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The Singularity and schools: An interview with Vernor Vinge

Note: An mp3 of this interview is available for download.

Last week, I spoke with Vernor Vinge [Wikipedia | website], a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics. He is better known as a five-time Hugo Award-winning science fiction author. His works include True Names, Fast Times at Fairmont High, and Rainbows End. Most importantly, his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity,” argues that accelerating technological change will bring about the end of the human era as we know it, and that the world will become so complex and foreign to human observers, it will be impossible to predict what will happen next.

Ray Kurzweil and others have since contributed to the popularization of the Singularity, but the conversation has been centered on technological determinism. In a world that is consumed by accelerating change, what are the implications for systems that are at risk of being outpaced — namely, human systems? And, what are the implications for how we will learn and work in the near future?


I got this sort of vision where the human workplace is scattered in both space and time, and for a single career, it’s not a merely a matter of changing your career every couple years, it’s a matter of actually changing your point of attention on smaller time scales.

What can science fiction tell us about our future?

According to Vinge, a lot. He helped introduce the cyberpunk genre in the early with his 1981 Novel, true Names. He says, “the technological situation we have now is very similar to what was described in True Names, which actually was implicitly targeted in the year 2014,” but much of that can be attributed to pure luck.

The future authors of the genre have envisioned, he argues, has emerged today as a mix of expected and unexpected dystopian and hopeful elements. Society of today, he believes, has not changed much since the early 1980s. Corporate dominance in government, for example, is still at the same level as it was before, and our views on technology shifted since 1984:

Before the year 1984, people generally looked at computers the way George Orwell did in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. After 1984, people had these great visions of computers freeing the people from tyrannies, and that is still a real possibility… and it is a possibility that has come true in large parts of the world. But, I would say the jury is still out as to what the ultimate effectiveness of computers and communication automation favors tyranny or favors liberty. I’m putting my bets on liberty, but I would say it’s not an obvious win in either direction.

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Singularity was introduced at the NASA VISION-21 Symposium. What’s changed?

I’m still where I was in my 1993 essay that I gave at a NASA meeting, and that is that I define the Technological Singularity as being our developing, through technology, superhuman intelligence — or becoming, ourselves, superhuman intelligent through technology. And, I think calling that the Singularity is actually a very good term in the sense of vast and unknowable change. A qualitatively different sort of change than technological progress in the past.

He still believes four pathways could lead to the development of the Singularity by 2030:

  1. The development of computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent.
  2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  4. Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.

When asked which one is more likely, he hinted that he sees a digital Gaia of networks plus people emerging:

The networked sum of all the embedded microprocessors in all our devices becomes a kind of digital Gaia. That qualifies, as an ensemble, as a superhuman entity. That is probably the weirdest of all possibilities because, if anything, it looks like animism. And, sometimes I point to it when I want to make the issue that this can be very strange. I think that actually the networking of embedded microprocessors is going like gangbusters. The network that is the Internet plus humanity, that is also going with extraordinarily surprises, if you just look at the successes in the various schemes that go by names like crowdsourcing. To me, those have been astounding, and should give people real pause with how to use the intellectual resources actually that we have out there. So far, we do not have a single computer that is really of human-level intelligence, and I think that is going to happen. But, it is a kind of an amazing thing that we have an installed base of seven billion of these devices out there.

What does this mean for schools?

Vinge believes talking about post-Singularity situations in education are impractical. In theory, is impossible for us to predict or comprehend what will happen, so we should not focus our attention on worrying about post-Singularity futures. Rather, we should focus on the ramp-up toward the Singularity, our unique talents, and how we can network together to utilize them in imaginative ways:

Talking about the run-up to the Singularity makes sense for several different reasons. One is, we have to get through it. The other is that it is our opportunity, as the chief players… it’s our opportunity to make things turn out safely and happily. In the meantime, at just the level of just getting one’s job done, I think there are real changes that are going to be happening in education and more broadly in training issues. I think one thing that is going to become more-and-more evident is the fact that we have seven billion people out there who are variously good … very good … at different things. And, there are ways of enhancing and amplifying that by collaboration. And, when I say “collaboration” […] it is a very good thing. But, if you look at some of the group mind projects and crowdsourcing projects, there is very great imagination that can be exercised in making collaboration effective. One thing is to interface people who have very different skills — that can actually be helped a lot by the network.

When dealing with unknown futures, it remains unknown how to prepare people best for these futures. He states that the best pathway involves teaching children “to learn how to learn” (a key theme in Fast Times at Fairmont High), and that we need to encourage the development of positive futures by attending to diversity in our learning systems. We need to not facilitate the formation of diverse students, but we also need to abandon a monoculture approach to education and attend to a diverse ecology of options in teaching and evaluation.

Most importantly, to meet the individual needs of students, he believes, we need to focus on “shifting the emphasis from intense attention to process and having the process of the teaching right … shifting that attention to having independent rating agencies that are not so much interested in process as they are in giving reliable rating information to people who have to judge the results of the money that is being spent on the education.”

Invisible Learning in Buenos Aires

I recently gave the opening keynote at the Telefónica Foundation’s VII Encuentro Internacional de Educación 2012-2013 in Buenos Aires, which has taken on relationships between education, society, and work as its first theme. I shared my thoughts on Knowmad Society as it relates to the Invisible Learning paradigm. Telefónica filmed the talk, and is graciously sharing it on YouTube (note: with Spanish voice-over).

Spanish and Portugese speakers will enjoy the ongoing conversation at the Telefónica Foundation’s social network:

Scale it sideways!

One of the key points we make in Invisible Learning is that new technologies and new possibilities for social configurations are expanding the ecology of options we have for learning. “Schooling” is no longer limited to just schools. Rather, we can now learn in formal environments, online, informally, and serendipitously. Moreover, we can leverage technologies to remix these modes together — so, for example, it is now possible to have a meaningful and recognized learning experience at coffee shops, city parks, bowling alleys, etc.

Just as wise investors diversify their investment portfolio, so should we build diverse portfolios of our schools. This means that we should not invest too heavily in any one strategy. If we do not know with any precision what the future will be, we cannot have one-size-fits-all schools. We need to expand our ecologies of options.

Many times we find something that works. Perhaps a new pedagogical technique …or, maybe a new type of school. One of the first things we often ask ourselves when evaluating an innovation is: How do we scale it up?



Scaling up is how we industrialize ideas, and employ them within a top-down managed system. This works in an educational monoculture, but not in a diverse ecology. Rather than industrializing our best ideas, why not share them horizontally? That is, let’s invite people and schools to adopt them if they work for them?

Scaling sideways invites co-creation. It is dialogical.

The question we need to ask is, how can we facilitate broader horizontalized communications and sharing of best practices, etc., between schools in a diverse ecology of options? Perhaps this means that top educational leaders, governments and other interest groups need to focus less on managing; and focus more on attending to the chaos and uncertainty of a more dynamic educational ecology.

And, let’s make sure to invite the kids into the horizontalized co-creation. We are all white belts when it comes to understanding and acting on our futures. We do not have any role models to draw from. We have never been to the future before.

We must engage kids in this conversation now. Knowmad Society is their’s, but it is up to us to build it together.

Note: Adapted from my plenary talk at the Onderwijs en ondernemen “op expeditie” conference in The Hague, Netherlands on October 6, 2011.

The Invisible Learning Tour kickoff

As the Invisible Learning book enters the final layout stage this week (expect the release in April), Cristóbal Cobo and I are already delivering talks, workshops, and seminars on the topic. Already, in addition to our home base countries, we have been invited to speak in Argentina, Colombia, Czech Republic, Mexico, Netherlands, and Spain.

In regard to the Netherlands, what started as a Twitter conversation two weeks ago has expanded into a two-day event, The Invisible Learning Tour (TILT), on March 7-8. The event is a co-production of Sudbury Netherlands, CMD Leeuwarden, HAN, Inholland, Knowmads, and MooiPunt. The Co-lere website introduces the gathering:

Our schools, universities and other institutions need to make a quantum leap to catch up to the highly-globalized knowledge- and innovation-driven society. At this conference, we work together with John Moravec, education futurist, in an Invisible Learning tour to make new educational paradigms and approaches to human capital development visible.

Monday, March 7, I will open with a talk on Invisible Learning in the morning, and, in the afternoon, we will morph the event into an open meeting space. Further details are being posted to this Facebook page (where you can RSVP to attend, too).

Tuesday, March 8, will make site visits to see invisible learning concepts in practice at HAN Arnhem, the Sudbury Schools of De Koers in Beverwijk and De Kampanje in Amersfoort, Knowmads in Amsterdam, and the Creative Learning Lab in Amsterdam.

…and, to better introduce all this, the organizers (and I) are organizing a “teaser” webinar on March 2:

20:00 Amsterdam time
13:00 Minneapolis/Central/Mexico City time


(More information on Facebook)

Need more information on the Invisible Learning kickoff in the Netherlands?

Join the TILT Facebook group or email

If you cannot make it on March 7-8…

…and if you are interested in organizing a talk or workshop about Invisible Learning at your organization, drop us an email!

Project Dream School

Project Dream School starts with a simple question:

If you could build a dream school, what would you do?


What would the building look like? The methods? The teachers? Technology? The mission? …does it need to be a school, or should it be a bootcamp for designing futures… life… the perfect job?

Last Thursday, many great minds assembled to discuss just this… and how to make it happen. Sir Ken Robinson, Jeff Jarvis and I joined the discussion by Skype with Peter de Visser (principal), Marcel Kampman (creative organizer), Ellen Mashhaupt, Bianca Geerts, Fons van den Berg, Rob van der Ploeg, Bram Verhave (Architecture historian STEK, advisor to Chief government Architect), Peter de Visser, Ton Dohle, Bjorn Eerkes, Maurice Mikkers, Lex Hupe, Arjan Dingsté, Hartger Meihuizen (staff Stad&Esch), Roel Fleurke (staff Stad&Esch), Koene Kisjes (student Stad&Esch), Christian Paauwe (student Stad&Esch), Bart Hoekstra (student Stad&Esch), Jan Albert Westenbrink, and Annette Stekelenburg.

The project will have a website up-and-running soon at, and also in Dutch at: As a Skype (distant) participant, I really cannot report on how the entire discussion went, so make sure to follow the project sites for their take on the meeting and their next actions as they work to transform their dreams into reality.

Stay tuned… more soon!

Postscript: Here is my Dream School (as shared on Thursday):

  • The organization abandons the word “school” — in reinventing education, it becomes a bootcamp for design where youth and collaborating community members apply their creativity toward innovative applications.
  • The traditional classroom is abandoned in favor of space that favors multidirectional collaboration. Moreover, building that houses the organization is designed to be more than just a box. Rather, it is designed to be easily transformed and reconfigured as quickly as our ideas regarding teaching and learning evolve and transform.
  • An infrastructure is created to support technologies, but the technologies themselves are not deeply embeded (because they will likely change by the time they’re institutionalized). Students are responsible for bringing in and supporting their own technology, perhaps by providing them with a technology grant/budget. (Update: Kraft Foods is trying out this approach.)
  • The school is not just a tool for youth, but is a resource for the entire community it serves: Provides co-working and incubator resources for people with ideas that want to involve youth, and facilitates innovative, non-formal, informal and “invisible” learning opportunities.
  • A new breed of teacher/facilitators are trained and recruited to do away with download-style pedagogy, and rather serve as curators of ideas and enablers of creativity and innovation.

That’s my dream… which is easier said than done. But, it is what it is: A dream.

Three alternatives to temponormative pedagogy

When most people mention the word “pedagogy,” they are likely to think of it within a temponormative framework. It is a framework that embraces linear time and Cartesian thinking. This continues to be the most prevalent framework within Western educational contexts. A linear conceptualization of time ensures that the learning process has a beginning and an end, with predictable (and measurable) waypoints between. The causal linearity of the temponormative frame allows for the developmental procession of teaching and learning that is often best suited for transmitting explicit knowledge to learners.

The temponormative approach has worked well in the industrial era, but afforded the purposive use of technologies, can we break away from this old framework to one that is organic and synergetic, rather than mechanical — one that supports the creation of knowledge workers and innovators over factory automatons? Pekka Ihanainen (at HAAGA-HELIA and Ihanova) and I think we can. To start the discussion, in a paper we submitted for a special issue of time in Studia Paedagogica, we propose three alternatives to break us away from temponormative pedagogies: pointillist, cyclical, and overlapping. The following text is excerpted and adapted from the paper.

Pointillist learning

Elements for pointillist learning are masses of fragments and pieces – i.e., as used within Twitter messaging. They transmit, separately, beginnings for events, middle-points of events and endings of events in an order that may seem perceptibly vague. Among others, they comprise experiences, opinions, perceptions, comments, and “what if” scenarios.

The spontaneous nature of pointillist learning has always been a natural part of everyday human activity. When pointillist learning is examined from a pedagogical point of view, it opens itself as an anti- or a de-pedagogy. The greatest challenge for de-pedagogy is that we must trust that learning actually takes place, and that de-pedagogical learning is both valuable and significant. For pedagogical activity, de-pedagogy means that, as facilitators of learning, we have to give up our role as teachers and to start being and working as co-learners and peers within the pointillist environments we are involved.

Cyclical learning

In online forums, where participation (usually discussion) occurs within threads as a more or less dialogical activity, densification and diffusion of learning intensity are present to experience and take part in. The cyclical activity and learning is connected with an ability to observe intensive periods of online interaction and to join them. New competencies emerge in the perception of pulses from within emerging processes of thoughts, emotions, and understandings (among others). Often times, people wish to continue their explorations and re-understandings of pointillist events and contextualize the knowledge to better suit their own needs and interests. For this reason, we label this phenomena a re-pedagogy.

Overlapping learning

The above three frameworks do not necessarily exist exclusive of each other, but can coexist and overlap within simple or complex relationships. Overlapping may occur as 1) fragments within fragmentary entities; or, 2) waves within pulsating content processes. In regard to the former, for example, it recognizes the ability to move from pointillist activities to cyclical learning and vice versa. In regard to the latter, this includes an ability to construct new insights, conceptualizations, and contextual applications for knowledge given pulsating waves of cyclical, pointillistic and/or temponormative pedagogies. Overlapping pedagogies may be expressed through the overlapping uses of technologies. For example, in online education, microblogging (a pointillist activity) may be layered with intense activity within discussion forums (a cyclical activity).

Overlapping learning is knowledge building of everything/anything, everywhere/anywhere and at all times/anytime. In other words, overlapping learning is boundless in its scope and capabilities. When the learning of everything/anything, everywhere/anywhere and at all times /anytime is examined from pedagogical point of view, it can be seen as pedagogy of encoding. The overlapping education is therefore labeled en-pedagogy.











Cartesian, linear




Knowledge produced


Personal (explicit and tacit)

Personal and social

Personal and social

Learning happens through…



Evolution of dialog

Convergence of direction, serendipity and evolution

Learning outcomes pre-defined






Lectures, readings

Microblogging, podcast

Online forums


Our challenge

The problem is, although we are familiar with many of the technological tools that enable these pedagogies, we still view the process and the experience through the lens of temponormativity. Recognition of this framework with expanded temporal characteristics calls on us to develop new, purposive approaches that embrace and maximize the best of any configuration of de-, re-, and en-pedagogies.

Afforded the post-temponormative capabilities of online environments, how can we best leverage these multidimensional understandings of pedagogical time to facilitate multidimensional learning and meaningful new knowledge production?

Five secrets futurists don't want you to know

Professional futurists continue to make outstanding contributions toward the development of understandings of the future, but is futures thought limited to this select group? Definitely not! With a do-it-yourself attitude, and leverage of the right resources, anybody can become an effective futurist. Here’s why:

  1. Nobody knows the future – don’t trust anybody who says otherwise. The world is changing at an accelerating pace, and it’s simply getting harder and harder to imagine what will happen next, let alone 20 years from now. We are all white belts when it comes to approaching the future. We have never been there before, and it is hard to model a world that does not exist yet. What futurists provide is their “best guess” — hopefully supported by quality research and trends analyses.
  2. Futuring is easier than you think. While some futures research methodologies, such as the Delphi method, require an element of professional experience and expertise, many others are easily done — and should be done — by just about anybody. Environmental scanning, for example, involves simply exposing yourself to as much data and information on a broad range as possible (i.e., reading as many newspapers as you can, daily). The futures wheel is related to mindmapping, and can be easily done within individual or group settings. Jerome Glenn and Theodore Gordon wrote an excellent volume on methodologies used by futurists, Futures Research Methodology Version 3.0 (Available at For do-it-yourself futurists or those wishing to explore the field, it is an excellent resource that will get you going.
  3. We are all futurists. Few activities are as natural and universal among humans and human cultures are storytelling. We use stories to share our memories and imaginations of events that have happened or will happen. We use stories to share histories, fables and myths of the past. We also use stories to share visions of and for the future — including goal setting, promises of change, narratives of how we improve ourselves, and even apocalyptic nightmares. Even in our sleep, we often dream about future scenarios. Futurists explicitly tap into our stories and the power of storytelling to share their visions and dreams. So can everybody else.
  4. You can access the same information as professional futurists can. Unless if you’re divining knowledge from an isolated and highly controlled information source, the ubiquitous availability of data and information in today’s networked society mean that you can easily and cost-effectively build up your knowledge base of future trends. Moreover, you are welcome to join the same professional societies that professional futurists participate in, such as the World Future Society, providing you with the same connections and access to professional society-level knowledge they have.
  5. We all create the future. Futurists do not create the future, everybody does. Time may move forward, but the future does not just “happen.” Rather we share a responsibility to ensure that the futures we create are positive (ideal outcomes for humanity, the world, etc.). Moreover, in our interconnected world, we cannot disconnect from our futures. We cannot “futureproof” an organization. Nor can we find ways to fight it as individuals. Rather we can harness our inner futurists and lead in the creation of futures of our own design.

Fab Lab: Build 'almost anything'

“The Fab Lab program has strong connections with the technical outreach activities of a number of partner organizations, around the emerging possibility for ordinary people to not just learn about science and engineering but actually design machines and make measurements that are relevant to improving the quality of their lives.” [MIT Center for Bits and Atoms] Moreover, each Fab Lab is connected with others around the world, sharing ideas and experiences. Every Fab Lab user is required to document how they created products so that their inventions may be replicated anywhere around the world.

Yesterday afternoon, I visited the Fab Lab at Century College in Minnesota. A Fab Lab (fabrication laboratory) is a small-scale workshop with an array of computer controlled tools that cover several different length scales and various materials, and is the brainchild of MIT’s Neil Gershenfeld. The facility, faculty and institutional support for the initiative is amazing. Loaded with 3D printers, laser cutters, and other rapid prototyping and small-scale fabrication tools, allows uses to make “almost anything.”

My take on Fab Labs is that they provide school students and other members of the community with valuable expertise and resources to transform their creative ideas into tangible products … and, hopefully, meaningful outcomes and innovations. Since the Fab Labs blend social and fabrication technologies, I feel that school systems should consider either investing in the concept for every school, or collaborate actively with an institution that already has a Fab Lab.

Last November, I also had the privilege of visiting the Fab Lab hosted by the Waag Society in Amsterdam (the video in this link is worth watching). A couple of the key differences is that this Fab Lab is open to the public (at a cost), but is also integrated with the other services provided by the Waag Society (i.e., Creative Learning Lab, incubators) and its use is eligible for subsidization by the Dutch government through innovation grants.

An observation from my whirlwind tours of both facilities is that is the Minnesota-based Fab Lab seems to produce things that already exist, whereas the Dutch Fab Lab produces many new creations — things that have not existed yet. The question on my mind is, why is there a creativity gap? Is it a cultural phenomenon? Or, is it structural:

  • Is it because our education system is no longer producing many creatives (focusing instead on creating functionaries)?
  • Is it because the Dutch have access to a broader support system that draws creatives to the Fab Lab?

Or, is something else happening?

The Education Futures timeline of education

Education Futures celebrates its first five years of exploring new futures in human capital development with a timeline of the history of education from 1657-2045. This timeline provides not only a glimpse into modern education, but plots out a plausible future history for human capital development. The future history presented is intended to be edgy, but also as a conversation starter on futures for education and future thinking in human capital development.

As always, we invite your feedback and suggestions for further development! We expect many enhancements and updates to this resource in the near future.