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Weekly Column

War of the Worlds: The Human Side of Moore's Law

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By Robert X. Cringely

There is a technology war coming. Actually it is already here but most of us haven't yet notice. It is a war not about technology but because of technology, a war over how we as a culture embrace technology. It is a war that threatens venerable institutions and, to a certain extent, threatens what many people think of as their very way of life. It is a war that will ultimately and inevitably change us all, no going back. The early battles are being fought in our schools. And I already know who the winners will be.

This is a war over how we as a culture and a society respond to Moore's Law.

The real power of Moore's Law lies in what the lady at the bank called "the miracle of compound interest," which has allowed personal computers to increase in performance a millionfold over the past 30 years. There's a similar, if slower, effect that governs the rate at which individuals are empowered by the technology they use. Called Cringely's Nth Law of Computing (because I have forgotten for the moment what law I am up to, whether it is five or six), it says that waves of technological innovation take approximately 30 years - one human generation - to be completely absorbed by our culture. That's 30 years to become an overnight sensation, 30 years to finally settle into the form most useful to society, 30 years to change the game.

The key word here is "empowerment." Technologies allow us to overcome limitations of time, distance, and physical capability, but they only empower us when they can be gracefully used by large, productive segments of our society. The telephone was empowering when we all finally got it. Now it is the Internet and digital communications.

Let's be clear about what we're measuring here. It has very little to do with specific technologies and everything to do with our adaptation to technology as a culture. What Cringely's Nth Law of Computing predicts is our rate of adaptation to technological life. This happens not at the rate technologies are developed but at the rate we are capable of broadly absorbing them. We've seen this sort of thing before, of course. I used to work in user interface design and noticed long ago that it took about a decade for every new interface standard to be absorbed by technical culture. This dates back a lot longer than most of us might guess, all the way back to microfilm readers in the 1960s. Older engineers couldn't stand reading microfilm while younger engineers found it effortless. Same for microfiche, which followed microfilm. The same effect could be found in typing: older people - mainly men - wouldn't adapt to it, but those who used a typewriter in high school or college quickly learned they could not live without it. Ditto for computers, first with batch processing, then time-sharing terminals, then command-line PCs, then graphical user interfaces, and now emerging mobile platforms. Each new technology is difficult for the older generation and easy for the younger, which explains why I am a PC master but a texting idiot. I'm just too damned old.

Here, buried in my sixth paragraph, is the most important nugget: we've reached the point in our (disparate) cultural adaptation to computing and communication technology that the younger technical generations are so empowered they are impatient and ready to jettison institutions most of the rest of us tend to think of as essential, central, even immortal. They are ready to dump our schools.

I came to this conclusion recently while attending Brainstorm 2008, a delightful conference for computer people in K-12 schools throughout Wisconsin. They didn't hold breakout sessions on technology battles or tactics, but the idea was in the air. These people were under siege.

I started writing educational software in 1978. The role of instructional technology has changed since then from a gimmick to a novelty to an effort to an essential component of any curriculum. Kids can't go to school today without working on computers. But having said that, in the last five years more and more technical resources have been turned to how to keep technology OUT of our schools. Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults.

But does it?

These are kids who have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. But far more important, there is emerging a class of students whose PARENTS have never known life without personal computers and cell phones. The Big Kahuna in educational discipline isn't the school, it is the parent. Ward Cleaver rules. But what if Ward puts down his pipe and starts texting? Well he has.

Andy Hertzfeld said Google is the best tool for an aging programmer because it remembers when we cannot. Dave Winer, back in 1996, came to the conclusion that it was better to bookmark information than to cut and paste it. I'm sure today Dave wouldn't bother with the bookmark and would simply search from scratch to get the most relevant result. Both men point to the idea that we're moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what's wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?

This is, of course, a huge threat to the education establishment, which tends to have a very deterministic view of how knowledge and accomplishment are obtained - a view that doesn't work well in the search economy. At the same time K-12 educators are being pulled back by No Child Left Behind, they are being pulled forward (they probably see it as pulled askew) by kids abetted by their high-tech Generation Y (yes, we're getting well into Y) parents who are using their Ward Cleaver power not to maintain the status quo but to challenge it.

This is an unstable system. Homeschooling, charter schools, these things didn't even exist when I was a kid, but they are everywhere now. There's only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart - ISO certification.

I've written about this for years and nobody ever paid attention, but ISO certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy. With ISO 9000 there was suddenly a way to claim with some justification that a factory in Malaysia was precisely comparable to an IBM plant on the Hudson. Prior to then it was all based on reputation, not statistics. And now that IBM plant is gone.

Well reputation still holds in education, though its grip is weakening. I know kids from good families who left high school early with a GED because they were bored or wanted to enter college early. Maybe college is next.

MIT threw videos of all its lecture courses - ALL its lecture courses - up on the web for anyone to watch for free. This was precisely comparable to SGI (remember them?) licensing OpenGL to Microsoft. What is it, then, that makes an MIT education worth $34,986? Is it the seminars that aren't on the web? Faculty guidance? Research experience? Getting drunk and falling in the Charles River without your pants? Right now it is all those things plus a dimensionless concept of educational quality, which might well go out the window if some venture capitalist with too much money decides to fund an ISO certification process not for schools but for students.

The University of Phoenix is supposedly preparing a complete middle and high school online curriculum available anywhere in the world. I live in Charleston, SC where the public schools are atrocious despite spending an average of $16,000 per student each year. Why shouldn't I keep my kids at home and online, demanding that the city pay for it?

Because that's not the way we do it, that's why.

Well times are changing.

Steve Jobs rejects the idea of Apple making or distributing e-books because he says people don't read books. He's right, book readers are older. Young readers graze. They search. Look how they watch TV. Steve didn't say people are stupid or we're all going to Hell in a handbasket. He just said we don't read books.

Technology is beginning to assail the underlying concepts of our educational system - a system that's huge and rich and so far fairly immune to economic influence. But the support structure for those hallowed and not so hallowed halls has always been parents willing to pay tuition and alumni willing to give money, both of which are likely to change over a generation for reasons I've just spent 1469 words explaining. We are nearing the time when paying dues and embracing proxies for quality may give way having the ability to know what kids really know, to verify what they can really do, not as 365th in their class at Stanford but as Channing Cringely, who just graduated from nowhere with the proven ability to design time machines.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (225)

After reading this article, I recommend "Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World" by Freed and Parsons. It's a real eye opener for parents who have an energetic, spontaneous, CREATIVE, imaginative, global thinker with a wide focus, flexible, independent, committed, sensitive, assertive, unique child.

Lori Kinsale | Apr 01, 2008 | 11:02PM

As I'm sure Mr. Cringley didn't intend, this is a strong case for Children's Museums.

Safenetting | Apr 02, 2008 | 6:58AM

Suppose what we think of as adaptation to technology is actually technology shaping our culture and our behavior? The technology creates our reality, our cultural zeitgeist and everything else just follows. Technology is a most efficient way to create local reductions in entropy (information)with fewer energy units for our hard-wired-pattern-loving brains; The result of Moore's law is directly proportional to the doubling of knowledge, in shorter periods of time, only made possible by faster connected technologies. It is this search (by technology) and synthesis (by the brain) capability that enables this to happen. It is all about the co-creation of value. Higher education’s primary mission is less about educating the masses and more about culling and retaining, smart people who are really good at recognizing valuable patterns and building knowledge portfolios. The larger schools have many horizon 2 and 3 incubators that become more attractive in a knowledge based economy. The role of the schools is already changing significantly behind the scenes and few even know it is happening.

Chet | Apr 02, 2008 | 10:50PM