The industrial revolution changed everything.
It changed the way we organised society, it changed the way we educated ourselves, it changed the idea of work, and it changed the way we did business. We built infrastructure the like of which had never been seen before. Railways, roads, sewers, waterways, ports. These were new technologies. Today we don’t think of the road as a technology, or a sewer. But they are. As Google’s ‘Internet Evangelist’ Vint Cerf says, “If you grow up with a technology, it’s not technology. It’s just there.”
In 2009, John Seely Brown ex-Chief Scientist of the Xerox Corporation told a crowd of Silicon Valley business leaders how deep the industrial revolution was embedded in their high-tech business structures. “The structure and architecture of the firm reflects the structure and architecture of the infrastructure on which the firms are built,” he said. “Organisational infrastructure leverages the properties of infrastructural architectures.” Now, as a couplet this may fail to grab you as much as “You killed my father!” / “No Luke, I am your father!” did me when I was six, but Brown (paraphrasing the work of Harvard’s Alfred Chandler) is saying something profound.
Society is built on top of those roads, railways and schools, rather than those things being created underneath us as a means of support. Seely is saying that roads and schools shape us far more than we shape our roads and schools.
Educationalist Sir Ken Robinson points out that, “there were no systems of public education around the world before the nineteenth century. They all came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”. We built our school systems on top of the industrial revolution. We didn’t build the industrial revolution because of the collective effort of a pre-existing state-wide school system. (If you haven’t seen Ken’s TED talk, I recommend it. Not only is it a revelation, he’s also very funny).
We develop new technologies, that became infrastructure that shape society – and the infrastructure of the industrial revolution is still with us. That infrastructure grew rapidly and then reached a plateau. Cars are not radically different, nor are trains or indeed aircraft from their counterparts a generation ago. Neither are roads, railway tracks, airports, the judiciary, the school system or our systems of government. “Our infrastructure has been stabilised for a shockingly long period of time,” says Brown, “and we have now built institutions on top of that that expect that kind of stability.”
Our institutions are also still promoting a educational mindset that is born of the industrial age too. Ken Robinson says:
Every education system on earth has the same hierarchy of subjects. Every one, doesn’t matter where you go, you’d think it would be otherwise but it isn’t. At the top are mathematics and languages, then the humanities, and the bottom are the arts. Everywhere on earth.
Skills that will get you a job in an industrial society are valued the highest. The problem with this is that we’re moving from the industrial age to the information one and our institutions and education needs to shift. This isn’t to say that mathematics and languages aren’t valuable, but that those qualities that come from studying the humanities (understanding social systems for instance) or the ability of the arts to promote creativity and curiosity will become more so.
“We have a brand new type of infrastructure,” says Brown – and that infrastructure is the internet technologies that allow us to tease out and manipulate the world of data in a way never before possible. This new infrastructure will shape us just as profoundly as our industrial infrastructure did.
A man walks into a shop and picks up a packet of kitchen roll. As he does so an image appears on the packet telling him how much bleach was used in its manufacture. He picks up another and compares. The second gets a ‘green light’ that appears as ghostly image on back of the packet, signifying eco-friendliness. He chooses the latter as his purchase. Now he makes a phonecall, holding out his hand where the numbered buttons of a keypad appear sketched in light on his palm. He dials the number by tapping his own skin. Later, on the way to the airport, he pulls out his boarding pass and across the top some text appears telling him his flight is twenty minutes delayed.
This sounds like a scene from an (admittedly quite dull) science fiction movie, but it is not. These are scenes from a demonstration of a new device developed at MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group – a combination of mobile phone, wearable camera and tiny projector that the lab’s director, Pattie Maes, calls ‘Sixth Sense’ – a technology designed to provide seamless and easy access to “information that may exist somewhere that may be relevant, to help us make the right decision about whatever it is we’re coming across,” to help us “make optimal decisions about what to do next and what actions to take.” (Click on the video below to see ‘Sixth Sense’ in action).
Everything is surrounded by a cloud of data you can’t see. A piece of clothing isn’t just the physical garment. In the shadow-world of data it is also how much it costs, whether it was manufactured ethically, the instructions for how best to wash it and so on. Crucially, your behaviour towards it may alter with access to any one of these pieces of data. Imagine walking into a trainer shop and being able to instantly see, by looking at a product’s bar code, whether it was made in a sweatshop or not, or if the shop around the corner had the same shoes on sale.
We are already beginning to layer this world of data on top of our day-to-day experiences. Download the ‘Better World Shopper’ App onto your iPhone for instance and it will give you an instant rating of a manufacturer’s record in regard to human rights, environmental policy, animal rights, social justice and community involvement. Google Goggles makes use of your mobile phone’s camera to recognize landmarks, book covers, even wine labels and return internet searches that relate to what you’re pointing it at. This is data layered over reality, or (depending how you look at it), reality revealed by data.
At a rapid pace we are becoming used to the idea that data should be accessible wherever we are, and on whatever subject we demand it, yet at the same time it’s hard to comprehend that the Internet is younger than I am, and the World Wide Web younger than my eldest niece. The ability of Internet services like the web and e-mail to connect both humans and machines has already had implications for society that we’re only just beginning to wake up to, implications as profound as those of the Industrial Revolution. We are now in a relationship with Internet-based technologies that we can’t get out of. Physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis has written:
We have linked our destinies, not only among ourselves across the globe, but with our technology. If the theme of the Enlightenment was independence, our own theme is interdependence. We are now all connected, humans and machines. Welcome to the dawn of the Entanglement.
As Vint Cerf said to me recently, “This is not new. We have always been entangled with our technology, we’ve always been entangled with knowledge. It may be more obvious now, because of the way it manifests. But if you were a cave man you might have become quite dependent on tools that you built, because without them you might be able to feed yourself, so you needed the knowledge to make those, or you needed the knowledge to find somebody who could make them. And then you also had to know that that thing over there was a sabre tooth tiger and it was a really good idea to get away from it, because the people who didn’t understand that didn’t survive to put their genes into the gene pool.” In short, entanglement with knowledge and technology keeps you alive.
Technology’s story is our story. Knowing how to turn Entanglement into Symbiosis and how the new infrastructure of data and networks can shape us, will determine who wins and who loses as we continue our shift from the Industrial to Information age. Countries that do not grasp the shift, especially in the way they educate their citizens will suffer. “We need to rethink a whole set of institutional architectures,” says Brown, to enable us to build organisations that focus on what he calls “scalable peer-based learning”, and what you and I would call ‘staying smart enough to keep up.’ Last year in Boston I met Juan Enriquez, author of As the Future Catches You and a seminal speaker on how technology and knowledge are transforming us.
“I worry that if you’re not educated in this stuff, you’re toast,” he said. He’s very clear that new technologies quickly change the fate of nations, especially as knowledge becomes ever more accessible. “You don’t have to own a large piece of land or a lot of resources to get rich very quickly, but you do need to go to school. That didn’t use to be true. It used to be that it didn’t matter how smart you were, if you weren’t the king or part of the noble classes you were toast. Now you can get wealthy, and you can do it very quickly, but you have to do it through education. You see, the consequences of not being educated today are far different from what they were. You know, in the 1950s you had a high school diploma, you went to Detroit you did fine. That’s not true anymore.”
As Ken Robinson remarked to his audience at TED. “You were probably steered benignly away from things at school when you were a kid, things you liked on the grounds that you would never get a job doing that. Is that right? Don’t do music, you are not going to be a musician. Don’t do art, because you won’t be an artist. Benign advice. Now profoundly mistaken. The whole world is engulfed in a revolution.” He continues,
Our education system has mined our minds in the way we strip mine the earth for a particular commodity and for the future it won’t suffice. We have to rethink the fundamental principals on which we are educating our children. What TED celebrates is the gift of the human imagination. We have to be careful now that we use this gift wisely … and the only way we’ll do it is by seeing our creative capacities for the richness they are and seeing our children for the hope that they are. And our task is to educate their whole being so that they can face this future.
In short, critical thought, creativity, curiosity are the skills that need to get up the educational hierarchy as society shifts to a fluid infrastructure built on data and the links between it. Where we were taught to be arithmeticians now we must become mathematicians. Where we were taught vocabulary now we must learn semiotics. Where we taught to accept the industrial infrastructure as a fixed edifice we must now learn that the information infrastructure is a fluid tool to be pulled and shaped. Where we worked in silos, now we must learn to harness the crowd, to play our part in manipulating our collective creativity to solve the world’s problems and embrace its opportunities. Margaret Thatcher famously said, “There is no such thing as society.” She was entirely and completely wrong.
Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems by thinking at the same level we were at when we created them” and by the same token we cannot solve our problems by leveraging the same infrastructure we used in creating them either. Politics, education and the press must, and will, out of necessity, change. Already we are seeing this shift, as the press wonder how to survive spreading a meme of division and conflict in a world that is increasingly collaborative. We are turning away from our newspapers and turning to each other. MIT is placing its courses online for free. TED is putting the world’s greatest speakers at our fingertips. Politics is the luddite. It’s not just industrial, it’s pre-industrial. It’ll change the last and it’ll hurt the hardest. Those nations who fail to understand this, that fail to change their institutions and equip their populaces by shifting to an educational paradigm born out of the coming information age instead of one made of the old industrial one, face a bleak future. Some nations will leapfrog ahead, offering a unprecedented opportunity for the developing world, perhaps taking something of story of the 60s most notable failed state (Singapore, now a knowledge powerhouse) to heart.
I call it the ‘Knowledge Combustion Engine’ and you are the fuel in the tank.