The Changing Nature of Work

30 years ago, I completed a report on a family trip to Colorado by making extensive use of a World Book Encyclopedia set my parents had purchased as I entered grade school. Approximately eight years later, that same information was included in the 1995 Grolier’s Multimedia Encyclopedia as standard software with our brand new Apple Macintosh Performa 6214CD, the “CD” in the model number indicating it had - miracle of miracles! - a CD-ROM drive. By the turn of the century, that format was already obsolete thanks to the growth of the world wide web and, in the early 2000s, Wikipedia. Looking back on this progression, terms such as “information superhighway” hardly did the change justice.

These are the things I thought about this week as I sat down to consider how “hyperlinked thinking” has changed our lives and our work. Weinberger really put it into perspective when he broke down the number of words that were devoted to topics in traditional encyclopedias, a decision that has basically been rendered meaningless by the citation and hyperlinking system inherent in Wikipedia. In the (near?) future, as Kelly pointed out, it will be possible to hyperlink directly to the exact moment Weinberger made his point in the above-linked video - a feature that is already being utilized by YouTubers on the site itself. Soon, all content (later, all people?) will be hyperlinked and discoverable.

I do agree that this hyperlinked world has made it possible for the reorganization of traditional hierarchies as more horizontally-oriented wirearchies (or, perhaps more likely, for organizations to be created as wirearchies from the beginning, thus beginning life unencumbered by traditional management structures). One intriguing example of wirearchy is blockchain technology. As blockchain advocates are fond of saying, instead of trusting a traditional authority (your bank) for things like financial transactions, trust the entire blockchain. Seen through to its logical conclusions, such a wirearchy could totally reorganize how business is conducted.

Change often comes much more slowly than futurists predict, however, and K-12 education is a perfect example. The Prince article reminded me of some initiatives that I saw during my own grade school experiences: We had open-walled classrooms in first and second grade, “positive action training” provided by school counselors in the classroom in fourth grade, and interdisciplinary learning units in middle school. None of these initiatives lasted. The only time open and fluid space was used in first grade was when we gleefully flipped pencils off the edges of our desks and over the walls (no one ever fessed up, either).

If today’s flexible spaces, maker spaces, collaborative, project-based learning opportunities, and non-traditional schedules are to succeed (and I do believe that they can!), it will take deep commitment from stakeholders of all stripes to make it happen. The chances an empowered, productive wirearchy will develop in K-12 education completely on its own are very slim. Paradoxically, it may take a top-down approach to breathe life into the grassroots energy needed to maintain a more horizontally-empowered education system. Unfortunately, for the last 20+ years, we have been more adept at standardizing assessments than empowering learners, to apply Westerman, Bonnet, and McAfee’s standardizing-empowering paradox.

I do see progress in education related to Kelly’s concepts of filtering (determining credible and reliable sources, curriculum updates, etc.), remixing (teacher-curated content, web quests, and digital mash-ups, for example), and interacting (virtual and augmented-reality field trips came to mind as I read this Kelly chapter). However, I am not sure that this progress, especially related to EdTech, has diffused widely enough. Until we get to the point where the fundamentals of teaching and learning have changed (too often educational technology makes adult life easier/more efficient but does not directly impact student learning, where the focus needs to be), the work will not be truly different than the 20th century industrial model. In Robot-Proof, Aoun asserted that “four cognitive capacities… are necessary to help make learners robot-proof”: critical thinking, systems thinking, entrepreneurship, and cultural agility. Elements of these capacities are present in today’s curriculum, but they have not yet been systemically adopted.

The strengths and opportunities of this emergent hyperconnected world are obvious: Not only will we have instant access to the sum of all human knowledge, but it will be completely interlinked and, assisted by artificial intelligence, able to be deployed to provide humans with insights about (and hopefully solutions to) the most vexing problems of our time. Weaknesses and threats range from the annoying (service interruptions) to the downright frightening. What if the hyperconnected world comes under the influence of a few autocrats, as Singer and Brooking discussed with regard to nationalized internet systems and “off” switches. What if the blockchain could be hijacked? The Internet of Things used against us? The future of cyberwarfare could pose an existential threat to the United States and to the world. In the words of one famous 23rd century engineer, “the more they overthink the plumbing, the easier it is to stop up the drain.” And will we even get to the point of solving human problems before climate change irreversibly alters the planet we inhabit?

Ultimately, I still lean toward a positivist view of the future, including the nature of work. Hopefully, the machines will need human companions. If not, perhaps we will be freed to pursue the improvement of our species. Either way, we’re in for one heck of a ride.