Friday, January 04, 2008

The paradox of change and learning technology

If Iowa is any indication, 2008 looks to be a year of change, or rather of a growing desire for change. Of course, even when called for by the vox populi, change may not occur since we should never discount the resources of the powers of resistance -- always equal to the task -- who will find new ways of making sure the status quo maintains its fundamental rights. Pakistan gives us an idea of one tactic for protecting vested interests; a bit brutal, but there are other more subtle ways that can easily be mobilized in our western democracies.

So what does politics have to do with changes in the learning scene in 2008? The parallels are worth considering; to wit, the fact that in both domains the methods of the past have quite obviously failed to deliver anything but disappointing results. In politics, the received wisdom was that when there was a problem you carried a big stick, replacing it with a bigger one when necessary, and if you thought it was big enough for the annoyance you were faced with at any given moment you used it (whether preceded by talking softly or aggressively) to hammer home your favorite truth or doctrine and/or snuff out the enemy. In the field of learning, the stick had on its rough surface grades, degrees, diplomas and certification while its hard core consisted of controlling and amassing information (the equivalent of military might) and deploying it in places called, variously, "the classroom", "the training room" or "the learning management system".

But the big stick as the ultimate and unique solution seems to have failed once again and the choice between increasing its size or calling the premise into question has come to the fore. When that happens change becomes possible.

On both fronts, some things have visibly changed over the past 12 months and more is likely to change over the next 12. In 2007 the buzzword in the training technology sector, "Web 2.0", was transformed into a slogan and rallying cry. It is now perceived as corresponding to something that may just have a real and tangible impact on our lives. I call this the belief in the "tangible virtual" and it represents the major cultural innovation we're likely to see develop in 2008, although Second Life already pretends to be exactly that (whereas it is merely the graphic illusion of it).

I think two contrasting things will happen:

1) The Social Web as a cultural meme will gain credibility and draw towards it a sufficient number of users -- aware and unaware of the new culture they are associating with -- to validate at least the idea that it is a desirable general feature of the global environment (and this will be true even in the developing world where it is less present but ultimately more promising in terms of its transformative power and the human services that may for the first time be providable if not yet provided).

2) The myth that consists of thinking that the Social Web is authentically social will begin to be deflated, creating a desire for a truly social web, which we won't be tempted to call 3.0 because a truly social web doesn't need to be “semantic” (it seems that everyone is convinced that semantics will be the key feature for the “appellation contrôlée” of Web 3.0). The true Social Web (don't count on seeing it before 2012) won’t be defined by software but rather by human behavior. I prefer to think of it in terms of the Chinese concept of relationship and would call it the Guanxi Web. But we’ll have to learn a lot more about the way the Chinese do things before we get there. Or alternatively, wait for them to create it and follow in their footsteps (would our pride of technology leaders stand for that?).

In the more immediate future, starting this year, we will begin to understand that the relationship between what we now call the "social web" and human social interaction is as tenuous as the relationship we imagined between the artificial concept of “e-Learning” and actual human knowledge development, a disjunct we took nearly ten years to comprehend.

As soon as we realize, some time later this year, that everything we marvel at for being “the tangible virtual” is little more than an intriguing oxymoron (i.e. a poetic illusion) we will discover a need for something that would more appropriately be called the “tangible real” accompanied by a tangible virtual subtext, opening the gates of a new type of creativity rooted in the desire for the real rather than the desire to escape it. The historically minded may already have noticed that the tangible real coupled with the tangible virtual has been missing in our civilization since at least the 18th century, a period in which taverns, coffee houses, theatres and salons still actually encouraged people both to define and adapt to an intellectual environment created in common but spread and shared far beyond the local. The social intellect was subsequently corralled into universities as formal education, after laying the bricks of its buildings, laid the brakes on social learning and any kind of authentic intelligent (rather than intellectual) culture. This model needs to be dismantled and replaced, but don’t count on Starbucks or Second Life to take us there! In 2008 we will begin to see that Second Life is more like Second Wife, an object of fantasy (power and libido) that momentarily fulfils the individual while stifling communities by abolishing what is genuinely common or relegating it to the background. Second Life could be compared to an inflatable doll we fill with our own hot vapors (isn't that literally what we do with the avatars?). Of course it does serve a purpose in our global economy and culture (just as spam does) and so will continue to survive, but I don’t believe it defines our future in any serious way.

In conclusion, if this is a truly a period of change, as I think it is, that means we will be changing not only our ways of doing things but also our ways of thinking about change itself, and that applies to everyone including experts, thought leaders and fortune-tellers. We’d all like to be right in our predictions, but if we are tending towards something truly social, the result simply won’t resemble anything we individuals can imagine, however good we may be at analysing trends. Mainly because we all tend to reason like bankers, in terms of linear curves or market analysts in terms of product life cycles. After all, some of us still remember John Chambers’ “rounding error”, which with hindsight should be a sobering reminder of the value of "informed forecasting".

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