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Cheating the death of imagination: Teaching the unknowable

The idea of a Technological Singularity has been discussed and debated intensely since the early 1990s. Coined by Vernor Vinge and popularized by Ray Kurzweil, the idea is that as technologies evolve, technologies improve, costs decrease; and, in turn, the process of technological evolution advances and speeds itself up, creating a J-curve of exponential, accelerating change. Eventually, the J-curve hits an inflection point, and change begins to occur at timescales that seem nearly instantaneous. This is the Technological Singularity.

At Education Futures, in our work to help guide governments and organizations, we’ve looked hard at what this means to humans and human systems – in particular with regard to how we will learn and work in the future. In this frame, the Technological Singularity also represents the point at which change occurs so rapidly that the human mind cannot imagine what will happen next. Moreover, technological change facilitates social change (and vice-versa). We need to prepare for rapidly-occurring, intense periods of social, cultural, and economic transformation.

The Technological Singularity represents the limit of human imagination.

It is important to note that the J-curve of accelerating change is graphed independently of scale. There is not a standard measurement of change, and there is no measurement of time. We can look at illustrative examples for correlates, such as the growth of microprocessor computing power under Moore’s Law, but the idea of a Technological Singularity is subjective to the human experience.

Herein lies the rub: We are all very different. We have differing abilities to cope with change, to imagine new futures, to communicate, to solve problems, use resources wisely, and so forth. We cannot expect to experience ‘the’ Technological Singularity together. Rather, we should prepare to experience many individual singularities, as individuals, groups, and as a society. Depending on who we are and the contexts in which we are placed, we will hit the limits of our imagination – our singularities – at different times and under different circumstances. Industries are transforming (and disappearing!) at different rates and at different times, communities are shifting at independent and co-dependent paces, and individuals and families are under increasing pressure to stay relevant.

Humans are not afraid of change, but we fear the unknown. When we hit the limits of our imaginations, we push back toward the knowable, often with very ugly consequences. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the state-sponsored fake news phenomenon, and the rise of slavery advocate Roy Moore in Alabama – all inconceivable a decade ago – serve as examples that humans are prone to a retreat toward bigotry, ignorance, and hate when confronted with uncertainty. Like the followers of Ned Ludd worked to sabotage the industrial movement in the 19th century, these socially regressive Neo-Luddites subvert technological change to regress society toward an imagined past, no matter how horrible, that presents themselves with a sense of certainty.

A community cannot progress technologically while sabotaging itself socially. While our singularities may be unavoidable, we can at least learn how to cope with them by learning to embrace the unknown. This, at the forefront, requires a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity from all of us.

Our schools, which are designed to prepare youth for static futures, need to be urgently repurposed to prepare all of society for the unknowable. Imagination, creativity, and innovation, together with support for greater agency and self-efficacy must underpin serious efforts to achieve meaningful outcomes for all learners. We must balance core content knowledge with soft skills such as simulational thinking, knowledge production, technology, intercultural communication, critical and multi-paradigmatic thinking, focused imagination, developed intuition, emotional intelligence, and systems design.

Are you ready to take the dive into teaching and learning for the unknowable? Continue on with our series on invisible learning:


2017: Year of the Mule

In previous postings over the New Year, I shared my predictions for the upcoming 365 days. It was always a mix of good ol’ prognostication with sprinkles of hope — and sometimes acknowledges the stagnation we experience with the slow pace of educational change. They always reflected progress: the central idea that we are building better futures. “Progress” in that we learn from our mistakes, try new things, and move forward. “Progress” in improving education for all of us. 2017 is different. This is the Year of the Mule.

By the Mule, I mean Donald Trump. Fans of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series will recognize the Mule as an anomaly – a tyrant, warlord, and manipulator. He is a wildcard, pushing unpredictability onto the fate of humanity.

I have had a hard time accepting the outcomes of the election in the U.S. I believe it can be argued that nothing is more political than education, and so it came as a big shock to me when Trump and a basket of extreme right-wingers were elected into office.

My first reaction was one of denial. Maybe I somehow crossed over in Star Trek’s mirror universe – you know, the one where Spock has an evil goatee. Where everybody is aggressive, mistrustful, and opportunistic. The universe that reflected the worst of what we could become as individuals and as a society1. Surely, I thought, an outcome like this would not be possible in my America.

But, it did, and that really upset me. How could this have happened? Why didn’t young people, who should care about their future, come out to vote? What did I do wrong? I was angry and frustrated, especially at myself for not doing better.

The election results dropped like an anvil. The presidency is being taken over by a narcissist, truly scary people were elected to Congress, and these people will approve Trump’s picks for his cabinet and the Supreme Court. There’s no room to bargain. This power grab will be swift and absolute.

And this makes me sad. It’s not about having ‘my people’ elected to office or having this ‘my way.’ This is about the decades of progress we have accomplished and the fundamental future of our country. I need to face the reality the dream of American Democracy is dead — or at least on hold for a while — in favor of an oligarchy. Donald Trump is appointing the wealthiest cabinet in history: They control more wealth than a third of the country. His nominee for the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is a billionaire who is hell-bent on dismantling public schools. She advocates for dismantling public education and supports programs that advocate for child labor as service to God. This is not 21st century education. This is not a reflection that we’ve learned from our past. This is not a reflection that the research we’ve conducted over the years have any value. This is a rollback to the 19th century.

It’s going to be rough for at least the next four years. Especially for those of us that work in or with our public schools. I want to be able to say, “it’s going to be okay.” But, I am having a hard time convincing myself. The territory we are entering is truly unknown — and not in a good way. In the hands of a narcissist, who indignantly chooses to go to war against a Broadway musical and a late night entertainment program instead of working on real issues, I cannot imagine how bad this real-life episode of Celebrity Apprentice will get.

The Year of the Mule will be frightfully unpredictable. With top leadership driven by narcissism, distrust of science, greed, and paranoia, hidden under a veil of nationalism, we can only fear for the worst for public education.

As Sen. Paul Wellstone said, “we all do better when we all do better.”

We will continue to create quality research. We will continue to have bold conversations. We will continue to share what we’ve learned. We will work twice as hard to ensure better education futures for all. We will continue to develop new approaches to research, organizational planning, and building a collective capacity to transform learning. We will advocate for all kids.

The Sun will rise again.