Exponential Change: Unintended Consequences



What’s wrong with this picture? The Boeing 737 is cruising on an easterly course at 39,000 feet. The ride is glassy smooth; there is a strong tail wind thanks to the jet stream; flight conditions are clear with visibility unlimited. Both pilots are awake, the passengers are happy, and the flight attendants are unstressed and friendly. What’s wrong with this picture is that the airplane is about to fly into the side of a mountain. Moreover, this is a mountain that doesn’t appear on the plane’s ground proximity warning system because it doesn’t yet exist.

A highly improbable scenario, given that the world’s tallest peak measures 29,028 feet above sea level. It is, however, an appropriate metaphor for the serial waves of exponential change that may well prove to be the hallmark phenomenon of the 21st century. We are a species that likes predictability; indeed, it is the bedrock for all scientific hypotheses. As the unsettling and increasing speed of change makes it more and more difficult to form sound judgments on the basis of past, or even present, experience, enormous pressures will be exerted on individuals, families, businesses, the social and political fabric of our institutions, and especially our schools.

Those who have studied and written about the phenomenon of rapid change cover a wide variety of disciplines. An August 11 2009 editorial in The Wall Street Journal by John Hayes and Michael Malone (also authors of separate books on the economic effects of dynamic change) was entitled “The Ten-Year Century.” Dramatically, the authors point out that “changes that used to take generations—economic cycles, cultural shifts, mass migrations, changes in the structures of families and institutions—now unfurl in a span of years.” Hence, “the ten-year century” and, by implication, “the one-year decade.” No one writing on this topic posits any likelihood of a “leveling off,” much less abatement, and thus the five-year century and the six-month decade may not be far away. Hayes and Malone point to three powerful, inexorable drivers of radical change: faster computation as the result of Moore’s Law, the doubling of semiconductor performance every eighteen to twenty-four months; quicker access resulting from the exponential growth of networks with each new user (Metcalfe’s Law); and ever shorter decision cycles, requiring in the world of business and economics, “bold, impetuous moves, all the while betting that the information is not just complete, but accurate.” We are, then, riding a whirlwind, carried along on a steepening curve of change that will only grow steeper.

Significant metrics are not difficult to find. Futurist Raymond Kurzweil points to ever smaller time windows between the appearance of an invention and its use by the average person, defined as the point at which an invention appears on the market and is being used by at least 25 percent of the U.S. population. Consider these common-use data points presented by Kurtzweil: electrification of American homes, 46 years; general telephone access, 35 years; home radio usage, 31 years; televisions in homes, 26 years; use of personal computers, 16 years; 13 years for the widespread use of cell phones; and only seven years for the development of web-based communications to penetrate 25 percent of the American population.

On a global scale, Tom Hayes, in Jump Point, points out that it took some 100,000 years for mankind to move from the domestication of animals through social, political, and technological changes to arrive at a globally integrated market of one billion people in 2001. Then, he writes: “Only six years later, in 2007, the second billion arrived. And, at an astounding rate of acceleration—about 70,000 more people linking every day—the third billionth person will join in just a few years from now.” This will represent a “jump point” that “will signal the end of business, markets, work…and life, as we know it. At that point, one-half of the world’s population—its entire productive work force—will be united in a truly global marketplace of products, capital, and ideas: the largest economic engine in the history of the human adventure.”

Accelerated change, however, is not just about business and economics—as dramatic as that is—and its impact on our social, professional, political, and educational institutions. Joel Garreau, in Radical Evolution, names four phenomena of change that have the potential to alter what it means to be human. They are identified by the acronym of GRIN—genetics, robotics, information/artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology. Conceivably the combination of these forces will effectively erase the line between techno-fantasy and what we like to think of as reality. Human culture and institutions have always lagged behind paradigm shifts. Thus, writes Garreau, “The cultural revolution in which we are immersed is no more a tale of bits and bytes than the story of Galileo is about paired lenses….Today the story is…about the defining cultural, social, and political issue of our age. It is about human transformation.” In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama follows a more policy oriented, globally interconnected, how-are-we-going-to-manage approach to the phenomenon of change. Regarding medicine and technology, he posits, “The natural tendency of one generation to get out of the way of the up-and-coming one will be replaced by the simultaneous existence of three, four, even five generations.” For the first time in human history we may well have societies whose median ages are measured in the 60s, 70s, or higher. Moreover, the potential for science and medicine to alter what it means to be human will also impact how we discuss and formulate policies regarding, “rights, justice, and morality.”

What is at work in this stormy sea of change can be likened to a Darwinian process; i.e., it is not the biggest, strongest, or even the smartest institutions that will survive and thrive, but those that can adapt, that are the quickest, nimblest, and most agile in surfing a lightning-speed tidal wave of change. What does this mean, then, when we look at our educational institutions, especially in the pre-collegiate years? There is a certain litany (almost a mantra) proclaiming the urgent importance of preparing our students for life and work in the 21st century. What precisely that means, aside from having the pacific effect of a well-intentioned bromide is not clear. As Fukuyama writes, “The idea that one can acquire skills and education that will remain useful for the next forty years is implausible enough at present, given the pace of technological change. The idea that those skills would remain relevant over working lives of fifty, sixty, or seventy years become even more preposterous.”

What is needed is something dramatically different from the test-driven (often multiple choice) teach-to-the-standards approach common in today’s public schools. Tony Wagner (The Global Achievement Gap) argues that all of our schools (public and non-public) should be teaching seven different survival skills characterized by: critical thinking and problem solving; collaboration across networks and leading by influence; agility and adaptability; initiative and entrepreneurialism; effective oral and written communication; accessing and analyzing information; and curiosity and imagination. One might quibble over the number of skills or come up with a different set of rubrics, but the essential rightness of Wagner’s analysis is, I think, irrefutable.

To adopt such an approach to curriculum and instruction requires energy, boldness, courage, and the moderating influence of wisdom. Who will be able to do this? When we ask the question as to what institutions (in any area) are least able to change and transform themselves, the answer seems obvious. They are the institutions that are the most rigid, most top-down in decision making, most bureaucratic, and more committed to following programmatic rules and guidelines than in achieving meaningful, relevant, and measurable results. There is no convincing evidence leading us to think that our public education system is capable of this kind of transformation. Despite the presence of many dedicated classroom teachers, the system lacks not only the necessary nimbleness, agility, and flexibility but even the motivation for moving contra to the status quo. Where then are we to find hope for significant and meaningful change? I believe that hope lies among those schools that can make decisions at the local level and do not have to overcome the leaden inertia of layered bureaucracy in order to implement new programs, continuously measure their results, and make changes when something isn’t working without having to negotiate with a teachers’ union or an intractable, politically motivated superintendent. Where we find this potential is among our nation’s independent, charter, and home schools; and it is intriguing indeed to contemplate what these institutions, aided by the imaginative and purposeful use of technology, might achieve.

Wagner identifies at least one educational system that has articulated an aggressive, ambitious mission statement aimed toward creating schools that are focused on thinking and learning:

“Thinking schools will be learning organizations in every sense, constantly challenging assumptions, and seeking better ways of doing things through participation, creativity, and innovation. Thinking schools will be the cradle of thinking students as well as thinking adults and this spirit of learning should accompany our students even after they leave school.”

This mission statement comes not from an American or even a Western educational system but from the Singapore Ministry of Education. Yet we have schools in this country, already named, that are capable of crafting and executing this same kind of bold, ambitious vision to frame the manner in which we educate our children and could credibly be said to prepare them for the demands and challenges of the 21st century. The ability and potential are present; and with requisite will our independent, charter, and home schools can serve as a powerful, dynamic lever for positive educational change.

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