Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Advocating for Boring

I'm about half-way through Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. In my dreams I'll write a proper review, but for the moment I'll just say if you want to understand what's going on on the internet today, you can't do better than this book. It is an optimistic, but distinctly post-utopian and largely hype-free explanation of the landscape. Much better than A Whole New World is Miscellaneous.

This quote leaped out at me last night:

Communication tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. The invention of a tool doesn't create change; it has to have been around long enough that most of society is using it. It's when a technology becomes normal, then ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that the really profound changes happen, and for young people today, our new social tools have passed normal and are heading to ubiquitous, and invisible is coming.

The problem is, this cuts against the conventional wisdom about how to do computing in schools, which is to have an ambitious, expensive program front loaded with professional development, aiming to meet short term goals. I've long argued that we would be better off aiming for inexpensive, sustainable, ubiquitous computing that is sufficiently cheap that it doesn't carry significant short-term performance pressures.

I believe that many initiatives in the current 1:3 or 1:4 student to computer ratio schools have failed not because of the lack of training, but the lack of ubiquity and consistency. A teacher must feel that the computers are here, they work, and they aren't going away, ever. EVER. If they can't believe all three, how can you argue that they aren't wasting their time? Why should they care about your professional development? The process has to be bootstrapped by putting technology in the hands of teachers and students. This is obvious, but we prefer to pretend it isn't true, mostly, I suppose, because it opens the door for charlatans to just sell loads of crappy computers to schools. Nonetheless, we just have to get over it and buy better technology, or we'll just continue walking around in smaller and smaller circles.

Some might say that cell phones fit the role of ubiquitous computers for kids today. They do socially, but it is harder to be institutionally ubiquitous. If I can't say, "ok kids, take out your X and do Y," with reasonably expectation that every student should have X and Y, then aren't ubiquitous in a school. Cell phone technology and its commercial implementation in the US is a long way from that point.


Kevin Prentiss said...

That's terrific. I've said "obvious" not "revolutionary," but the idea is the same.

Boring makes your point.

I will get the book immediately.

John Pederson said...

:) This has my mind burning in a very, very good way.

I've subconsciously been struggling over the past few weeks articulating a change in direction and philosophy with some projects I'm leading. Between your take on "boring" and Will's "about the teachers", I'm right there feeling a bit more comfortable moving away from 20 minute student created videos that tell the story about their communities.

Unknown said...

Gives me new hope in my 1:1. I have the book ready for pickup at Borders on my way home. Hope all else is going well. You may have begun to break my out of my winter ennui with regards to the 1:1. There is little time for staff development here, and yet the machines become and issue or problem when one is NOT there.

Dan Gross said...

One of my fav all time quotes is "remember that even the wheel was high tech for its day..." In my lifetime, Sunday driving has become a chore.

As I drive down the street with my GPS and cell phone seeing things I've never seen before through geocaches, voice twittering with JOTT, rerouting automatically with each turn, constantly giving me a new ETA so I know how much time I have before I have to move on... I think to myself, "When will THIS get boring?"

This morning I worked with a 4th grade classroom trying to decide if they will design an exhibit for the Museum on their communities Circus heritage, or our state's logging history. Tomorrow they will visit that museum, then they will electronically design the exhibits, videoconference every other week with the museum, and then "deliver" the completed project in late May in person. But the focus is never on the technology.

Can't say that its been "boring" but it certainly has become transparent. Even a #2 lead pencil, in the hands of an artist, is never "boring." But when you look at an amazing drawing - do you see a picture, or do you see the pencil lead? (And does that make the pencil boring?)

Bill Kerr said...

I haven't read this book but did go and read the amazon reviews and have read quite a lot of other Shirky, who I like

The downside of new technology becoming background hum is that the social values embedded in this case web2.0 software become uncritically assimilated into the user's psyche

I realise that Shirky isn't another reflexive web2.0 evangelist but I'm wondering if he analyses up this point in any systematic fashion

TV --> entertain us
web2.0 --> its cool to be connected (but not necessarily challenged)

The new forms of social organisation are valuable without question. To what extent does he look at the downside as well?

Stephen Downes said...

> I believe that many initiatives in the current 1:3 or 1:4 student to computer ratio schools have failed not because of the lack of training, but the lack of ubiquity and consistency.