Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Things I Want My Future Principal to Read: 1472 and 2012

One more post that was at least initially generated from my reading of Jeff Jarvis's Public Parts. This time it was a passage on p. 205 that resonated that I wanted my future principal to read and consider, but it also sounded a bit familiar. Turns out I had already Diigo-ed it when John Naughton's article in the Guardian he references was first published:
So let's conduct what the Germans call a Gedankenexperiment — a thought experiment. Imagine that the net represents a similar kind of transformation in our communications environment to that wrought by printing. What would we learn from such an experiment?

The first printed bibles emerged in 1455 from the press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the German city of Mainz. Now, imagine that the year is 1472 — i.e. 17 years after 1455. Imagine, further, that you're the medieval equivalent of a Mori pollster, standing on the bridge in Mainz with a clipboard in your hand and asking pedestrians a few questions. Here's question four: On a scale of one to five, where one indicates "Not at all likely" and five indicates "Very likely", how likely do you think it is that Herr Gutenberg's invention will:

(a) Undermine the authority of the Catholic church?

(b) Power the Reformation?

(c) Enable the rise of modern science?

(d) Create entirely new social classes and professions?

(e) Change our conceptions of "childhood" as a protected early period in a person's life?

On a scale of one to five! You have only to ask the questions to realise the fatuity of the idea. Printing did indeed have all of these effects, but there was no way that anyone in 1472, in Mainz (or anywhere else for that matter) could have known how profound its impact would be.

I'm writing this in 2010, which is 17 years since the web went mainstream. If I'm right about the net effecting a transformation in our communications environment comparable to that wrought by Gutenberg, then it's patently absurd for me (or anyone else) to pretend to know what its long-term impact will be. The honest answer is that we simply don't know.
Now it's certainly debatable whether the Internet is going to have a similarly large effect as the printing press, but that's a debate I'd like to see my future principal lead and participate in. (After all, part of the debate will surely be whether the Internet is going to have a much larger effect than the printing press.)

I then somewhat serendipitously came across this complementary post by Mark Pesce and Robert Tercek,
Yet there was a humanity before, a Homo sapiens before sapience.  We can reach back through prehistory, but our reach extends only as far as language.  Before language, our species was like a small child, remembering nothing.  After language we have continuous memory – indigenous Australians claim a cultural continuity going back some 60,000 years.  Language empowers us to express ourselves and know one another’s minds, but also imprisons us within an unbreakable cage that limits our ability to know anything about our pre-linguistic ancestors.  We are so different from them they are incomprehensible to us.  Language has so changed us that we understand nothing of those who do not share language.

“We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.”  Language was among the first human tools – along with stone axes and fire – and definitively the first tool that lived entirely within us, a bit of innovation as much cultural as technological.  In the moment language arrived on the scene, it became indispensable, and once indispensable, we adopted it as innate, favoring those with the greatest linguistic capability, and thereby subtly affecting the evolution of our species.  People who ‘talk pretty’ have broader prospects for success in the world.  They and their children will thrive.

Every claim made for the power of language – as an amplifier of human capability – can also be made for the sudden arrival of hyperconnectivity.  Connected people are more successful, and those most successful at mastering the techniques of connectivity have the greatest successes.  Connection is becoming indispensable, and we have already begun to think of it as an innate capability.  The billion seconds from 1995 – 2026 is witness to a transition from a world in which no one is connected, to a world where being connected and being human is seen as synonymous.

Just as we now see being verbal and being human as synonymous, hyperconnectivity is adding another layer of richness and depth to our experience.  Where we can observe the sudden explosion of depth in the human record, eighty thousand years ago, so our children’s children’s children’s children will look upon this billion seconds as a second explosion, another sudden quickening, before which the ‘dumb’ and disconnected generations of humanity will seem incomprehensible and inhuman.
I definitely want my future principal - and really all principals current and future - to be discussing hyperconnectivity. Do they agree, or disagree? (Or, more likely, how much of it do they agree with and which parts don't they buy into.) If connected people are more successful, what does that imply for our schools? Is hyperconnectivity really indispensable, an amplifier like no other; is it really changing what it means to be human similar to the way language did?

My next principal will (hopefully) be at my school for the next half billion seconds until 2026. (I know statistically it's unlikely for a principal to stay that long, but since our current one has been here for 27 years I'm hopeful the next one will last for at least half that long.) Isn't this going to be one of the two or three critical questions they (we) are going to have to address during their tenure?

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