Education for the future: Key tools

Here are some tools that don’t go out of date:

  • Tools for thinking, learning and understanding (the tools that help you acquire new tools);
  • Tools for communicating and teaching (the tools that help you find and enlist others in your work, and help them to learn new tools);
  • Tools for planning, organising and leading (tools that enable you to work effectively with others);
  • Tools for making new tools (all of these tools fall into this category, but it applies to more technical skills too, from using a hammer to building a website).

Listen to the technology: Kevin Kelly and the giant copy machine

Technology often has built in biases, certain ways that it wants to be used. So the internet is the largest copy machine in the world by nature. It’s inherent in the thing. Anything that can be copied it that touches it will be copied.

So don’t fight that – work with it. Work with the fact that copies are promiscuous and it’st just going to go everywhere, it’s a superconductor for copies. You can’t battle against that, you have to say “okay, we can see how it is.”

Within the first four or five years it was clear that this was the way it was going to be… can you imagine if the music industry had accepted that from the front? It would have been amazing. They’re just coming around to it now, but [imagine] how far ahead they would have been if they’d just said “okay, this is inevitable, this copy thing. We’re just going to try to work with it. There’s thing to adjust, but let’s accept it.”


Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Further reading: The Technium: Better Than Free – 8 ‘generatives’ to thrive in a world of free copies.

See also:

Learning through use: Kevin Kelly on technology finding its way

I’m a big believer that the way we steer technology is through engagement, by use. I find that most of the inventors don’t even have any idea what the technology will ultimately be used for.

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and we have his journals of… what he thought this new ability to record sound was going to be, and his very first idea was that it would be used to record the last words of the dying, and then his second idea was that we could record sermons and distribute them. And he had a whole list of things, and at the very end he was like, well maybe we could do music – and he was the inventor of it.

So I think it’s only through use that we can find out what these things are…

Kevin Kellya16z podcast: Not If, But How – When Technology is Inevitable

Wisdom, for now and later


Eat honey, my child, for it is good;
    honey from the comb is sweet to your taste.
1Know also that wisdom is like honey for you:
    If you find it, there is a future hope for you,
   and your hope will not be cut off.

Proverbs (of Solomon) – Tanakh / Old Testament

I read this the other day, and got to thinking: I could do with a bit more of two types of wisdom.

Wisdom for now

When you sit to dine with a ruler,
    note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
    for that food is deceptive.

Most of the time I think about wisdom as short term: knowing the right (or best) thing to do in a given situation, and being able to do it. Things like judging fairly, or staying calm in a disagreement, knowing when to let something drop or when to fight your point, and how to do it well. And this type of wisdom is really important – there are loads of proverbs about it.

Wisdom for later

Put your outdoor work in order
    and get your fields ready;
   after that, build your house.

Critical path theory, c. 600 BC

But this proverb gets at a different sort of wisdom: the make-good-decisions-when-it’s-not-urgent-to-avoid-difficulty-later sort of wisdom. And proverbs is full of these too. On reflection, maybe they’re the same kind of thing, and only different because the consequences are felt in the short or longer term – easier today or easier tomorrow.

This wisdom for later is about doing the right things daily, about building things for tomorrow, about doing the boring work of maintenance or the hard, slow work of building foundations so that tomorrow will be better. It’s about staying away from the things that will hurt us now, and also about making decisions now that will help us to avoid the risk or temptation of trouble later – about applying the right kind of thin end of the wedge. It’s about investing in important things so that you can enjoy treasures that are all too rare, and things that are necessarily rare, because they’re what you built:

By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

May your treasures be beautiful and rare, and the honeycomb sweet.

Tim O’Reilly on structural literacy

Access to an unlimited world of information is a powerful augmentation of human capability, but it still has prerequisites. Before she could make an exquisite dessert by watching a YouTube video, my stepdaughter had to know how to use an iPad. She had to know how to search on YouTube. She had to know that a world of content was there for the taking. At O’Reilly, we call this structural literacy.

Users without structural literacy about how to use computers struggle to use them. They learn by rote. Going from an iPhone to Android, or the reverse, or from PC to Mac, or even from one version of software to another, is difficult for them. These same people have no trouble getting into a strange car and orientating themselves. “Where is that darned lever to open the gas cap?” they ask. They know it’s got to be there somewhere. Someone with structural literacy knows what to look for. They have a functional map of how things ought to work. Those lacking that map are helpless.

The level and type of structural literacy required differs with the type of work you do. Today’s startups, increasingly embedding software and services into devices, require foundational skills in electrical and mechanical engineering, and even “trade” skills such as soldering… Teachers are far more effective if they are broadly familiar with the culture and context of their students.

Tim O’Reilly – WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Kevin Kelly – what is technology?

Not just shiny new stuff

It was clear (at least to me) that technology was an extension of natural life, but in what ways was it different from nature? (Computers and DNA share something essential, but a Mac-Book is not the same as a sunflower.) It was also clear that technology springs from human minds, but it what way are the products of our minds (even cognitive products like artificial intelligences) different from our minds themselves? Is technology human or nonhuman?

We tend to think of technology as shiny tools and gadgets. Even if we acknowledge that technology can exist in disembodied form, such as software, we tend not to include in this category paintings, literature, music, dance, poetry and the arts in general. But we should. If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page), then a thousand lines of letters in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well. They both can change our behavior, alter the course of events, or enable future inventions.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

A Shakespeare sonnet and a Bach fugue, then, are in the same category as Google’s search engine and the iPod: They are something useful produced by a mind.

We can’t separate out the multiple overlapping technologies responsible for a Lord of the Rings movie. The literary rendering of the original novel is as much an invention as the digital rendering of its fantastical creatures. Both are useful works of the human imagination. Both influence audiences powerfully. Both are technological.

Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants (amazon)

If you haven’t read any of Kevin Kelly’s writing, check out New Rules for the New Economy (where in 1998 – the year Google was founded and seven years before Facebook) he set out most of the trends of the new ‘connection’ economy. Or read the opening chapter of What Technology Wants on Kindle and see if it tempts you.

W. Brian Arthur on combinatorial innovation

The idea … that we have is that there’s some genius in an attic… cooking up technology and coming up with inventions.

But it started to become clear to me having looked in detail at some inventions is that technologies in a way come out of other technologies. If you take any individual technology, say like a computer in the 1940s, it was made possible by having vacuum tubes, by having relay systems, by having very primitive memory systems… All of those things existed already.

So it seemed to me that technology’s evolved by people not so much discovering something new or discovering, but by putting together different Lego blocks so to speak in a new way. Once something’s been put together, like say a radio circuit for transmitting radio waves, it can be thrown back in the Lego set. And occasionally then some of the new combinations would get a name and be tossed back in.

Things like gene sequencing were put together from existing molecular biology technologies and then that becomes a component in yet other technologies…


W. Brian Arthur – a16z podcast

What’s already out there that you could combine to do something in a new way?

How do you keep an eye out for new Lego?

What do you make that you could throw into the Lego set for others?

Podcast recommendation: Marc Andreesen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman

I’ve already shared an extract from this episode about systems thinking here, but the whole interview is fascinating and everyone I’ve recommended it to has thanked me for it.

Marc Andressen more-or-less invented the web-browser as we know it and made Netscape (the biggest internet browser of its day, which was sold for a profit), which seeded the development of Mozilla Firefox, which you might be using right now. These days he’s a really influential venture capitalist, a quick (and very smart) thinker and fast talker.

This interview is full of useful and interesting gems, and Brian Koppelman does a great job of pulling out some interesting applications to art and pop culture. Apart from systems thinking, highlights (to be unpacked in future) include:

  • The importance of networks and scenes (‘scenius’) in fostering and spreading innovation
  • How to make your way, taking as a given that many things of life are unfair or wrong
  • The relative value of ideas versus work
  • Marketing, sales, and how to get your ideas in front of people
  • The Test – the ability to get a ‘warm referral’ to investors or key players not as cronyism but as an excellent test of the qualities needed to be a successful entrepreneur

Highly recommend.

You can listen to the episode here, download it here or read the transcript here.

Machine. Ecosystem. (6) – Kevin Kelly on the techium

Okay, so machines are simple, largely linear, and predictable, and systems are complex, adaptive and ‘dispositional’… but look a bit closer and the distinction gets blurry.

Most systems (individual people, markets, forests to name three) are combinations of sub-systems that are, at the end of the day, made up of simple units. And our machines – especially digital ones – are increasingly complex and interconnected. Even our simplest machines don’t really stand alone – they’re outgrowths of human activity, the product of networks of ideas, activities and resources that allow them to develop, grow, and – if they’re not maintained – fall into obsolescence and decay.

Kevin Kelly calls this the techium*, and describes it brilliantly in What Technology Wants:

Once [19th century economist Johann] Beckmann lowered the mask [of technology, by uniting various arts and sciences under the term technologie], our art and artifacts could be seen as an interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no blades without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behaviour.

Kevin KellyWhat Technology Wants (amazon)

In our organisations, this way of seeing helps us to think about the machines we buy buy of the networks of activity and supply that are necessary to maintain them and run them well – a way of thinking that’s probably automatic in the manufacturing and computer industries, but comes far less naturally in the social sector.

Something as simple as buying a new computer or printer isn’t just that simple. It’s introducing a new organism into an ecosystem, and will require our teams to do the work of acclimatising and adapting to make it really useful. The more complicated or relational a technology is – social media being a prime example – the further the adaptation and unintended consequences go.

*as distinct from specific technologies

Machine. Ecosystem. (4) – Marc Andreessen on Systems Thinking

Think about it [systems thinking] through the lens of a new tech product, which is kind of the centre of what we do [at Andreesen Horowitz]… If you’re not a systems thinker basically you say “I’m going to build a really great product, and then I’m going to have a really great product, and it’s going to be great, because it’s a really great product.”

The systems thinking more is that that’s just the first step because it’s not just about the product. It’s about okay, now the product is going to enter into the marketplace, and there are going to be customers that are going to have a point of view on your product, and there are going to be competitors that are going to be trying to take you out with a better product. And you’ll put your product in retail, and the retailers are going to try to gouge you on price, and make your product uneconomic to manufacture, and the press is going to write a review of your product, and maybe the reviewer is going to have a really bad day and he’s going to say horrible, horrible things… and your employees are hard at work and they build the first product, and you assume they’re going to be with you to build the second product, and maybe they will, or maybe they won’t, because maybe someone else will hire them.

And so with any kind of creative endeavor, with anything we do in our world – and this is for products or for companies – they’re launching into technically what is called – there’s actually a mathematical term – a complex adaptive system – the world. And inherently it’s not a predictable system, it’s not a linear system, it doesn’t behave in ways that you can expect, kind of by definition. So they say “complex” because there are many, many dimensions and variables, and then “adaptive”, like it changes. Things change. So the introduction of a new product changes the system and then the system recalibrates around the product.

And so as a consequence, to launch a new tech product and have it succeed you have to have a keen awareness of all the different elements of the system. You have to have a willingness to engage in the entire system, and it’s a gigantic problem generally if you’re in denial about that, if you’re not willing to think in systems terms.

Marc Andreessen on The Moment with Brian Koppelman*

*Full transcript here.