The Future Part 4: Technological Change as Normal and Unpredictable

June 24, 2012


Technology is often used as an excuse for dumbing-down. Shift Happens UK  throws out claims such as:

According to BBC News a new blog is created every second. There are over 106 million registered users of MySpace (as of September 2006). If MySpace were a country, it would be the 11th-largest in the world (between Japan and Mexico). The average MySpace page is visited 30 times a day. 1, 400, 000 UK pupils have their own webpage… Predictions are that e-paper will be cheaper than real paper.  47 million laptops were shipped worldwide last year.  7 out of 10 teenagers have a handheld games machine. 9 out of 10 teenagers have a home computer , a mobile phone and a games console. 84% of young people play computer games at least once a fortnight. 72% of teachers never play computer games. Predictions are that by 2013 a supercomputer will be built that exceeds the computation capability of the human brain. And while technical predictions further out than about 15 years are hard to do predictions are that by 2049 a £500 computer will exceed the computational capabilities of the entire human species.

The future is clearly an unpredictable place and very different place. From this perspective it is claimed, or implied, that technological change has made knowledge, particularly traditional academic knowledge, obsolete and the future so unpredictable that we cannot prepare for it by conventional forms of learning. Sometimes this is simply a way to embellish some of the claims I have blogged about previously. If you wish to claim that schools should be teaching creativity or should downgrade the teaching of knowledge  then these claims can be given weight by suggesting they describe the consequences of new technology. Such broad assertions are inevitably so vague that they are impossible to prove or disprove. We can, however, challenge the broader narratives about technological change used to justify them.

The first narrative to be considered is simply an account of history in which technology changes so fast that all knowledge is likely to become obsolete before too long. In this view of history people have always failed to appreciate technological change. For example:

… in 1956 when I was in school, British Astronomer Royal, Dr Richard van der Riet Wooley said, “Space travel is utter bilge.” … a few years later … The view of the Earth as seen from space signalled a major shift in our world view. Those whose formative years (generally thought to be between earth and age 6) occurred before we explored space have a very different world-view or paradigm than those who were born afterwards. By 1969 we had placed a man on the moon and returned him safely to Earth. The world changed.

I’m not suggesting that the one event was responsible for the paradigm shift all by itself, but it is symbolic of it. During the time of the “space race”, nascent technologies became mature. The world of digital electronics and random-access devices grew at a phenomenal rate. The 60s marked a transition to an era some have never fully accepted.

The problem we now encounter in education is simply this: Our children operate with a completely different world-view than that of many adults. As educators we have a sacred duty to support and enhance the development of our youth, not to try and convert them to outmoded ways of thinking. This then is the pivotal challenge of our time.

Thornberg (1991)

Nobody can deny that technological change has occurred and has changed society. However, others have denied that even something as shockingly futuristic as space travel changed society greatly:

Everyone of a certain age thinks of the 1969 moon landing as a symbolic dividing line between the new technological era and the old. At the time, the moon landing occasioned great excitement and it was heralded as the beginning of a new age. But it’s more properly seen as the culmination of some older technological developments. What did the moon landing lead to in our everyday standard of living? Teflon, Tang, and some amazing photographs. A better knowledge of astronomy. In other words, it wasn’t like the railroad or automobile. And these days, we’re worried that Teflon does more harm to the environment than good.

Cowen (2011)

We can also be wary of suggestions that technological change has always been so unpredictable that the experts of the day were taken aback. The quotation about space travel is not as clear cut as it might appear. According to Terry et al (1995):

What the Astronomer Royal really said (I heard him on Radio Newsreel) was: “All this talk about space travel is utter bilge, really.” Anyone who had seen the flamboyant articles about space travel and the imminent colonisation of the moon and planets that were splashed all over the newspapers in 1956, with science fiction style illustrations, must have been immediately aware of what the new Astronomer Royal was riled about. The newspaper editors clearly did not like this so they deleted the first four words to make it appear that he was decrying space travel itself.

He went on to say:” It would cost as much as a major war just to put a man on the moon.” This turned out to be an accurate prediction. One London paper printed his words truthfully but the lie had already gone around the world and nobody was interested in the truth still struggling to get its boots on.

Misattributed quotations about people who failed to appreciate technological change are not a rarity. A Washington Post article recently reported that President Obama incorrectly claimed that:

One of my predecessors, Rutherford B. Hayes, reportedly said about the telephone, ‘It’s a great invention, but who would ever want to use one?’ That’s why he’s not on Mount Rushmore because he’s looking backwards.

This story, contradicted by all the known facts, had previously been told by President Reagan and reference to it had appeared in the Encyclopedia Britannica. We seem to enjoy hearing that people in the past, particularly important people, failed to appreciate great innovations (as well as telephones, there are also fake quotations about resistance to cars, trains and stethoscopes). While there, quite possibly, are some quotations of this sort that are genuine, we simply cannot assume that they paint a genuine picture of how people in the past have related to the future. It is far easier to see reason to think we predict too much technological change. A quick look at a previous generation’s sci-fi will find countless overly ambitious predictions. For instance, consider Dan Dare and Lost in Space’s space voyages set in the late 1990’s. HAL never turned up in 2001 and, hopefully, at no point in the next ten years will our safety be threatened by the replicants of Blade Runner (set in 2019) or the effects of eating Soylent Green (set in 2022).

Thornberg (1991) does, unintentionally, give us some indicator of how we do fail to predict the future, particularly the following passages:

Looking at paradigms for educational change for the next century, I can safely predict the death of the textbook. …They are repositories of information and they occasionally provide impetus to explore a subject in more depth. These functions can be performed much more easily by CD-ROMs.

Look at the new super Nintendo system. This game machine is really a Trojan horse. It looks like a game machine; it plays like a game machin, but watch out. Sometime later this year Nintendo will roll out an adaptor complete with over 8 megabytes of RAM and a CD-ROM drive for about $200. This means that for well under $400, kids will have a complete multimedia workstation. You can be sure that keyboards, mice and modems won’t be far behind. If I’m right in this prediction, Apple and IBM will just be transient blips on the face of personal computing unless they respond strongly, and respond fast.

Roger Wagner (the creator of HyperStudio) has described the VCR as the printer of the 90’s… One of the most important features of a VCR is that in addition to playing back tapes, it can be used to record. This places the means of “printing” in the hands of everyone with a VC, assuming they have a video/audio source to connect to the recorder. After awhile you may find that your VCR has moved to your printer stand.

The mistakes here are obvious. New innovations have tended to replace other new innovations rather than older inventions. It is not that we fail to predict that new technology will appear, more that we often fail to appreciate how briefly it will last. If we want to make predictions about the future, we might not do too badly by predicting that technology that has lasted hundreds of years already will, on average, outlast technology that is brand new. More generally, change does not affect everything equally and we will fail to predict what will be surplus to requirements in the future. We can assume that while traditions may one day prove outdated, they don’t change half as speedily as fashions. As similar argument can be made about the subjects taught in schools. Most of the words I learned at school from programming languages have been superceded many times over. None of the words of Latin I learnt have been, or ever will be. The best example of how our inability to predict the future does not give grounds for abandoning the past is probably that of algebra. Opposed by progressive educationalists for decades – Ravitch (2000) includes multiple examples of it being derided or rejected for its uselessness and irrelevance – it now provides essential knowledge for almost any sophisticated use of computers. If we accept that technological change has always happened we, nevertheless, have no reason to think that it favours a progressive over a traditional curriculum.


Cowen, Tyler (2011-01-25). The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better: A Penguin eSpecial from Dutton (Kindle Locations 97-102). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Ravitch, Diane (2000), “Left Back”, Simon and Schuster.

Terry, J.A. and Rudge, John (1995) “Current Affairs”, New Scientist 16 September 1995

Thornberg, David, D.  (1991) “Edutrends 2010” Starsong Publications.

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  1. Ive just invented the 15 blade razor with in-built coffee making facilities

  2. Most of it is nonsense. The other threads show the gap – technological fantasists “everything is all wonderful, everyone should throw money (other people’s !) at these wonders” and hard classroom realists.

    I was amused by the reference to the Super Nintendo System, because it was ignorant even then. The SNES (as things are) was built down to a price so Nintendo could make money. So whilst it is very good at drawing graphics on the screen for games or playing jolly rinky-dink tunes, it’s “brain” (the WD65C816 CPU) is actually very very sloooooow. It’s slightly quicker than the old BBC Micro. So it could never be the heart of some sort of super multimedia system because it technically isn’t up to it.

    (The system described does actually exist. It’s the original Sony Playstation which arose out of fight between Nintendo and Sony over the add on)

    The global warming thing always amuses me. I distinctly remember as a kid being told the exact opposite, that the Ice Ages were on the way back. Then of course we were all going to be wiped out my nuclear war. I see the Maldives are still claiming that in 20 years they’re going to be underwater. They were claiming that when I went there with the Mrs on honeymoon. We’ve been married 21 years this year.

    • I hope you are not trying to push the climate change denialist narrative that in the 70s it was generally believed (as opposed to suggested by a few people here and there) that we were heading for an ice age. Even back then, there was greater fear of a warming trend resulting from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as is known to anyone who has ever watched Soylent Green).

  3. All of this dumbing down comes from a belief that standards and academic rigour are in some how “elitist” and not inclusive. We have moved from the meritocratic ideal to a mediocracy. This has been driven by people with an inclusion agenda (by that I mean more people participating in education “successfully” rather than inclusion as it relates to special needs).

    The notion that skills and creativity are somehow more important than knowledge is an attempt to make education more inclusive in my opinion.

    The meritocratic ideal is not without its flaws. It hasn’t worked thus far in levelling the playing field. This is largely because those born to rich and/or educated parents have obvious advantages when it comes to passing exams. However that just means that we need to look at and debate how to level the playing field rather than scrapping the notion that those with ability and those that apply themselves should be the ones who do the best.

    There has been a sharp decline in enthusiasm for the ideal of promoting achievement through merit. The very ideal of merit, like standards, has been portrayed as some sort of trick of the elite.

    While it is possible for the democratisation of education to result in the maintenance or a rise in standards it would have to be done well and with conviction. Sadly the two main schools of thought on this seem to believe otherwise. Those disposed towards “elitist” ideals have no wish to compromise on standards and do not believe that democratisation (or widening participation) can maintain or raise standards. Those that wish to widen participation or make education more inclusive share this belief but are willing to compromise on standards in order to include everyone.

    This notion that popular participation is incompatible with the maintenance of standards of excellence has led to a devaluing of intellectualism and academic excellence and an increasingly utilitarian view of learning. It also displays a depressing lack of faith in the intellectual capabilities of the general school age public.

    Broad participation without the maintenance of high standards is a fraud being perpetrated on the general public.

  4. “We have moved from the meritocratic ideal to a mediocracy.
    In my view it is all highly contradictory. ”
    Some time in the late 80s I attended a parents’ evening at the local comp where both my children were educated. I mentioned to my son’s somewhat right on class teacher that I didn’t like mixed ability teaching in the language class where about a quarter of the pupils struggled with English let alone European languages. I was then subjected to a lecture about the egalitarian ethos of the school, well rounded products and so on ad nauseam.
    Some two years later my daughter arrived home from the same school in tears having been dropped from the school orchestra. Later that week, on my morning train, I sat opposite an acquaintance, a sports fanatic, who rambled on at length about the brilliant achievements of the comp football team in which his son played. So it seemed games and music were exempt from mixed ability participation.
    This led to reflection on what schools children of my circle of friends attended. A significant minority attended independent schools and the children of two couples (very left wing) had some how been inveigled into the second from top performing comp in the county, some 10 miles from their place of residence.
    All this and various socialist MPs sending their offspring to selected schools rather than the local comp really honed my cynicism.
    Just for the record I have never voted conservative.

    • ah well paysan

      political allegiance and ethical principles are all very well

      but as many a hypocritical MP can tell you:

      “You don’t F*** about when its your own kids…..”

  5. I’m immediately sceptical of the value of the points made by Cowen(2011) because it repeats this common canard:
    “What did the moon landing lead to in our everyday standard of living? Teflon, Tang…”

    How did the moon landing “lead to” the discovery of PTFE in 1938, or the formulation of Tang in 1957?

    Sloppy research makes me less inclined to give any credence to conclusions.

  6. I believe that there is a very big difference between “algebra” and a “programming language” in epistomological terms which will quickly and easily explain why algebra while, it will be developed further, will not disappear as will the programming language.

    If we accept that technological change has always happened we, nevertheless, have no reason to think that it favours a progressive over a traditional curriculum.”

    I would love to see a post here from OA looking at the similarities and differences between the traditional and progressive, after all Socrates was progressive in his day. If there is such a post then a pointer to it would be nice as there is much material to look through.

    As I am sure I have said before, it would seem that research indicates that factual knowledge (especially within a discipline?) improves problem solving and decision making. I believe it is also clear that practice and knowledge of the skills/processes of problem solving and decision making also can improve these processes.

    There can be no doubt that an individual can access facts using technology that would have been impossible 30 years ago. I know because I was there. When I am considering a problem/issue I more often than not reach for the internet to gather more information as part of the process. I believe (and hope) that I am able to frame my searches far more effectively than someone who has no factual knowledge in the domian and I am also sure that I am able to search for better information as I have a better understanding of the process in which I will apply said information.

    I believe that technology has in fact allowed opportunities for personal growth that require a shift in the balance between teaching facts and teaching “thinking”. I don’t think that teaching less facts necessarily dumbs down education and in fact to an extent it can improve education as long as one does not teach “thinking” exclusively. My beef would be with those who say that learning factual knowledge is no longer necessary but there are few educational fundamentalists out there who sign this song. I also would argue clearly with those who argue that teaching factual knowledge should be the exclusive task of education, but then there are very few of thos fundamentalist educators about. Mst are somewhere in the middle.

    While these discussions about excuses for dumbing down are an interesting and useful forum for provoking thought, I feel that they are increasingly setting the two extremes up as common practice, which although useful in theory is little use in practice.

    I would like to see more consideration of the balance between the two, especially in different subject content domains.

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