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.
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.
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.