Learning for the future: fundamentals

Your stick

Here’s a first try on the importance of fundamentals in learning.

Imagine you are holding a long stick – better yet, a sword or lightsaber – representing your ability to make a difference in the world.

The far end of the stick is the part that you’ll make the greatest impact with. It moves fastest, reaches furthest, hits hardest.

But it’s useless if you don’t know who or what you’re fighting for (and/or against).

And everything the end of the sword does depends on what happens at the handle. You need a good grip, and the part closest to the handle needs to be – I think – the strongest part of the sword (armourers?).

A small change in the person holding the sword, a small movement of the hilt, makes a huge difference to what happens at the pointy end.

The rest of the sword is just an amplifier.

Anything yet

Here’s the intuition:

  1. New technologies – including ideas, techniques and ways of thinking, as well as physical tools – very often come from the creative recombination* of old technologies
  2. There are more people in the world than ever before, and more of these people – an increasingly diverse set of people – have access to more technologies than ever before
  3. These same people are networked to more people than ever before. Each person who joins the network increases the number of potential connections – and the value of the network – exponentially.
  4. So we have more ideas mixing in a wider range of minds and environments than ever before, and far more potential for good ideas to be realised and to spread…
  5. … and as of about now, only about half of the world’s population is online.
  6. It takes longer than we think – perhaps a generation – for new technologies to really embed and make a noticeable difference.
  7. Conclusion: it might feel like we’re on the far side of the digital revolution – that computers have happened, the internet has happened, the world has changed – but it’s only just beginning.

We haven’t seen anything yet.

*: I first noticed this phrase in Tim O’Reilly‘s WTF: What’s the Future? but the idea runs through Walter Isaacson‘s The Innovators and Kevin Kelly‘s What Technology Wants to name a few. See WtF: Technology and You for more references.

Structure Counts: Information Architecture reading list and who’s who

I know almost nothing about Information Architecture, but I’ve been thinking a lot about structuring information recently.

Here’s the metaphor: Jacques Carelman‘s famous Coffee pot for Masochists.


See Impossible Objects at It’s Nice That


All the pieces are there, but it just. doesn’t. work.

We’ve all used badly put together tools, instruction manuals, software, doors. At best they’re slower and frustrate us. At worst, they cause us to lose out or harm us.

It’s the same with ideas. Whether we’re communicating simply to transfer knowledge or for emotional impact (your priorities may vary, but if you want to do either you really need to be doing both), the way they’re put together counts.

Let’s do a Zinnser on that last paragraph.

It’s the same with ideas: the way they’re put together counts. The structure of your ideas is crucial whether you’re communicating to transfer knowledge or to create an emotional impact, and really, if you’re serious about doing either you really need to be doing both.

Better? I think it’s a bit better. Must try harder.

So without further ado, here’s my Information Architecture Reading list:

Information Architecture: For the Web and Beyond, 4th Ed

 by Louis RosenfeldPeter Morville and Jorge Arango


Love that polar bear

The introduction and first chapter that are included in the kindle sample are pretty compelling, but I can’t find an short quotation from it that doesn’t make it sounds boring, so I won’t.

Oh okay, I think this bit is cool:

[The] abundance and pervasiveness [of information] makes our lives better in many ways, but it also introduces new challenges. With so much information available in so many places, it can sometimes be difficult to cut through the noise to find the information you need and understand it once you have found it.

Information architecture (IA) is a design discipline that is focused on making information findable and understandable. Because of this, it is uniquely well suited to address these challenges. IA allows us to think about problems through two important perspectives: that information products and services are perceived by people as places made of information, and that these information environments can be organised for optimum findability and understandability.

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It’s possible that I like this book because it makes me feel like I’m in the matrix.

Intertwingled: Information Changes Everything

by Peter Morville

Big in Japan:

I’ve started this, and referenced Peter before. I thought I’d shared a link to a talk about the book on youtube, but can’t find the post, so here it is:

.

The Information: A History, a Theory,  a Flood

by James Gleick

So far: fascinating. Need to think more about it to say how it’s helped and changed my thinking – watch out for a future post.

Letting Go of the Words: Writing Web Content that Works 2nd Ed

by Ginny Redish

On the strength of the couple of chapters that Ginny shares for free on her website I paid £25 for this. It’s worth it for the first few chapters alone.

Don’t Make Me Think

by Steve Krug

It’s brilliant and funny. More from me about him here.

The Design of Everyday Things

by Don Norman

Look! It’s the coffee pot. This book is how I know about the coffee pot for masochists in the first place. It’s supposed to be brilliant, and it’s good so far.

Information: A Very Short Introduction

by Luciano Floridi

Stumbled across it on Amazon just now. Middling reviews, but Floridi directs a lab and straddles multiple chairs at Oxford; has well appointed office; wears tweed and high cheekbones). Might be a good starting point?

Two Websites

A Brief History of Information at The Register. At least one of my best tech friends reads this site often, so I expect this article is good. It’s on the list.

historyofinformation.com

HistoryofInformation.com is designed to help you follow the development of information and media, and attitudes about them, from the beginning of records to the near present. Containing annotated references to discoveries, developments of a socialscientific, or technological nature, as well as references to physical books, documents, artifactsart works, and to websites and other digital media, it arranges, both chronologically and thematically, selected historical examples and selected recent developments of the methods used to recorddistribute, exchange, organizestore, and search information. The database allows you to approach the topics in a wide variety of ways.

Pow.

Right, almost time to go – quit while you’re only five books behind and all that…

Surprise Bonus

Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places

by Jorge Arango

This guy is supposed to be great, and I like the cover. He’s an actual (bricks and mortar) architect who became an information architect

Deep literacy: what it takes

Put aside AI and machine learning for a minute, and ask instead:

“What does it take to equip a human to be self-teaching?”

As a starting point – how many lines of code does it take to make a child who can read with fluency and ease and with critical understanding, and who loves reading, and is motivated to read and learn more?

We just tidied my kids’ bookcase, and I took a moment – okay, more than a moment – to count the books.

bookcase with 519 books
A bookcase on life’s front-line (before we tidied)

519

There are 519 books on this book case (including those on the floor and nearby that should be on it).

There are picture books, stories, touch-and-feel books, comics, small novels, catalogues, phonics books, kids bibles, magazines, science books, poetry, stories and non-fiction books about other cultures, lots of books about cars, even a couple of hand-written and coloured books by his great aunt, and a couple of notebooks with short and often unfinished stories that he’s written himself.

He’s had them read and re-read to him by a range of people, had pictures pointed out, words explained, sounds and meanings spelled out, questions asked.

He’s listened, looked, laughed, frowned, cried on occasion, got fed up, desperately begged to have them read to him, been indifferent.

And he’s read them repeatedly by himself: browsed their pages, poured over the pictures, flicked through them, gone back to favourite bits again and again, skipped the endings or skipped to the endings, tried out the words, phrases and attitudes, in the real world come to us with questions, absorbed our answers, disagreed with our interpretations, shared with us bits that he’s loved, come to us with things that have scared him, made up stories just like them, and new stories of his own.

250

Did I mention the 250 leveled reading books – the books specifically designed to help kids learn to read – that live upstairs?

shelf of books

Or the books we’ve borrowed from friends or read at their houses, the books read at or borrowed from libraries?

Or the ebooks?

He’s probably read about a thousand books.*

190,000 and the less-than-one-percent

But it’s not just about numbers – which books he’s read is as important as how many.  Most of these books are a custom selection, just for him, made by someone with his current tastes and future growth in mind (my wife is something of a book-picking phenomenon) from the roughly 190,000 books aimed at children under 12 that are available to him in our culture.**

So the selection on these shelves represents the tip of a huge pyramid – roughly the best, most engaging and most appropriate 0.5% of books written for people like him.

Don’t forget the wrapper

That – the books themselves and the wrapper of love, support, enthusiasm, the culture of curiosity and valuing education, the relative affluence, and living in an economy that makes books like these cheaper than ever before if you bide your time and look out for deals – is what it takes to produce a solid reader at age seven or eight.

*I’ll try to estimate how many words this represents another time
**My point of reference for this was the number of books available on Amazon.co.uk – see this post for more information

Education for the future: what do our kids need?

How do we prepare our kids for the future?

There have been places and times where the rate of change has been faster than it is now. There have been wars, invasions, revolutions, disasters.

But I think people are right when they say that the rate of change in the world as a whole is faster than ever, and getting faster.

So the question becomes, how do we prepare our kids a future that’s becoming less and less knowable as change accelerates?

And I think the answer is the same as it always has been. The best – the only – way to prepare our kids for any future is by showing them a vision of a flourishing life, and by equipping them with the best tools we have to achieve it, and with the wisdom to use those tools well.

Steve Blank on the Apple Watch and a revolution in healthcare

Steve Blank‘s recent post on the Apple Watch (The Apple Watch – Tipping Point for Healthcare) is another great analysis of how technological developments and business model innovation can come together to create huge value for society – and the companies that create them.

He identifies at least seven conditions that the new Apple watch should be able to monitor – from blood pressure and glucose levels to fall monitoring and UV exposure – and unpacks just how useful the huge data set from ill and healthy people could be in improving medical diagnosis and monitoring.

The most interesting part for me was on how this opportunity builds on Apple’s existing business incrementally while potentially opening the door to a huge – a really, really huge – new market:

Unlike other medical device companies, Apple’s current Watch business model is not dependent on getting insurers to pay for the watch. Today consumers pay directly for the Watch. However, if the Apple Watch becomes a device eligible for reimbursement, there’s a huge revenue upside for AppleWhen and if that happens, your insurance would pay for all or part of an Apple Watch as a diagnostic tool.

Pow.

You can listen to the blog in podcast form here.

Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 5: Own your Assets

This is the fifth post in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Build and own an asset that’s difficult for other people to reproduce

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This is an interesting one in the non-profit world, because an attitude of generosity – of wanting to see problems solved more than we want to build empires – suggests that we should welcome others working in our ‘market’ as allies rather than competitors.

But there’s an important point about attitude here – we should always be building assets, and the most valuable ones we can build will always be those that are difficult for others to reproduce.

These assets might be products – in our case, curriculum and reading books. They might be services – delivering teacher training.
They might be processes – the ways that the pieces of what you do fit together to create value.
They might be things like reputation, trust, and relationships.

Investing in building any of these assets – from building a physical product to making a spec or howto for a process, to training your team – is always worth the time – a gift to your future self.

Here’s a thought experiment that links back to this post from a few weeks ago. Imagine that each central piece of your (charitable) business model was widely available at low cost (what if you open sourced it?). In the absence of each piece, what about your organisation means that people would still want to work with you? How would your clients answer this? How about your donors?

Intelligences

Imagine you are in charge of developing an artificial intelligence.

Your AI has the ability to move into the world and mingle with human beings, all the while augmenting both its physical capability and its intelligence.

In time, your AI will certainly be able to perform many tasks that would help the people around it. It will be smarter, stronger, and faster than most of them.

In time, it will certainly also have the capability to kill people – tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of people. It will be well equipped to cause environmental destruction on a huge scale.

Would you create such an AI? What would you teach it? What would you want it to know about people and about being in the world?

Now imagine a network of such AIs, interacting, learning, gaining new abilities and changing the world.

Now look at our children.

Hybrids (4): Intersections and you

This is the fourth of a series on the role of hybrids in innovation. This is where I put the ideas of the previous posts to work using the principle of ‘combinatorial innovation’ to look for fertile soil for cross-breeds between my work in educational development and other areas.

Translation and Contextualisation

In a way, this whole post is about these two things. Can you take information – ideas, tools and resources – and make them useful and accessible in a new place? Where do you have the local knowledge – local to place, or a set of people, or a field of activity – that is needed so that things from another place can be useful to others?

Open standards

The worldwide web is possible because of a shared, consensual, non-propriety and completely open agreement about how to mark up text for display in your computer’s web browser (HTML).

Could an open standard help people and products to work together in your industry? Could you be the one to start writing and popularising it?

I wonder if education in Indonesia could benefit from a set of open standards:

  • For desirable outcomes for education as a whole
  • For standards and competencies at different stages of children (and adults’) development in different subjects (e.g. literacy, mathematics) that could allow ‘interoperability’ between educational resources made by different groups
  • For what makes a good lesson, curriculum, or resource (e.g. suggested standards to guide writers of children’s books)
  • For how to design the above
  • For how to train teachers to use the above

I’ve got lots of questions about how far consensus can go on these things, but I think there’s a lot of potential.

Further Reading

Open source

More than 85% of the world’s smartphones run on the Android operating system. Android is a version of Linux, a free operating system that is developed by a community of volunteers and professionals across the world. Being open source means that not only is the software free to use, but the source code – the bits of computer program used to make Android – are available to all to study, edit and upgrade. Volunteers gain so much from the system, that when they improve a piece of the software (often to solve a problem that they face), they’re happy to feed the improvements back into it, creating more value for everyone in the process.

Can you ‘open source’ all or part of what you do, creating value for everyone in the process?

Digital

Perhaps this should have been first on the list. What do cheaper computing, cheaper data and storage, cheaper video, cheaper sensors of all sorts – mean to you? What would it mean if they became free – because relatively, they are becoming so.

What do you need to know, what skills do you need to develop, so you can make the most of these, and make them useful to others?

Physical

What’s getting faster, cheaper, easier to use? For example…

  • Physically transporting goods from one place to another in a world of driverless cars and maybe, drones
  • Electronic products
  • Print-on-demand

Virtual

What can you do online – maybe even automatically – that previously had to be done in person?

Actual

In a world where we can do so many things online, what are the things that really are better when we’re together in person? Why are they better in person, and how can we make them better still?

AI

Of course AI. I know almost nothing about it, but finding the people a level or two above me is high on the list. It might not be for you, but make sure that you know that for a fact.

Likewise blockchain.

Information. Architecture?

A lot of these things come down to information being more abundant, and more accessible than ever before. Is there value in looking deeply at how your field hangs together, and how it intersects with other fields, and clarifying things – for you and everyone else?

This is fun – this video with Peter Morville is a decent place to start.

Tools and Howtos

Can you make and share tools to help other people do what you do? Can you teach people how to use them?

Thanks to…

It goes without saying that Kevin Kelly, Tim O’Reilly – and everyone mentioned in my earlier WTF post are the major sources of these ideas.

Hybrids (3): when ideas breed

Kevin Kelly has a lot to say about innovation as combination. Here’s a good riff:

Most new ideas and new inventions are disjointed ideas merged. Innovations in the design of clocks inspired better windmills, furnaces engineered to brew beer turned out to be useful to the iron industry, mechanisms invented for organ-making were applied to looms, and mechanisms in looms became computer software.

“In technology, combinatorial evolution is foremost, and routine,” says economist Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology. “Many of a technologies parts are shared by other technologies, so a great deal of development happens automatically as components improve in other uses ‘outside’ the host technology.”

These combinations are like mating. They produce a hereditary tree of ancestral technologies. Just as in Darwinian evolution, tiny improvements are rewarded with more copies, so that innovations spread steadily through the population. Older ideas merge and hatch idea’-lings.

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants