The Techno-Human Condition

Technologies inhabit two rather independent realities. First there is the reality of the immediate effectiveness of the technology itself as it is used by those trying to accomplish something. This is a level 1 technology (ie. a jet airplane). The other reality is that of systemic complexity – level 2 technology includes subsystems that when acting together create emergent behaviour that is often unpredictable and infinitely more complicated. (ie. the air transportation system)

From The Techno-Human Condition:

At level 2 one gets phenomena such as “lock-in” which occurs when economic, cultural, and coupled technology systems coalesce around a particular way of doing something – as we see in the automobile industry, where hydrogen fuel cell propulsion technology is feasible today, but the energy-supply infrastructure necessary to support it is not. The gasoline internal-combustion engine is thus “locked-in” by the economic interests of the suppliers of petroleum fuels, the physical infrastructure of the pipelines and gas stations, the interdependency of gasoline internal-combustion engines and gasoline, and the cultural role of fossil-fuel consuming automobiles.

“Lock-in” of course, does not imply that technological change is impossible – merely that it strongly tends to follow the paths that reflect past system states. This concept of “Lock-in” relates directly to the current state of education reform. 

Education reform is a hot topic precisely because everyone has a vested interest in education and claim varying levels of experience and expertise in either attending or working in the system. What is apparent however is that no other industry ignores it’s research more than education. Building upon the works of progressive educators such as Dewey, Piaget, Papert and Heppell, we know what education should look like – and it looks very different from the rigid, timetabled, standardized approach advocated in most areas today. Whilst there is pockets of reform and innovation happening in education sectors around the world, the education system, as a level 2 technology, is “locked in” by the economic and emotional interests of policy makers and commercial stakeholders. The inertia inherent with system-wide reform efforts and policy changes makes me think that we may be wasting time with the continual dialogue about the “schools we need.” Instead of waiting for policy-makers to make decisions, those involved in education at a local level just need to follow the Channel 4 slogan, “Do it first, make trouble, inspire change.”

The Techno-Human Condition is a challenging look at the implications of the exponential growth and developments in technology and the implications that this has for society. The book explores the possibility of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies such as neuropharmaceuticals, nanotechnology, genetic modifications, prenatal dietary interventions and computer-brain interfaces, to eliminate ageing and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities.                                        

Highly recommended.

Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard

“For things to change, somebody somewhere has to start acting differently. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s your team. Picture that person (or people). Each has an emotional Elephant side and a rational Rider side. You’ve got to reach both. And you’ve also got to clear the way for them to succeed.”

On the plane to New York I got the chance to read Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Dan and Chip Heath. This book is relevant for anyone leading change in their own school, no matter how large or small that change is. It is based on the premise that ‘change is hard’ and ‘people hate change’ and delves into case studies of people who have successfully led change initiatives in industry, business, education and their personal lives. The book highlights the fact that no matter what change you are trying to lead, successful change agents share some important characteristics and successful change initiatives share a common pattern. In short, to lead change, people must do three things:

Direct the Rider

  • Follow the Bright Spots
  • Script the Critical Moves
  • Point to the Destination

Motivate the Elephant

  • Find the Feeling
  • Shrink the Change
  • Grow the People

Shape the Path

  • Tweak the Environment
  • Build Habits
  • Rally the Herd

For a more detailed account, the Heath brothers have made a downloadable overview of this change framework available from The book itself, includes a detailed section on overcoming obstacles – relevant for educators who encounter problems as they fight for change (I think we have all heard at least once – “Why should I change? This is the way I have been doing it for years….”), along with advice about overcoming them. The Framework makes sense. Too often we only focus our change efforts on the Rider, without trying to motivate the Elephant – ultimately the Rider gets tired and the change effort fails and the status quo remains. This book has given me a new perspective – I highly recommend it.

My first day in New York, I got a chance to spend some time with the Institute of Play team and visit the Quest2Learn school. This is an innovative games-based learning school which currently has 6th and 7th graders with a new intake of 8th graders for the start of the next school year. The focus is on an integrated curriculum, systems thinking, reasoning and deduction, where students get to learn key academic content whilst involved in game play and games design. A unit of work is called a mission, and within each mission there are quests as students respond to real-world and fantasy stimuli in order to solve problems that are personally meaningful. I will write a more detailed account of this visit in the coming days as this approach really needs to be shared far and wide – great collaboration between students, teachers, curriculum experts and game designers and developers. In the meantime, check out SMALLab, something the Quest2Learn school makes extensive use of in some of their missions.

SMALLab @ Arizona State University – 2009 from aisling kelliher on Vimeo.