The Road to Digital Citizenship VII: Patterns and Understanding

This post concludes the series I started publishing last Monday. I hope to write an epilogue soon in which I reflect at somewhat greater length on what I wrote two years ago. (Contrary to widespread belief, reflection often disrupts more than it consolidates–see for example Hamlet.) For now, reading over these words, I find my sense of urgency has grown, not diminished. More than ever, I believe we must empower those whom Seymour Papert calls Yearners.

More than ever, I believe that the first college or university that finds it way to a deep understanding of Alan Kay’s beautiful aphorism, “the computer is an instrument whose music is ideas,” and can nurture the playfully serious courage to let that understanding pervade its communal life, will have accomplished something of extreme importance for the public good.

As for my confidence that higher education can rise with these challenges–well, it depends on the day you ask me.

I sincerely hope these thoughts have been helpful, or at least usefully provocative. My thanks once again to Virginia Tech for providing the opportunity to write them. For further context and exploration, please see the Task Force on Instructional Technologies’ full report, featuring the work of many contributors.

The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity.
–Janet Murray, “Inventing the Medium”

A pattern emerges within all this discussion, a fractal pattern of similar principles and conceptual frameworks. We can identify this pattern with the help of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which traces significant innovation and invention over the long sweep of human history. His conclusion is that combination and recombination of what he calls “the adjacent possible” fuels growth and innovation. The principle is the same as for emergence, and as difficult to imagine: network effects that appear in a macrostate are not yet visible in a single instance or microstate. One cannot have a flock of bird. Yet knowing that, we can begin to understand the possibilities of self-stimulating, self-organizing structures, and can begin to build platforms in which the range and number of adjacent possibles are increased and best positioned for success.


Committees are often called “graveyards for good ideas.” At their best, however, committees are excellent platforms for emergence. The most exciting and productive instance of the adjacent possible is two trusting and inventive colleagues in conversation with each other. If the extraordinary success of the Internet and the Web has taught us anything, it’s that conversations within networked, interactive computing environments can scale and generate an emergent “wealth of networks” far beyond our expectations.  Going forward, we can design such an environment by awakening the digital imagination, empowering faculty, staff, and students as digital citizens, and creating “hubs” or “nodes” of conversation that are linked internally and externally in a network of innovation. Whether we call this network a “skunk works” or a flotilla of pirate ships, we must empower this network not only to invent but to reinvent. If we are to create and innovate within the extraordinary disruption of the digital age, we must not insulate ourselves from disruption, for that would be to reject the global conversation itself. We must build curricula, learning environments, learning opportunities, and organizational structures that foster the capacity for collaboration and self-surprise within a framework of shared values and goals.

As it happens, interactive computing was invented for that very purpose: to symbolize and share the richness of cognition. Douglas Engelbart, the father of interactive computing, wrote these stirring words in the essay that would eventually launch the Internet itself, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”:

We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.

No self-respecting institution of higher learning would neglect these principles, as they are the foundation of educating our citizens for maximum agency and contribution to a democracy, a form of government that is itself a model for reinvention of the kind we are discussing here.

MIT’s Seymour Papert devoted his career to the idea that interactive computing offered a new mode of experiential learning. In 1993, he published a book titled The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer. In this magisterial and also deeply personal work, Papert distinguishes “Schoolers” from “Yearners.” “Schoolers” are surprised and even indignant about the need for “megachange.” By contrast, Papert writes, Yearners “do not say, ‘I can’t imagine what you could possibly be looking for,’ because they have themselves felt the yearning for something different.” If Virginia Tech is to invent the future, it must empower its Yearners. It must help to awaken their digital imaginations, give them the tools, responsibilities, and freedoms of digital citizens, and help them build platforms to support and foster emergence despite the risks and failures along the way. Only some of the obstacles to inventing the future are technological. Most are cultural. Here too Papert’s insights are instructive:

My overarching message to anyone who wishes to influence, or simply understand, the development of educational computing is that it is not about one damn product after another (to paraphrase a saying about how school teaches history). Its essence is the growth of a culture, and it can be influenced constructively only through understanding and fostering trends in this culture.

Thus a task force on instructional technology inevitably becomes a task force on institutional mission and culture. The difference, of course, is the difference computers make. Surveying the landscape and visible horizons of a digital world as digital citizens with a fully awakened digital imagination, we may plausibly conclude that computers, properly understood, can make all the difference indeed.


The Road to Digital Citizenship VI: Organization: Small Pieces Loosely Joined

What made all these things [the emerging technologies of interactive computing] work so well is that they were empty inside. Almost skeletal. Hard to believe there isn’t more to it. I asked one of my mentors how this could be and he said it has to be that way. If it’s complex it can’t work until it’s empty. These days we have another way to describe this, my friend and former colleague David Weinberger called it Small Pieces, Loosely Joined. I’ve never heard a better description of the architecture of the Internet.
–Dave Winer,
Let’s Build A New Internet In Academia

Can we build a Meta University within universities as well as among them? Any university that wants to be a leader in the digital world must do so. The most effective contributions to this Meta University will come from those institutions that walk the walk within their own structures. That is, the organizational structures that will most effectively invent the future and lead education into a new millennium will be those in which the organizational structures are themselves “accessible, empowering, dynamic,” those that are “communally constructed framework[s] of open materials and platforms.”

We know we need robust infrastructure: high-capacity, high-bandwidth connections, both wired and wireless, and ubiquitous throughout the campus’s physical spaces; flexible, reconfigurable learning environments; support for faculty, staff, and students; easily accessible and navigable digital repositories, and so on. We can identify these needs fairly readily, even if we do not yet know how we will design or support the resources that meet them. Once again, however, the real challenge is cultural. In addition to specific goals like the ones enumerated above, the organizational subcommittee consistently uses words like “flexibility,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “integrating,” and most challenging of all, “nurture and develop.” These are words that point to attitudes and values. These are cultural words. How can we inculcate such a culture at a large research university with over 3,000 faculty and over 30,000 students, plus staff and administration?

Once again, we should look for a guiding principle to the Internet itself, in particular the World Wide Web. In “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” (, his classic work on the design and organizing function of the Web, David Weinberger writes, “the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets.” The challenge for an organization, then, is to identify those nuggets, teams, and services that provide real value and organize them not into a tight structure but into a set of flexible, networked links: small pieces loosely joined.

Large organizations function in almost the opposite way: huge pieces tightly joined, or perhaps even worse, huge pieces completely disconnected from each other. The challenge is one of communication within a structure that empowers each person to create links among the small pieces loosely joined. Again we must ask, where are these conversations possible (answer: everywhere), and how can we foster them? Ironically, task forces and special committees are often the first time people from clearly interdependent areas come together to voice their perspectives and articulate common goals. Here leaders in the Registrar’s Office share their hopes and frustrations with leaders from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, or with leaders from IDDL or CIDER. Here the conductor of a laptop orchestra brainstorms with an education researcher, the dean of undergraduate studies, and the chief information officer. We must instantiate these conversations more regularly and widely. Such conversations not only generate solutions and ideas, but also identify and begin to link those small pieces loosely joined. Again, leadership is key. A task force clearly signals the priority and urgency the institution has given to the conversation. To stimulate more of these conversations, we will need more such assignments, more such signals from our leadership.

The Macintosh team, pirates all.

Macintosh Pirates

We have already seen how Google sends these signals to its employees. It’s instructive also to recall Apple’s beginnings. When it came time to design the Macintosh, a group physically relocated to another building on the Apple campus and literally flew a pirate’s flag from the rooftop. When the Macintosh was finished, the first ones included reproductions of the signatures from the entire project team inside the case of the machine.


Metaphorically speaking, our approach to organizational structures for 21st- century digital leadership must be one in which talented, committed workers have the chance to be pirates (i.e., innovate dramatically, even radically) as well as the chance to sign their work, even if only they will know the signatures are there. Instead of silos, we must build platforms for invention and reinvention. The “wealth of networks” described by Yochai Benkler can emerge among us if those platforms are fundamentally platforms for conversation, and if that conversation is encouraged to imagine and embrace risk for the sake of renewal and invention.