Did You Know?

A friend sent me this video today that sparked some interesting lines of thought. I’ve been online since the early 90s, so I often lose sight of just how rapidly things have advanced, and how deeply the Internet — and technology in general — has changed all of our lives. Just think: “If MySpace were a country, it would be the fifth largest country in the world” and “Today, the number of text messages sent and received every day, exceeds the total population of the planet.”

It took radio 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million, but it took the iPod only 3 years, and FaceBook only 2 years. In part this is due to reduced manufacturing and distribution costs, as well as an overall advance in the general standard of living for people in developed nations; but there’s more to it than just that. I mean, the iPod doesn’t demonstrable improve one’s life: it’s a luxury good, not some fundamentally necessary thing like clean drinking water. Facebook is as much a fun diversion from the workday as it is a fundamental change in the way we communicate with peers and colleagues.

It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th century.

Seeing this was a mild shock at first. It made sense after a couple moments, though. I recently finished reading Clay Shirkey‘s book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, and he deals with this topic in a very easy-to-understand way. In the old days, when the cost of production was high (publishing, broadcasting, etc), people had to actually choose what to produce. The model was “Filter, then publish”. Nowadays, the cost of production is so low (blogs, Youtube, etc) that the decision of what to produce is moot: just produce it all, and let the audience figure out what they want to consume. This model Shirkey calls “Publish, then filter.” So yes, while there’s a staggering amount of information available to us today, we filter out the bits we don’t want, and focus in on the bits we do want. It’s easy for us acquire more niche information.

For students starting a 4 year technical degree this means that … half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.

This is an interesting observation, and it’s the one part of this video with which I take real issue. In part, this is because in another life I provide support to the faculty and staff of an engineering college at a large university. The faculty there struggle all the time whether they want to educate, or provide instruction.

Education, in this context, means teaching people how to think. It’s how you approach a problem, how you define the problem, and what processes you use to evaluate possible solutions. This has nothing to do with the tools available to you. I think most faculty (at least the ones with which I interact) want to educate, but unfortunately the business world doesn’t want to spend the time instructing recent graduates how to use the specific tools in use within the industry.

So some portion of the curriculum is spent on instruction: how to use specific tools to solve specific problems. This gives students a jumpstart for entering their chosen industry. If anything, it’s this stuff that is likely to be outdated or stale by the time the students graduate. Education — learning how to think — ought never become outdated.

A couple years ago I read Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, and one of the most interesting things to me was that students would take a “Search and Analysis” class in school. With 31 billion Google searches every month, I think we all kind of take it for granted that we’ll be able to find what it is we want. How long will that be the case? At what point will there be such an overwhelming body of knowledge that Google — or some other entity — won’t be able to catalog it all in any way that helps us? How much longer until it’s actually necessary to take a class to learn how to search for information online?

I don’t have any deep revelations to share with you. This video sparked some interesting avenues of thought within me, and I wanted to share it with you. What do you think?