The Future Part 5: Are We Living in a Time of Unprecedented Technological Change?

July 17, 2012

I have been dealing with the argument that to educate children for the future we need to give less importance to knowledge.

We saw in my last post on the future that if technological change is seen as a long-established feature of human life then this is not easily compatible with the idea that technological change is so unpredictable that it gives grounds to remove factual content from the curriculum. The alternative argument, for those arguing that technological change is too unpredictable to allow us to identify valuable knowledge for the future, is to suggest that contemporary (and upcoming) technological change is different to technological change in the past.

From Thornberg (1991):

Our students must be prepared for life in the next century – a time of unprecedented change. The global changes of 1991 will pale in comparison to those that yet face us, and the key to thriving in the new world order is for all of us to become lifelong learners who have retained our native creativity and who know how to use information technologies effectively.

The most outrageous example of this line of argument is from a blog written by an apparently well-established education “expert”:

For a child at school in 1850, the path that their adult life would take was not a million miles away from that of a child one hundred years later in 1950. They would both leave school having been through years of drilling in the basic academic skills. Their handwriting would not be greatly different, the words that they used more or less the same. Their methods for multiplying numbers identical. And off in to the world they would go. Their social class would determine the path that they followed, but regardless of whether it be one of a banker or shipworker, teacher or bricklayer, politician or journalist, the common factor for the 1850 child and his 1950 counterpart is that both would enter jobs for life…

The world had not changed a great deal. Transplant the 1850 child to the 1950 world and there would not be a great deal that they did not recognize or understand, save the fright of a speeding car or two.

Now think of the next step in the sequence 1850, 1950…

When I was growing up, Britain was pretty much the same place as for the 1950 child. Everyone still talked about the War, overseas travel was rare, TV had two channels. The world was small.

For many centuries Britain had not changed a great deal in terms of society, principles, values and life paths.

But then it happened. The greatest, most rapid evolution of society ever known. I am of course referring to the communication revolution.

Suddenly the world was not small. Cultures now intertwined, opinions, hopes and experiences shared.

This moves us from a debateable claim into an outrageous one. The period from 1850 to 1950 is one of tremendous technological change in almost every sphere, particularly transportation, communication and manufacturing

According to Cowen (2011):

The period from 1880 to 1940 brought numerous major technological advances into our lives. The long list of new developments includes electricity, electric lights, powerful motors, automobiles, airplanes, household appliances, the telephone, indoor plumbing, pharmaceuticals, mass production, the typewriter, the tape recorder, the phonograph, and radio, to name just a few, with television coming at the end of that period. The railroad and fast international ships were not completely new, but they expanded rapidly during this period, tying together the world economy.

We are perhaps too eager to assume that the changes we see in our lifetimes are incomparable to those in other eras. If the internet revolution seems to be the most exciting development in communications ever then consider the following description of the reaction to the telegraph and telephone:

In their earliest days these inventions inspired exhilaration without  precedent in the annals of technology. The excitement passed from place to place in daily newspapers and monthly magazines and. More to the point along the wires themselves. A new sense of futurity arose: a sense that the world was in a state of change, that life for one’s children and grandchildren would be very different, all because of this force and its uses.

Gleick (2011)

Alongside the case that rapid technological change is not unprecedented, it is also worth considering the argument that there are significant spheres of life where the impact of technological change has, if anything, noticeably slowed down.

According to Cowen (2011):

Today, in contrast, apart from the seemingly magical internet, life in broad material terms isn’t so different from what it was in 1953. We still drive cars, use refrigerators, and turn on the light switch, even if dimmers are more common these days. The wonders portrayed in The Jetsons, the space-age television cartoon from the 1960s, have not come to pass. You don’t have a jet pack. You won’t live forever or visit a Mars colony. Life is better and we have more stuff, but the pace of change has slowed down compared to what people saw two or three generations ago.

…  it was easier for the average person to produce an important innovation in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth century. It’s not because everyone back then was so well educated— quite the contrary, hardly anyone went to college— but rather because innovation was easier and it could be done by amateurs. The average rate of innovation peaks in 1873, which is more or less the beginning of the move toward the modern world of electricity and automobiles. The rate of innovations also plummets after about 1955, which heralds the onset of a technological slowdown. ..

… a consistent pattern shows up in other numbers. Across the years 1965 to 1989, employment in research and development doubled in the United States, tripled in West Germany and France, and quadrupled in Japan. Meanwhile, economic growth has slowed down in those same countries, and the number of patents from those countries has remained fairly steady. The United States produced more patents in 1966 (54,600) than in 1993 (53,200). “Patents per researcher” has been falling for most of the twentieth century.

Another economist, Paul Krugman, was making a similar argument over a decade ago:

…if you measure the progress of technology not by Mips and bytes but by how it affects people’s lives and their ability to get useful work done, you realize that the last 30 years have been a time not of unexpected achievement but of persistent disappointment.

Surely, for example, the startling thing about computers is not how fast and small they have become but how stupid they remain. Back in 1958 the pioneer computer scientist Herbert Simon confidently predicted that a computer would be the world’s chess champion by 1970; this makes the inability of IBM’s Deep Blue to beat Gary Kasparov even now a bit of a letdown. And building a computer that plays high-level chess turns out to be an easy problem — nowhere near as hard as, say, designing a robot that can vacuum your living room, an achievement that is still probably many decades away.

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

I happen to be an expert on some of those changes, because I live in a house with a late-50s-vintage kitchen, never remodelled. The nonself-defrosting refrigerator, and the gas range with its open pilot lights, are pretty depressing (anyone know a good contractor?) — but when all is said and done it is still a pretty functional kitchen. The 1957 owners didn’t have a microwave, and we have gone from black and white broadcasts of Sid Caesar to off-color humor on The Comedy Channel, but basically they lived pretty much the way we do. Now turn the clock back another 39 years, to 1918 — and you are in a world in which a horse-drawn wagon delivered blocks of ice to your icebox, a world not only without TV but without mass media of any kind (regularly scheduled radio entertainment began only in 1920). And of course back in 1918 nearly half of Americans still lived on farms, most without electricity and many without running water. By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

Another supporter of the theory that technological change has slowed down is the internet billionaire co-founder of Paypal, Peter Thiel :

I believe that the late 1960s … scientific and technological progress began to advance much more slowly. Of course, the computer age, with the internet and web 2.0 developments of the past 15 years, is an exception. Perhaps so is finance … There has been a tremendous slowdown everywhere else, however. Look at transportation, for example: Literally, we haven’t been moving any faster.

(Quoted here.)

The argument that we are in an era of unprecedented technological change is far from proven and, if Cowen, Krugman and Thiel are right, it may be the opposite of the truth. It is certainly not grounds for reducing the content of schooling in order to prepare for a flood of new technology.



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 90-93). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Gleick J (2011) The information. A history, a theory, a flood, Fourth, Estate, London.

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

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  1. It seems to me that all many of the recent advances in technology have really done is increase the availability of bullshit and broaden the range of types of bullshit pupils can get their hands on. Why this should require a significant change in what is taught or how is a mystery to me.

    Surely if pupils know more stuff (which I believe is still the purpose of schooling them) they will be more able to identify, avoid or debunk more of the proliferating bullshit rather than being taken in by it and spouting drivel about illuminati (or whatever the latest nonsense is)

  2. A lot of it is doing the same thing better and more quickly and more cheaply, but are not actually new developments per se.

    Sometimes that speed does allow you to do new things with the tools but they are still things that could have been done in the 1950s.

    One of the problems is that we have, for whatever reason, ceased to invent things that are actually opening new vistas.

  3. The 21st Century Skills argument originated as far as I can see, with the journalist, Charles Leadbeater. It was a favourite Nu Labour myth nurtured by NESTA and has been enthusiastically adopted by technology companies and for obvious (and perfectly legitimate) reasons, but also by techno-zealots for less justifiable reasons. But its adoption by educators just exposes their naivety. It doesn’t have any educational grounds or credibility except in the crudest, utilitarian sense.

    In educational terms, technology, whether a pencil or a multi-user virtual environment, is always merely a means to an end. The professional teacher’s chief concern is always with those ends. Not something you ever see a techno-zealot or guru exhibit. Their interest and embarrassing limitation, is always with the technology itself.

  4. Not sure about the history of the phrase “21st century skills”. It’s use in the US makes me a bit sceptical that it could originate with Charlie Leadbeater. That said it certainly chimed with New Labour’s belief that economic and social problems, particularly structural ones, could be solved by investment in skills alone.

  5. “the key to thriving in the new world order is for all of us to become lifelong learners who have retained our native creativity”

    From the context of the quotation, I assume that Thornberg thinks that traditional teaching methods don’t allow us to “[retain] our native creativity”. If so, does he ever comment on the fact that the vast majority of great thinkers and inventors throughout history received a traditional education? Or that moves away from such education in the last half-century haven’t led to a noticeable flowering of cultural and scientific innovation?

  6. There’s a (long) debate on this topic between Peter Thiel and George Gilder (who I believe is the source of some of the Shift Happens statistics) here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRrLyckg8Nc&watch_response

  7. “Are we living çn a time of unprecedented change”

    No I don’t think we are. I think Paul is pretty well on the money.
    Let’s just look at the last two hundred years or so of change generally. I believe that the major innovations or discoveries are these:

    1. A robust stationary engine.
    2. The locomotive.
    3. A reliable internal combustion engine
    4. The electric motor and generator.
    5. Transmission of radio signals
    6. The transistor.

    Once a reasonably serviceable prototypes of the above had been produced with some money behind them then they were displaced whatever it was that had been done slower and at greater cost. An example of this is the replacement of cotton mills driven by steam instead of water.
    In my life time, other than nuclear fission/fusion, there really has only been one major development and that is the discovery of semiconductors. That is Professor Shockley and his transistors. Shockley and his team were working for Bell Labs when they were looking to use semiconductors for a replacement for thermionic valves. Once this had happened progress was assured with many of the electronic applications, already known about, being reachable through the reduction in space required and current consumption.
    Therefore from Shockley’s 1948 and today what has happened is a process of evolution and iteration resulting in no fundamentally new concept in the aids that we use today.
    As an example to support my argument take Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) the technique used to turn an analogue signal into digital signal. PCM which is fundamental in every communications application today Telecoms, personal music thingies, record players and etc, didn’t exist in the 50s 60s. However it was a the subject of a paper written by, if I recall correctly, by an engineer called Yates in 1938. It just wasn’t possible to implement then because of the limitations of thermionic valves, wiring and current consumption etc. It wasn’t until the 70s that the PCM telecommunications systems appeared. Of course PCM is the norm today but it took 50 years to implement.
    Therefore, at the risk of being a bit long winded, I argue that the rate of change today is no different to what is was years ago.

    • Come now…

      post it notes and dental floss….!

      they gotta be up there…

      • on a more serious note… and i know these may be considered derivatives of your list but…

        space technology- satellites etc
        mobile phones, computers and memory
        materials science
        particle physics development

        could they be added?
        In terms of cultural changes and tech changes I think there is a case to say I have seen more changes in the last 10 years than in the last 30.

        My parents had a TV, telephone, car, toaster, oven and fridge. Plus lamps, lights and clocks. All important things

        I have those plus incredibly powerful phones, advanced TVs, computers, play stations, portable play stations, microwave ovens, satnav, video telephone links.

        Software mores like myspace and Facebook are in vogue one moment and gone the next. It changes so fast for an old fogie like me.

        I daren’t imagine what our children will have in 30 yrs time- or will we hit a ‘change ceiling’. Will we run out of things to invent?

        Once we are able to download content to our eyeballs and brain stem directly what more is there to do?

        I can just imagine an Apple logo permanently stationed in the top tight hand corner of my consciousness.

        And having my thoughts constantly interpreted by infomercials….

  8. [...] described here the argument that we are now in an era of unprecedented technological change, which means it is no [...]

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