Sunday, August 9, 2009

A New Beginning

I got an email from Let's Stop and Think drawing my attention to a post which reads in part:
Currently there are enormous issues to deal with. The economy, unemployment, government and corporate corruption, health care, and the environment are such issues.
I agree that those are enormous issues; however, I think we're facing much more pressing ones. The economy, corruption, healthcare, and the environment are the wave currently crashing on the beach. The waves behind them are bigger.

Yesterday I read the following on Slashdot:
The college where I work has decided to forego ordering a textbook for the computer class that I teach this fall. Does anyone know of a free, open-source textbook for basic computer literacy concepts (overview of hardware, software, operating systems, and file systems)?
I've followed the Open Source movement for many years. I've spoken at conferences about using Open Source software. What the Slashdotter is asking about is Open Content—a book, probably in electronic form, that is freely available.

There were many responses to his request.

Some authors are apparently willing to write without remuneration. That's not surprising; after all, there are a lot of bloggers doing the same thing. Wikipedia rivals and, in some areas, exceeds the best encyclopedias you can buy. It's available for free.

What the Slashdotter may not understand is that his lectures can be replaced by recorded ones and it's possible to automate his tests (Brainbench comes to mind). In other words, I see very little value add from teachers and professors. In the unaccredited St. Louis City School district, I see none. While recorded lectures will not work for all age groups (young children need teachers) and all subjects (you probably need hands on instruction to learn the oboe), we could jettison a huge part of education spending, to say nothing of mitigating future pension obligations, simply by recording the best teachers and firing the other million.

Somewhat related to that is the question: what is the carbon footprint of a school/college/university? I'm not a global warmonger, so I don't particularly care; however, it strikes me as odd that we have two places for almost every person: home and work/school. As more and more people work and learn from home, property values will decline.

However, we need to learn a lot more before working from home becomes a norm. As a former boss of mine remarked back in 1999:
You're walking down the hall and you meet someone. You talk. Work gets done. We don't yet know how to facilitate that hallway meeting.
He's right, for now. Tools like twitter and Facebook are beginning to change that. The killer business app for Facebook will be a collection of tools that 1) filter your content so that you only see co-workers and work related material, 2) prioritizes the content so that you see your project's tasks, then your department's, then your company's, 3) automates your Facebook updates so that others are aware of your progress without you doing anything (other than your work), and 4) manages complex work-flows like document revision and sign-off, financial reconciliation, etc.

Working from home will have little impact on manufacturing, retail, and restaurants. Nonetheless, the impact from other industries combined with all those unpaid authors and unemployed teachers will drive down GDP and tax revenues.

Why do we have libraries? It used to be that librarians knew where to find obscure bits of knowledge. Today, you're probably better off Googling for it. Libraries have added services to remain relevant: internet connected computers, book readings for children, etc. However, the ability to keep a library on a Kindle is almost here—once they workout that ironic Orwellian bug.

This transition is not limited to government funded operations. Record labels and journalism are the obvious commercial interest that are facing implosion. A talented band could make a go at a career with a blog and an Ebay store to sell their music. Other industries will also be effected. It seems likely that banks and other financial institutions will need very few employees in the future. My bank has one location and I've never been there. About two years ago, they began accepting scanned checks—go to their website, scan the check, and it's deposited. When I last refinanced my house, I met my mortgage broker at a restaurant—even without a secretary to direct me to his office, we were able to complete the transaction.

Journalism... I've blogged about it before, journalism is in transition. Thousands of years ago, if you wanted something written down, you hired a scribe. Today, we're all scribes. I see the same thing happening with journalism. It will be painful for journalists, but I believe it will, eventually, be good for society. The crossroads we're standing at is best described in an article by Clay Shirky about newspapers and thinking the unthinkable. Television and radio will face similar problems.

And this is why I think the waves behind those now crashing on the beach are of greater concern. We're standing at 1500 AD. Our printing press is technology: cell phones, cameras, computers, networking. As Shirky writes:
Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?
That is our world—the emerging second world.

No comments: