I recently had occasion to talk on the phone with someone whose posts on education and social media I follow with interest on Twitter. ToughLoveforX (his Twitter name) is a retired printer whose scan of the educational horizon in the digital age is as eagle-eyed as that of anyone I know. I follow him on Twitter because I know that, if I click through to one of the url’s he posts, I’m bound to find something good. When I asked him what he would do, if he could make one monumental change that would have an impact on the worlds of learning and social media, he said, “Scale John Seely Brown.” Perfectly to the point of my question. Perfectly Twitter. You cut right to the chase when you think in 140 characters or less. Scaling John Seely Brown is an awfully good idea.
Just put him right out there into the universe and let him smile down, benignly, as the “Chief of Confusion,” as he calls himself, and one of the most perennially lucid thinkers on all things information. I taught some of The Social Life of Information this year and my students were amazed that it was written in the Dark Ages of 2000, when they were entering middle school. And the new one about to appear later this month, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion (Basic Books), coauthored with John Hagel and Lang Davison, all cofounders of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, promises to be another milestone in the literature of the Information Age. “The Power of Pull” seems destined to become as much a meme as “the social life of information” or the “center for the edge” or “edge thinking.” And like The Social Life of Information it goes quickly beyond hardware and software – as with all JSB does – to locate the Information Age in the power it gives us to connect with one another, to learn from one another, to work with one another, to create with one another, to inspire one another, and, bit by bit, to pull our organizations with us into the world that all of us inhabit far more freely than do the traditional institutions that are supposed to support us in our life and work, particularly our class rooms and our workplaces.
Why I would also love to “Scale John Seely Brown” is because, like the best thinkers of our moment, he knows that learning is a continuum and that any institution, from the preschool to the stock exchange, that forgets its learning mission is going to founder. In times of tremendous change, any system that closes itself off from learning will experience an inevitable entropy, and, eventually, devolution and extinction. That is as true for our institutions of formal education as it is for those workplaces that foolishly try to cling to the past, that put their hands over their ears, trying, collectively, to shut out the siren voices of change. And it certainly applies to the superannuated cultural pundits who seem to think that decrying the “dumbest generation,” dismissing the intelligence and integrity of anyone born after they were, somehow certifies their own worth. It does not. It simply demarcates their obsolescence, like a freshness date on a carton of milk found too late at the rear of the refrigerator.
“Scaling JSB” means staying fresh to new ideas, and doing so without the usual drags on the new: nostalgia or utopianism. It means being willing to understand we live in a world that changes fast but, since we are all changing together and since we are all interconnected, well, we can handle it. The trick is appreciating the complexity of the differences we offer, even as the ways we offer difference are themselves in constant flux. No one solution fits all or fits forever. Finding ways to collaborate iteratively, as a process and not a product, more as a Twitter stream than as a source code, is the trick. Emphasizing the small and the doable, rather than the gigantic and the idealistic, is probably the best way to embrace differences with imagination, creativity, innovation, a sense of realism but also a sense of play. Besides, if you start small, you can always scale up.
Institutions? Referencing Raymond Williams (another of my personal intellectual heroes at least since my undergraduate years on), Brown and Paul Duguid write about the “evolutionary character of institutions,” noting that “society is always grappling with the mixed influence of dominant, residual, and emergent institutions.” The dominant institutions of the day are the ones that seem the most stolid but they are also the ones that endure because they are constantly evolving, even if they don’t like to admit they are. As Brown and Duguid say in their inimitable style: “We hope that greater awareness of institutional evolution rather than simple extinction might help bring, if not the end of endism, then a little less of it.”
Here’s to the “end of endism.” If we were less worried about “standards” and “traditional values,” if our metric were less the frozen (and mostly imaginary) past than the ever-shifting and uneven developments of the present, we might be less fearful and more open to the possibilities, whatever those might be. And if we could be less millennialist in our projections, we who were born before 1985 might even learn to be more generous to the so-called millennials born after, who have inherited our world and now must shape it.
Image Credit: tinaylin http://www.flickr.com/photos/tinaylin/3343265602/