Saturday, October 22, 2005

John Smart in the Library of Babel

Whenever John Smart visits I am curious which of my books he will look at. I collect books on history, technology, science, sociology, politics, philosophy—anything to help me understand how the Universe works—at a much faster pace than I read. My collection is not as large as Jorge Luis Borge’s Library of Babel, which includes all books that could be written, but I’m working on it.

With so much treasure at hand, I am limited by time and my reflexive desire to luxuriate in the ideas (rather than skim). Smart is visiting this weekend for the Foresight Conference, so I am tempted to invisibly spray my bookshelves so I can return with a blacklight (or other magic from CSI) to trace his path through my books.

The Second Curve: Managing the Velocity of Change by Ian Morrisson was pulled from the shelf. That fits with our conversation about experience curves from Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near, developing a graduate program in “technology roadmapping,” and Future Salons in high schools and eventually middle schools to prepare young people to think about the future in terms of decades and more. Technology roadmapping is an approach to planning that combines scenario “what if” techniques with technology trends “what probably will be” (S-curves and exponential curves from The Singularity is Near).

The graduate program could first appear at the forward-looking University of Advancing Technology, and I see a possible connection with the Information Systems Management program at UCSC, newly directed by KnowledgeContext advisor Suresh Lodha. ISM, renamed ISTM to include technology, has an undergraduate program and is developing a graduate one. At the high school level, he pointed me to an existing foresight development program in many high schools across the country: the Future Problem Solving Program.

The Santa Cruz Future Salon is nearing birth. I’ve been meeting with the newly-formed Santa Cruz Futurists, a UCSC student group. This university and this region have many thoughtful, foresightful, brilliant people I’d like to interact with. It will be good to have a locus. Connecting back to high schools, the UCSC group showed interest in eventually helping local high schools form their own Future Salons.

Friday, October 21, 2005

All the world's knowledge in a brick

A New Yorker cartoon from between 1975 and 1985 captioned a brick with “Four hundred selections of the world’s finest orchestral music, over one thousand full-color reproductions of mankind’s greatest paintings and sculpture, and two hundred and thirty-one timeless classics of western literature compacted into a two-by-three-by-six-inch brick.”

Twenty or thirty years ago that was funny because there was no way to squeeze that much information into such a small space and, more important, no way to get it out. That left the hypothetical brick as a wondrous technological achievement without any utility.

Today we would wonder why such a brick need be so large. But even as we create technology that could put that much information and more into a postage-stamp-sized flash drive, we still face the difficulty of finding our way through vast, complex, and interrelated information. One innovative way to explore the history of innovation and science is being developed by the Knowledge Web, a project inspired and guided by James Burke, author of Connections, The Day The Universe Changed, The Axemaker’s Gift, The Pinball Effect, Twin Tracks, and (not surprisingly) The Knowledge Web.

I had visited the website a year ago, but found more promise than function. Last week I met Patrick McKercher, who self-effacingly describes himself as the janitor of the Knowledge Web, but this really means the leader of about 800 contributors. Patrick showed me behind the scenes to an interface still under development. As a fan of Burke’s Connections style (referenced in my book Technology Challenged), I was fascinated. A database of people, places, technologies, concepts, and events drove a presentation of any of those with links to many more. The web’s hyperlink was made for this manner of navigation. In seconds Patrick traversed a half-dozen connected events. He showed me what looked like Google Earth, explaining that it had been developed long before Google's recent debut of their technology, and that it showed areas of innovative activity (as Google shows roads or schools).

Yet to be developed would be the ability to hover over, say, China and then roll back the years looking for volcanoes of innovative activity. Freeze a period, perhaps when the Treasure Fleets were sailing the world (using technology like sealed bulkheads not to be found on European ships for another four centuries), and then fly around the world in that time period, looking for other hot spots. All the information from Burke’s books will be (or perhaps already is) in the database, but that leaves plenty of room for more. They are looking at the viability of wikis for spreading the net even wider.

I hope the behind the scenes magic that Patrick revealed will soon show up on the public Knowledge Web. When Patrick tells me, I will blog it.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Technological literacy

Welcome to the first KnowledgeContext blog. The mission of this nonprofit corporation is improving young people's understanding of the context of technology. The greater context is technological literacy, and that’s what this blog will be about, ranging from formal updates of KnowledgeContext activities to my own musings on current events as seen through the lens of technological literacy. I hope this will start conversations.

Say, what is “technological literacy”? William Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, put it well in Technically Speaking:

There is a major difference between
technological competence and technological literacy.
Literacy is what everyone needs.
Competence is what a few people need
in order to do a job or make a living.
And we need both.

In my view, “Technological literacy is understanding and evaluating our tools; technological competency is knowing how to operate them.” Technological literacy is important for many reasons, as we all make a multitude of choices that are based on or influenced by technology. Being able to understand and evaluate means we can make informed, conscious decisions. If this strikes you as a bit mundane, then consider this quote from Carl Sagan:

It might be a familiar progression, transpiring on many worlds—
a planet, newly formed, placidly revolves around its star;
life slowly forms; a kaleidoscopic procession of creatures evolves;
intelligence emerges which, at least up to a point,
confers enormous survival value; and then technology
is invented…In a flash, they create world-altering con-trivances.
Some planetary civilizations see their way through,
place limits on what may and what must not be done,
and safely pass through the time of perils.
Others, not so lucky or so prudent, perish.

Somewhere on the spectrum from “individuals being empowered with critical thinking” to “a populace that can choose life over extinction” you may find a reason to believe in the value of technological literacy.