Cultural Tectonics

This article by Orson Scott Card (his name, not something you’d play in a political debate or in a game of Magic the Gathering) is as insightful a commentary on the digital culture shift as I’ve read recently. The idea that the Internet is not so much a service as an invasion is worth more than a few minutes of rumination. And I had never stopped to consider how the period of time between hand-written letters and email – where undocumented conversations via long distance telephone calls dominated social communication – would hamper the work of historians. Probably because I’m not a historian. Apparently, email archives have alleviated that problem to some degree, but we should certainly give more thought to the difficult work of historians as we are texting and talking on our cell phones. Though, perhaps the proliferation of video taken on cell phones and then posted on Facebook will change the landscape of historical record. That said, given what we already know about the new landscape of historical record (what happens on the web stays on the web), it’s a potent reminder to us denizens of the ‘unfiltered’ age that some things should remain unsaid. And unseen. The delightful image here is by Chad Crowe. To read the article, click on the link below.

How Friend Became a Verb by Orson Scott Card

In Pursuit of Digital Wisdom

We live in a culture where the dominant communication and entertainment media are digital. These media are ubiquitous in nearly every area of our lives. This, we cannot change. The proverbial horse is out of the barn. What we can do, however, is try to harness the horse. This metaphor – of harnessing the power of digital media and technology – is at the core of the concept of digital wisdom, particularly as it pertains to what we, as influential adults – parents, teachers, religious leaders – do to educate and guide the next generation to adulthood and to accomplish a generational transfer of the best of our accumulated knowledge and our shared culture.

We have constructed a specific educational culture with a value proposition and product delivery model that hasn’t changed much since its inception. Now, we find ourselves in the middle of a technical culture that is very different from our educational culture. This technical culture has a completely different business model and has probably changed more in the past 6 months than our educational culture has over the last century. Because of its unbridled nature, it now threatens to deconstruct the existing business model of education. This may or may not be a bad thing, but either way, it is at least worth attending to and, as some of my colleagues say, worrying about.

To date, the primary question regarding digital media and technology in education has been, “What tools and technologies do we employ to facilitate and/or enhance learning in our hyper-connected, wiki world?”

I believe this is the wrong question. Or at least it’s not the primary question we should be asking.

Rather, we should be asking, “What kinds of people do we seek to build as we prepare them to enter, occupy, navigate and succeed in this world?” Once we answer that question (and we should have that answer momentarily…), we should be asking, “How do we go about building them within the context of this new culture?”

Among the things we address when we’re building the next generation of functional adults, is literacy. It remains paramount in education and nobody will argue that basic literacy, in its myriad forms and complexities, is unimportant in a digital world. After all, much of what we encounter on-line comes in the form of text-based communication. Print is not dead, it just lives in a new house.

That said, there is now so much more for our kids to process and master than print, and it comes at them in so many more media, that we are forced to consider traditional literacy as necessary but not sufficient for success (let alone survival) in a digital world. As some have argued for many decades, and I would argue also, we need to embrace and institutionalize, through formal curricular channels, a broader vision of literacy. This would include what many are calling digital literacy. And this involves more than a modicum of digital wisdom.

In pursuit of digital wisdom, we have to ask some critical “culture” questions which, I propose, have to do with larger issues of contemporary epistemology. What are the characteristics of the culture of education? What are the characteristics of the culture of technology? How do the characteristics of each culture map to each other? If we drew a Venn diagram of these cultures, what characteristics would fall into the overlapping sections? What, in each culture, is worth keeping and what is worth losing or getting rid of?

The exploration of these questions, among others, is foundational to the purpose of this project because the answers may just help us figure out how to harness the runaway horse that is digital technology.

Primum non taedium.

If educators, like doctors, had to take a Hippocratic Oath, and they had to take the oath in Latin, their first pledge should be this: Primum non taedium. For those that don’t speak Latin, that means, first, do not bore me. In fairness, this idea of doctors pledging to “first, do no harm” is apocryphal. The Hippocratic Oath doesn’t use this exact phrase, but it does promote the ethical standard that doctors should abstain from doing harm. As a sometime patient, that seems entirely reasonable, if incomplete. But start there. I sometimes express the same sentiment to my hairdresser. At least don’t make me look ugly. We can move up from there. So, to educators, who have so many tasks to perform, this foundational “ethical” standard should remain: first do not bore me. How to go about living that out is fodder for future posts.

A Short Personal History of Digital Encroachment

In the 1980s, I lived in British Columbia, and spent a little time and quite a bit of money at a store called A&B Sound on Seymour Street in Vancouver. It was sort of a combination of Seattle’s Magnolia Hi-Fi and Tower Records, but in Canada.

While not exactly an audiophile, I had begun to accumulate a decent music collection that consisted mostly of vinyl LPs, some 8-track tapes (thank you, 1970s, as if ugly clothes weren’t enough…) and a growing assortment of cassette tapes. A&B carried lots of analog music, but by the mid-80s, they had also begun to sell a new format: the CD – or compact disc.

I had recently purchased a reasonably high quality stereo system from A&B – not an inconsequential investment for a public school teacher – basing my choice of equipment on what was necessary to play the music I already owned. I had a receiver, some bitchin’ speakers, a turntable and a dual cassette tape player because, contrary to popular belief, Napster did not invent the idea of copying music and giving it to friends… CD players were new and expensive, and, as I had no CDs, unnecessary. Ergo, I had no compelling reason to change. Until I did.

Suddenly, and I remember the week it happened, I could not buy vinyl any more. I exaggerate for effect, but it was like that. I walked into A&B Sound and the entire inventory layout had changed overnight. It was like I had come home for Christmas and my parents had moved. Cassettes had assumed primacy of place in lieu of vinyl, and there was a large and growing selection of CDs. Upstairs, in A&B’s Geek Heaven, turntables were put in the corner, like Baby in Dirty Dancing, and the sales guys were selling CD players like they knew something about the future that I didn’t. As it turns out, they did.

And so, I became a digital settler. Not a pioneer but a wagon train denizen, moving west because everyone else was. The transition wasn’t painless. It cost me a lot of money. I hung onto my vinyl vestiges for longer than I care to admit. But in the end, I reluctantly agreed to enter the Early Digital Age and became an unwitting passenger on the Bullet Train of technological change.

I watched as Sony introduced the Walkman and took the music selection monopoly away from radio stations and put it in the hands – and headphones – of peripatetic audiophiles.

I witnessed the video war between Betacam and VHS and saw VHS emerge as the temporary analog victor, but didn’t have to wait too long before the newfangled DVD performed a Digital Smackdown on both tape formats. I barely noticed the ridiculously expensive Laserdisc…

I purchased a computer program called PageMaker 1.0, and joined the DIY school yearbook movement, helping a little Seattle software company called Aldus almost single-handedly empty the professional typesetter’s tray.

I could continue this list of technological “I was there at the revolution” stories and tell about the death of the typewriter, the birth of the fax machine, the coup d’etat of the cellular telephone… but these stories are now commonplace. My daughter, a so-called Digital Native, has already, in her short life, witnessed so many technical revolutions that revolution is the new evolution. What would shock her is if things stopped changing – or simply slowed down. That would be news.

Why do I bother telling these stories at all?

Because we are all in the midst of a number of larger, more institutional, Digital Smackdowns, and there is far more at stake than the sum of components in a home stereo system.

As the Internet grabs the keys and throws open the gates of Big Entertainment, Big News and Big Advertising, one institution at a time (but really, all at once) our very livelihoods – like a Scribe in the 1500s – are at stake. Even if we aren’t part of these industries. If educators think they are immune because their jobs are somehow more noble or sacred than the commercial class (aka, the crass class), they are mistaken. Change, brought about by digital technology, will not play out the same way among various institutions, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be change. As Clay Shirky points out, “The forces are general. The results are specific.”

We are in that period of chaos between major paradigms. The period where institutions that are become institutions that were. The period where, in evolutionary terms, the adaptable survive and the dodos don’t. For us, it is the period between an analog world with rigid means of control and monetization and a digital world with fluid means of control and monetization. The big difference is speed and time: what used to take 200 years – about 10 generations – to change, now takes 40 years – about 2 generations. And if you listen to people like Ray Kurzweil, even that time-frame will shrink.

Why does it matter? Well, it’s not like we’re all gonna die. But because of the culture of high speed change in our digital world, we are likely to experience more stress, uncertainty and, probably, financial upheaval.

Back in the day, people used to die sooner, and since change took longer, natural attrition prevented a lot of “change pain.” In other words, people didn’t hang around long enough to find out how much it hurt. Now, the formula is reversed: we live longer and things change sooner. So change hurts more and it hurts more people. The old Scribe trope, “I used to make a good living doing what ‘only I’ could do. Now some schmuck’s doing it better for a fraction of the cost,” has gone broadband. Same war. More fronts, more skirmishes, more casualties.

Whatever we learn from these battles – and if we’re paying attention, we can learn a lot – it is that, in a highly democratized, digital world, our grasp of control in any arena is tenuous. Even the arena of public education. Rigid adherence to the status quo did not help Marie Antoinette. Nor will it help educators. Digital technology has effectively stolen the joystick of institutional control and put it in the hands of hackers and plebes. We can keep resisting change, insisting that the hackers and plebes eat cake, or we can embrace change and get good at it. At the very least, we should determine not lose our heads because of it.