The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

August § The Common Test / 2016-02-16 21:04:46
Robin § Unforgotten / 2016-01-08 21:19:16
MsFitNZ § Towards A Theory of Secondary Literacy / 2015-11-03 21:23:21
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 18:39:56
Jon Schultz § Bless the toolmakers / 2015-05-04 16:32:50
Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13

The very foundations

This week, as all the TED micro-dispatches migrated out from Long Beach, I had this thought:

Following all the #TED tweets is totally the Allegory of the Cave. I kinda like it. Shadows of ideas.

Now that it’s over, one big theme seems clear to me. Er, I’m not suggesting that this was actually the theme of the conference! Rather, it’s just the shadow that I glommed on to from far away:

In several different domains, what we need most is innovation at the most basic level—at the very foundations.

The big three:

Energy. I was really taken by (the shadow of) Bill Gates’s presentation on carbon and energy. The thesis is simple: we need an energy miracle! The stabilization wedges aren’t enough. Incremental improvements to existing infrastructure isn’t enough. We really need some fundamentally new technologies and processes.

Education. Sir Ken Robinson made a familiar argument about education—basically that the way we do it today is stuck in 1915. But stop a second to really think about the most radical version of this argument, and what it implies. I mean, what could be more foundational, more fabric-of-space-time than school—not just the pedagogy but the social structure? What’s more universal than high school? But no, it’s a relatively recent invention, of course—and it will get replaced by something else. This innovation actually seems the most inevitable to me. It’s not a question of if, but simply of who and how: who will articulate the new models and how will they supplant traditional school. But, take note: as with climate, the “stabilization wedges” (things like Teach for America and KIPP) are great efforts, but not truly transformational. They don’t change the foundations.

Law. This was the biggest surprise to me: Philip Howard argued that law is way too complicated. Okay, that wasn’t the surprise; the surprise was that he thinks we can actually change it. This seems to me like the hardest problem, because the foundations are deepest. I mean like 12th-century England deep. I’ve honestly never contemplated the notion that we could overhaul the way law itself is written and practiced—which says a lot, because as you know I’m generally up for rethinking and rebooting. I’m going to check out Howard’s book.


I think these three domains are all especially important and interesting because they’re all meta-domains. That is to say, they determine the playing field for many other domains, so changes here cause chain-reactions. There’s huge leverage. Change any of these, and you change the economy. You change technology. You change family structures and land-use patterns.

And that’s true for energy most of all, of course. Hoping for a miracle is not a real strategy, I know; but don’t forget that the early days of steam power, oil and electricity all had a bit of the miraculous to them. Some new energy-harvesting process, or some radically more powerful kind of battery: either could transform society. Changes in energy end up changing everything else—law and education included. How exciting is that?

(Yes, I am mostly just looking for something to occupy my brain TED-wise until they post Jane’s talk.)


It seems like in all three of these domains (and others like finance/banking), the current system has become too complex or bureaucratic to be fixed or reformed. Benefiting from simplicity and flexibility, startups will pass them up, perhaps with a variety of solutions competing at first, until one specific solution catches hold. And, in all three domains, the solutions can take root at small-scale and/or local level, often resembling the historic systems that preceded the current ones: local energy (water wheel and windmills become solar panels or unknown technology), local education (apprenticeships become online/in-person mentorships), and local law (not so sure here – something to do with shared community values as opposed to specific rules and regulations?).

I think local energy, local education, and local law are compelling ideas, but I also want to hold out the possibility that change this fundamental will require cooperation on a scale we’ve never seen before. What if the best way to meet our energy needs turns out to be orbital solar power — but only a broad consortium of the EU, US, China and India has the resources to build the necessary infrastructure? How can we evolve or revolutionize our political system to the point where that kind of buy-in from that many people becomes possible?

I think education may require similar economies of scale — although first, I think we need to reach some broad agreement about the purpose of education. Are we just trying to reproduce the elite? Bring up the next generation of technocrats? Or should education aspire to a true equality of opportunity? This makes a huge difference in what institutions end up looking like; compare a place like Trinity Washington University with Harvard or Yale.

Incidentally, WorldChanging also had a good post about Gates’ presentation and what it means:

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