Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future

In Whiplash: How to Survive Our Faster Future, Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, and Jeff Howe, assistant professor and founding director of the Media Innovation program at Northeastern University, accurately describe the state-of-the-art in technology through nine organizing principles whereby adaptive individuals and organizations can respond to ever-accelerating technology advancements.  In the introduction, the authors write, “our technologies have outpaced our ability as a society to understand them [and] now we need to catch up.” They note that the principles are not intended to be rules or laws, but rather complementary, unranked guidelines for achieving this goal.

Two of the principles, Emergence over Authority and Practice over Theory, are relevant to the utilization and deployment of technology in education. For centuries, people (and educators) have organized under authority. According to the authors, “emergence is what happens when a multitude of little things – neurons, bacteria, people – exhibit properties beyond the ability of any individual, simply through the act of making a few basic choices such as: left vs. right? buy vs. sell? attack or ignore?”

Biology is the original emergent system. The Internet and the collective connections of many people have created such systems that presume that every individual member has unique intelligence that would benefit others. Free and low-cost online and community education are empowering people to learn, design, develop and participate in acts of creative disobedience. An example of a major change in learning that occurred through collective idea-sharing via the Internet is the creation of “synthetic biology.” This occurred when computer scientists and engineers established bio labs to analyze chemical and biological processes, enabling them to construct “BioBricks” which allow others to switch genes, cells, bacteria and other organisms to create new structures, reverse the effects of disease and aging, or synthesize biological processes from scratch.

Whenever we apply practice over theory, Ito and Howe note that we recognize that “there is a higher cost to waiting and planning than there is to doing and then improvising.” Software and marketing are layers in organizations that have lower cost structure than physical infrastructure and as such, enable more frequent improvisation. Educational systems that allow children to participate in active learning are putting this principle to work. The authors provide several examples, including school systems that teach children to code as a means to instill critical thinking, arguably better than the dated legacy of rote memorization of textbooks.

The authors state that, “The people who will be most successful in the coming decades will be those who can tap into their networks to learn the things they need to meet the challenges ahead.” The idea behind the creation of the MIT Media Lab, for example, was to focus on practice over theory and combine faculty and grad students from the arts and sciences. They write that we don’t allow cheating on exams, yet there’s evidence that better learning outcomes result when students collaborate on assignments and tests.

The other seven principles described by Ito and Howe are: Pull over Push, Compasses over Maps, Risk over Safety, Disobedience over Compliance, Diversity over Ability, Resilience over Strength, and Systems over Objects. Each is relevant and, as described, complements the others. The authors’ stated intent was not to be another alarm for the perils of artificial intelligence, noting their mutual skepticism about futurism. The principles matter because people need to be aware of the potential for technology to substantially disrupt the status quo. People also need to be aware that “innovation is not about learning how to use social media to generate sales leads.”

Ito and Howe note that businesses seeking to adapt to the increasingly networked world need to understand that buying fancy teleconferencing equipment is not the answer. Businesses and people need to be constantly on the move and be willing to take risks. Big bets may no longer be the choice of investment; organizations may choose to build a portfolio strategy in which “small bets are made on a variety of products or markets or ideas.” The principles are designed to help everyone prepare to be flexible and discard ideas when they no longer work. I highly recommend Whiplash for its innovative ideas, guiding principles and examples of emergent change that bucked the norms of authority.

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