You wouldn’t know it from the neigh-unchanging layout of this blog, but I work with web pages a lot. Yesterday I bought an iPod so I could see how those pages look on an iPhone (the salesperson assured me that both iThings render web pages the same).
Hooking the iPod up to a Windows machine set in motion an inexorable process of updating and registration. First, it wanted to update iTunes. “Sure”, I clicked, “why not?” And then it went to a registration process. I got halfway through filling out the form when the window suddenly disappeared and a message said; “iTunes needs to reboot your machine. Reboot now?” I clicked the response that means; “Sure, since you just dumped what I was working on and I have no choice anyway”.
I eventually got the software and the firmware updated and everything registered including a bunch of snoopy questions which I answered with lies in haiku form, and found myself with a working iPod. Then I went to the Apps store and bought a slide rule application for $1, neatly closing the technological circle.
When giving technical support, I often hear intelligent people say; “using a computer makes me feel so stupid.” And when I say “often” I mean that during nearly every support call, the user will offer some kind of apology for not being as savvy as I supposedly am with the infernal machine and its software. This should be a clue, or more correctly a warning, to the companies that create the software in question. Channeling Don Norman, if two percent of users make a given mistake, then maybe those users are stupid. But if sixty percent of users make that mistake, it’s the interface designer who is an idiot, and perhaps the company for hiring them. As Paul Graham says, you need good taste to hire a good designer, other than by accident.
This explains the success of two companies: Apple and Google. I often hear users of both say they love their Mac, or they love Google, which is kind of a funny reaction to software. But the reason isn’t difficult to figure out: using the software makes them feel clever, like the mystery show where you figure out who done it, before the putative genius main character does. Hey! I’m smarter than Gregory House! Or Monk, or Gibbs, or the contestant on Jeopardy. What’s not to love about that?
Every good technology makes us clever, leveraging the cleverness of others and their creations. Using it is a steady empowerment, broadening what we can expect to enjoy, to create, to get done. I have a hunch people started writing more when ball-point pens were introduced, while their elders huffed about the decline in penmanship standards. Sure, the “e” and “l” weren’t swoopy anymore, but more people were writing and that’s a game changer. Likewise when bicycles were introduced, preachers thundered against the immorality that would surely result from youngsters with greater mobility than their elders. Somehow it didn’t occur to their elders to get their own bicycles.
In a hunter-gatherer society, generations might pass between significant cultural innovations. The process sped up considerably with the enlightenment and industrial revolution: the metric system, calculus, slide rules, Vernier calipers, movable type, standardized parts, steam power, telegraphs, high-speed steel, “scientific management”, telephones, assembly lines. Each innovation seemed natural to the young and one more damn thing to learn for the old. Then along came computers and software, and change shifted into hyperdrive. It became possible to say; “Remember when?” referring to just ten years ago, or five. And I’m about to do just that.
Think about the disapproving authorities and the young whippersnappers gallivanting off on their bicycles for afternoons of sweet debauchery. Multiply that by some large number and you have… today. Remember when people didn’t carry around general purpose computers in their pockets? When people on street corners couldn’t Tweet what was happening around them? When the police didn’t have to worry about twenty bystanders with video devices capable of sending out the images before they could even confiscate the devices? When you couldn’t call up maps and reviews and comparison prices when finding a restaurant or buying a car? The authorities had it easy way back then, five years ago.
One effect of this change is that the average age of people in the authority structure will start to decline. And given the fine mess made of things by the change resistors, that’s probably all to the good. Because we can’t go back, can’t undo, can’t rewind. Today we find ourselves with a president who hires a CIO, and whose CDC director puts up a website called flu.gov as a central place for information about that annual scourge. If we’re not careful we could end up in an actual participatory democracy, but again I digress.
If I weren’t bald my hair would be as gray as my beard, and like any other Good American I should long ago have settled into some unchanging, lifetime position to wait for retirement and death. But there are fewer and fewer of those lifetime positions available now. The work I currently do not only didn’t exist when I got out of college, it didn’t exist 15 years ago. I won’t be surprised if it is later subsumed into some other description, which is why I keep trying to learn new technologies. I’ve gotten used to buying groceries and besides, it’s fun.
Our education establishment K to 12, has not really acknowledged this rate of change, instead tasking kids with learning a testable set of facts and impressing them with the terror of making a mistake. Not the best preparation for stepping off into the fast-lane of a technological society. How can we make education policy-makers understand the difference between topics and skills, and that adaptability may be the most important skill a school could teach?
It’s not surprising schools do this badly. Math is a skill, but especially in early grades (when kids are learning what math is) the schools are obsessed with teaching it as a topic. Have you memorized your “math facts”, Jimmy? Have you done all 25 identical problems in your homework assignment? Sorry, kids, but with so many problems, there’s no time to think about the underlying idea behind them. Now imagine an education policy-maker trying to go further: since there’s no testable set of “adaptability facts” they have no idea how to even design a curriculum for it. Or weave it into the existing curriculum. Besides, it’s not as if they need to worry about adapting; barring the actual commission of a crime, their jobs are bulletproof.
Education should empower us from the inside just as good software should empower us from the outside. It should enable us to handle not only new problems, but new kinds of problems. I want to know, does our education establishment make us clever? Or like badly-designed software does it pose constant pointless obstacles, making us feel stupid, so that we grow up with an ever-increasing resistance to learning? Could we do better than the equivalent of Microsoft Windows for the learning child’s brain?
Our way of educating seems calculated to instill the avoidance of feeling stupid, but very little fear of being stupid. Ironically it’s the former that fosters the latter. Because, if you can put up with feeling stupid for just a little while (and it doesn’t take very long at all) you can learn all sorts of stuff and not be stupid. That may be the only important difference between the geek and the person picking up the phone to hit their number on speed-dial.
Is this something that schools can do? How could we make it OK for kids to make mistakes?
- If you’re wondering “What the heck is he talking about?” scroll down to comment 4.
- I may have posted this link before, but Cocktail Party Physics has a great post on math education with Game Changers
- Using Windows is pretty much a hurry-up-and-wait experience. I started working professionally with Windows in 1995, when systems had 386sx processors with 4mb of RAM, and the actual computing experience was about as fast as my dual-core with 3gb RAM. You’d think with hundreds of times the processor speed, and hundreds of times the RAM and hard drive space, that the computer would run faster, but no, it doesn’t. The software has successfully throttled this amazingly fast machine, but I digress.