Patterns And Understanding

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.

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