Thursday, December 18, 2008

Where's My Conveyer Belt Sidewalk?

We are rapidly approaching that wondrous time of year when pundits congratulate themselves for being right on technology. I used to make pronouncements about technology quite frequently because I was an avid reader of Popular Science and a couple of other magazines that would now and again publish stories about domed cities on the moon which either looked like Marin County or a five mile in diameter dentist office waiting room (depending on whether you were reading Whole Earth Review or Popular Science). If I had another life, I would love to take up the project of analyzing our vision of the future to see what it tells us about ourselves today. It has only been in the last couple of hundred years that the western mind has been able to wrap its self around the idea that the earth might be a bit older than 10,000 years. It astounds me that people think they know enough about humanity, social systems and technology itself to make predictions 20 years out.

I had a lot of questions about the future as a child. I wanted conveyer belt sidewalks. I could tie a rope to a tree and skate board all day long. But then, do they run all night? Will they eventually squeak? Why would we need them if we are all living in elevated pods connected by monorails? We will all have personal rockets and vacation domes on the moon which brings us to the space helmets. From what I could tell there were two kinds of space helmets, the fishbowl with the vacuum cleaner hose and the one with fins which were far cooler but led to the further question: Do you really want to be in a situation where your helmet requires fins? The fishbowl always seemed fragile or at least unwieldy.  

My brother went to an alternative high school that was run by an electrical engineer and his hippie sons. I was hanging out at the local community college playing with their computers (the TRS 80). He came home one day with a floppy disk and was really excited. I told him that it was a ridiculous technology and why would someone use a proprietary disk when you could walk into any Radio Shack and by a cassette tape for the computer tape drive. I also thought that we would still be using BBSs (bulletin board systems) and that the whole http and internet thing was a fad. Why would you do that when you could upload and download hypercard stacks from a BBS?

If you really want to know how NOT to predict the future, read "The Omni Future Almanac" by the editors of the now extinct "Omni Magazine." The book was published in 1981. The writers for the magazine would take existing technology such as the laser disc, and try to extrapolate out how the technology will be used 10, 20 and 30 years out to hilarious effect. It not only makes ridiculous predictions about the future but it even makes the claim for "The Only Current Major Athletic Record That May Never Be Broken" - Beaman's 29' 2.5" long jump in the '68 Olympics. And guess what? It was broken by Mike Powell in the Tokyo World Championships in 1991 by two inches. But notice the qualifier "That May." That is an important futurist tool. Among my favorite claims are:

  1. Moving Sidewalks will not gain widespread acceptance...until the Variflex Moving Sidewalk is developed from practical use in the early 1990s. (p.48)
  2. AIDs and cancer cured in the early 1990s and a vaccine for tooth decay soon following. (p.56-57)
  3. We will have nuclear power plants orbiting the earth by the early 90s. (p.133)
  4. Health care costs will drop 20%  (no date given!). (p. 157).
  5. Their economic predictions throughout the book are a scream.
  6. There will be armies of low-cost robots performing all of our menial labor by 2000. (p.177)
All of the above predictions are variations of the techno-fantasies from the 50s. Of real interest to myself, and those legions that read this blog, is the vision of the future of education. In the cocaine addled 80s it was seen by the writers of Omni to be just another biological function. Educators will track students biological cycles for their optimum learning times (yes, this would be BIORHYTHMS for those having a flashback right now). We will also create better smart drugs to increase their learning. There is a nice Dr. Strangelove statement on p. 213 where it claims that the popularity of adult education will increase as schools become the meeting place for single adults. The book is filled with people learning by watching videos, video disks, and teletexts, etc. then taking tests and "learning." In other words, the predictions about learning do not go beyond the correspondence school vision of learning. It is important to look at these kinds of predictions because they tell us where the bumps in the road are going to be in innovation. Knowing what expectations are hampering the general public can tell us a lot about where we are not going to go.

Despite my past record of being "wrong," I have high hopes that my MS in Education will allow me future moments of tele-punditry on the 3-D ElectroTeletron. 

The cardinal rules of being a Futurist include:
  1. Keep it vague and broad ("I see an exponential increase in computer memory storage..."
  2. Make numerous contradictory predictions, trot out the winners at the end of the year
  3. Qualify everything ("Perhaps..." "Something like..." "May be...")
  4. Predict "forces of change" that will cover the tracks of predictions gone awry ("Given current conditions and rates of progress, a new vaccine will...")
  5. Wear a Nehru jacket or a black turtle neck

Monday, December 01, 2008

Concept Mapping the Unconscious

I have been reading about Matt Mullican since Dorothy Spear's New York Times article "Mapping an Imagined Order, Page by Page" from Nov. 16th. He traffics in symbols, signs, and links them together in ways quite familiar to those who use concept or mind maps. He "performs" his art by taking to the stage under hypnosis and drawing on large canvases. Of the many questions that Spears says his art posits include "how can thoughts and emotions be communicated visually?" This is a question we ask as instructional designers and artists. Mullican works in everything from notebooks to large, commissioned public works. If the work is familiar it is because there is something of his in every modern museum, and his work reveals something about how we use visual patterns to communicate. The Times piece discussed the influence of Oceanic and tribal art on Mullican but what is curious to me is that Oceanic and tribal art were also engaged in an attempt to communicate complex ideas and systems (cosmography, religious ideas, rituals, etc.). We engaged in the same activity in the work place that people have been engaged in for millennia now.