[Howard Rheingold. Photo by Oscar Espiritusanto]
Note: This is part part 2 of two parts. You can see Part 1, Where we've been here.
This title is just slightly misleading. Howard really offered no predictions of where people and technology is heading in the Conversation Age, and I didn't try to get him him to make forecasts.
While his writings have displayed more than a little prescience, he is more of a thinker than a futurist. But he did offer some interesting observations about at least one emergent technology and some useful insights into his students at Stanford and UC Berkeley and from there you might draw some conclusions yourself.
Q. You were an early champion of virtual reality, which may not have taken off as quickly as you forecast. Do you think it is still likely to evolve? How do you see it being incorporated into social media moving forward?
You win some, you lose some. I can't really take credit for being prescient without taking blame for foreseeing events that have yet to come to pass -- may never come to pass. To be fair to myself, I did note that truly photorealistic immersive virtual worlds would not exist until sufficient affordable computation power came along, some time in the early 21st century. And people like Jeremy Bailenson at Stanford have been doing some extremely valuable social science research using today's version of virtual reality.
There are some fundamental unsolved problems. If you can move your perceptions around a limitless virtual world, what keeps your body from slamming into the wall when you try to run toward the horizon? In regard to social media, I've spent enough time in Second Life to see exactly how seductive to a small portion of the population an immersive virtual world with photorealistic or Photoshop unrealistic avatars that can not only navigate and communicate but build and exchange landscapes, buildings, objects with behaviors can be.
But it's work to create an avatar and learn how to navigate it and where the action is. In an infinite landscape, human actitivies seem to take place far apart. So I don't see such worlds as ever becoming universal.
It's NOT the "future of the Web."
However, I do see them getting less centralized and easier to use, and people will start inventing uses for them that we don't foresee right now, and the population of enthusiasts will grow from a tiny cult following to a small cyber subculture. There are things you can do in such environments that you can't do elsewhere.
[At right--giant sunflowers from Howard's garden. Those suckers are 16 feet tall.]
Q.I’ve argued that social media is disrupting all institutions, business, government, education, health, etc. Do you agree or disagree? What is your vision for how technology will make this a better/world for everyday people 10 or 100 years hence.
I think "better world" is an
unrealistically rosy way of framing the present situation. We're in deep shit.
Doug Engelbart and Vannevar Bush saw it coming half a century ago, and the Whole
Earth Catalog started looking at planetary-scale systemic problems decades ago
-- which is part of what drew me to it. We have ancient human problems of
tribalism, hatred, and atrocity meeting modern armaments, including WMDs.
Isn't it evident from what I've written that I've been immersed in experiencing, influencing, learning about, and communicating about this disruption precisely because I think it's the single most fundamental critical uncertainty of the present age?
We have global warming, loss of species and habitat, collapse of key populations like salmon, the energy and food needs of the world population, emergent epidemics. I'd say that the main goal of the human species ought to be our own survival. The next 50 years are going to require a lot of problem-solving. The most powerful tool we have are all those people.
If only enough of them could be healthy, fed, and educated enough to help us tackle those problems. Technology and social media and new knowledge about human collective action can help.
But I don't want to be quoted as saying that the
technology, the social media themselves are the linchpin. I think the way
people end up using these media, our degree of knowledge about how our literacy
is connected with a struggle between power and counter-power, the degree of
education of the people who pollute or nourish the infosphere, even plain old
fashioned netiquette -- all matter now. I am an anti-determinist.
I believe in
human agency. But there are no guarantees that democracy will win over
totalitarianism, that tools will be used to feed people, that our social and
political and economic institutions and our own minds will be able to cope with
the pace of change that our inventions have helped us bring on ourselves.
Education and learning haven't changed, but the circumstances under which they take place are radically different.
The lecture-and-test method goes back a thousand years, to the days when books were written by hand and chained to a podium, where a professor stood up and read them. In recent years, without (I strongly suspect) any real consultation among faculty about the pedagogical consequences, wireless Internet access was installed in classrooms and lecture halls around the world. For the first time, students could look up information to determine whether the professor really knew what he or she was talking about. Students can now chat and share information among themselves during lectures and if the professor is too boring, there is always Facebook or World of Warcraft.
Many professors are in denial about this, and drone on with the same lecture they've delivered for decades. Other professors make extremely bad use of technology by reading their text-laden PowerPoint slides to their students. Others simply demand their students keep their laptops closed for the duration of class.
Of course, since I
teach social media, I can neither ignore nor prohibit laptop use, so
I've taken steps to help my students become mindful of the way they
deploy their attention.
One strategy is to have only the student
co-teaching team keep their laptops open while they are helping me lead
the class; one member of the team makes notes on the wiki, sketching in
top-level headings that the other students will fill in AFTER class,
another member of the team identifies words for the lexicon and adds
them to the wiki (and again the class, as a whole, fills in the
definitions before the next class), and a third member of the team
looks up sites online and projects them (I have three screens in my
classroom at Stanford).
Another strategy -- 20% of my students are
allowed to have their laptops open at any time, but it's up to them to
self-police. I have also made video of my students from my point of
view and from theirs and have shown it to them.
profoundly, social media have enabled students to engage in
collaborative inquiry with peers, engaging in online discussions that
are no longer solo performances for the teacher, but engage other
students in digging down into issues that came up in class via forums,
collaborating with each other and me in real time through a Twitter
back channel, reflect on their learning for their own benefit and that
of classmates on their blog, and learn how to learn and compose
collaboratively via the wiki.
The technologies are not used to add contemporary appeal or techie flashiness but are affordances for a kind of learning based more in inquiry, collaboration, and discourse than on trying to detect what is going to be on the test and memorize it.I ask my students to read in advance my extensive description of what is expected of them and to commit themselves in writing to the kind of participation I ask. It has taken me five years, in close consultation with my students, to come up with a set of procedures that work. It's tremendously exciting to see the classroom come alive, and to engage students between class meetings via their blogs, the forums, and the wiki. Here's a presentation of one of our class sessions.
Q. Can you tell me what’s on college student
minds these days?
It's not easy to get into Stanford or Berkeley these days. By the time I get them, students are highly trained grade-making machines. They want to know what's on the test. They are so institutionalized that they aren't even aware of it.
For example, in my open classroom, the students come in on the first day and take chairs from stacks and arrange them -- with no direction on my part -- into rows and columns. If I don't intervene, they will do the same thing the second week, and sit in the same place they chose the first day of class.I ask them to arrange the chairs in a circle -- there is no back row to hide in in a circle. It isn't easy to overcome learned helplessness.
Students are accustomed to having knowledge delivered to them. But in an era where knowledge, media, and professions change so rapidly, storing knowledge is not adequate. Students need to learn how to learn, learn how to evaluate new media as they come along, learn how to evaluate the way they deploy their own attention in an always-on world.
They need to learn how to collaborate, how to find knowledge and how to determine whether what they have found is credible. A whole set of meta-skills are required by the times -- and traditional university education doesn't necessarily introduce those meta-skills. That's why I'm teaching, and that's why I am excited -- and when I do it right, why my students are excited -- by the opportunities afforded by technology.