iPod 2008 the iPad

To bring us up to the present, there’s nothing better than Chris Anderson’s overdramatic article in last month’s Wired declaring the “the Web is Dead” – actually just “in decline, as simpler, sleeker services — think apps — are less about the searching and more about the getting.”

If this doesn’t instantly resonate, maybe the way Anderson begins his article with how we (or our children) begin the day does:

You wake up and check your email on your bedside iPad — that’s one app. During breakfast you browse Facebook, Twitter, and The New York Times — three more apps. On the way to the office, you listen to a podcast on your smartphone. Another app. At work, you scroll through RSS feeds in a reader and have Skype and IM conversations. More apps. At the end of the day, you come home, make dinner while listening to Pandora, play some games on Xbox Live, and watch a movie on Netflix’s streaming service.

You’ve spent the day on the Internet — but not on the Web.

This profusion of services and plethora of devices isn’t chaos, but it is a lot to keep up with. Compared to it, the Web – which James Gleick memorably described as history’s largest library, but with the texts all scattered about in no particular order – now seems like a center that no longer holds. How can teachers ever keep up with all this?

But there is another way of looking at those devices, networks, and systems I just mentioned. If you think of each of those – of Google, of Facebook, of the iPod and iTunes, etc. – you realize that if change has escalated, so has momentum. A recent NY Times article stressed “positive network externalities” as economists call them – the way networks and devices become more powerful and valuable as more and more people use them. These create the opposite of chaos: hegemonies of function (so if you search, it’s likely to be through Google; if you network with friends and relatives, it’s likely to be through Facebook, etc.).

I’m already straying into the second part — the twin dystopias of What Could Happen (which are presumably highly inferable at this point), so I’ll stop here.

  1. George Otte Says:

    I am not sure how to supply sources that aren’t just hyperlinks, so I’ll comment on my own post to acknowledge a debt. Many people have compared the advent of the printing press to that of the Internet, but I’m indebted to CUNY colleague Michio Kaku‘s 1997 book Visions. The comparison comes on p. 50.

  2. Tributaries » Blog Archive » What Could Happen Says:

    […] What Will Happen […]

  3. Footenotes » Blog Archive » The Obama Round-Up 10/11 – 10/17 Says:

    […] talking about open source and the impact its having on Higher Ed.  Be there.  Related to that is a great series started by George Otte over at ‘Tributaries’ about technology and the future.  […]

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