How to save the world

The end of World War I was a bad time to be an optimist. It wasn’t that millions of young men had died or that western Europe had been transfigured into a hellish bombed-out landscape, although that was certainly true. It was the inescapable philosophical consideration that civilization had done this to itself. The “progress” of the industrial revolution and German unification led inexorably to total war. Civilization itself was fundamentally flawed and unsustainable; the only alternative was to admit Rousseau was right and go back to the trees.

Of course, that’s not what happened, and twenty years later they were at it again. The technology changed dramatically, but it didn’t change the fact that people were still killing each other, only how they did it. The changes that mattered were the social institutions built afterwards. Instead of the outrageous reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, there was the conciliatory Marshall Plan. Instead of the League of Nations, there was the United Nations. It wasn’t technological improvements that saved lives and improved the quality of living after the war. It was the people, with their resiliency, their forgiveness, and their intent not to make the same mistake twice.

We now find ourselves, once again, on the brink of destruction. It is not destruction by military means, but rather, economic and environmental means. Natural resources are being depleted faster than they can be renewed, if they can be renewed at all. Industrialization has spread concrete, steel, and chemicals across previously untouched land. The established political institutions are being challenged by forces as diverse as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. The economy is still largely in shambles. And then there’s the small matter of climate change. And so on. We’ve heard it all before. At TED 2012, this grim view was presented by Paul Gilding (talk, follow-up blog post). He’s pretty blunt about it: the earth is full.

Around a third of the world lives on less the two dollars a day. They have dramatically different cultures, education, living conditions, access to technology than the typical American or European. You honestly think that they’re the ones that are going to fix the problems? The people who are illiterate, innumerate, and don’t know where their next meal is coming from are going to fix climate change?

Depending on your answer, I have two different responses. I’ll give both of them, but you might want to think about it first.

* * *

Immediately after Gilding’s talk, Peter Diamandis took the counterpoint, proclaiming humanity’s great abundant future. He was talking about the “rising billion” of minds in the developing world that will “come online” in the coming decades and then — almost off the cuff — makes a pitfall. He says “they’ll become better educated by using the Khan academy”. For those who don’t know, the Khan Acadmeny is a non-profit dedicated to producing educational video lectures. For criticism of Khan in the developed world, I direct you to Frank Noschese. Additional skepticism is warranted upon claiming that the KA will magically turn the youth of African villages and Indian slums into geniuses (as Diamandis does).

Let me use the dictionary as an analogy. It’s a wonderful place to find out what perspicacious means. But say you were to look up a more common word. You might find this:

door (noun) a hinged, sliding, or revolving barrier at the entrance to a building, room, or vehicle, or in the framework of a cupboard.

This is an accurate and clear work of lexicography. But let’s face it: if you have to look up the meaning of door, there is far more wrong with you than a dictionary can fix.

And so it is with any recorded information source. Whether a book or a video, they assume that you have certain fundamental abilities, a critical competence. Not only the ability to understand a language in written or spoken form, but also to process the knowledge it contains and place it in to your own personal framework. Unfortunately, this is often not so for those in the developing and undeveloped world.

Equally important is that reference sources make poor pedagogy tools and vice versa, as pointed out by Dan Meyer. A reference text is meant to give simple right answers, but pedagogy involves confusion and mistakes. As a concrete example, try understanding this definition, quoted in its entirety from a real dictionary of computer science terms maintaining by NIST (part of the U.S. Department of Commerce):

Skip list: A randomized variant of an ordered linked list with additional, parallel lists. Parallel lists at higher levels skip geometrically more items. Searching begins at the highest level, to quickly get to the right part of the list, then uses progressively lower level lists. A new item is added by randomly selecting a level, then inserting it in order in the lists for that and all lower levels. With enough levels, searching is O(log n).

Someone who knows what skips lists are or who is familiar with many similar data structures may find this information useful [UPDATE: and may even notice that it's subtly wrong. New items are added to levels selected not randomly but geometrically]. But it should also make it quite clear that using a reference source as a self-guided educational tool does not work. The internet is almost exclusively a reference source.

If we are to educate billions of people, we need a model that scales. The traditional classroom scales negatively, with each additional student (after a certain point) making the quality of education worse. The teacher can’t keep up with all the students, and must spread his or her attention ever thinner. The result is a long tail, a curve popularized by a very different Chris Anderson than the one who runs TED. The Khan Academy scales constantly; the number of students watching does not affect the quality of education. The problem is that it’s not a very good constant. In fact, Khan is the extrapolation of the traditional teacher with an infinite number of students, which works poorly indeed. We need something different.

This is a geodesic dome. It’s the only structure that gets stronger as it gets bigger (or so I’m told).  We have geodesic reference materials; the more people that read and edit Wikipedia, the better its quality. The bigger it is, the faster it grows, which makes it even bigger. The same rules apply to human population growth, and the education system can’t keep up. What we need is a geodesic educational paradigm, a school that benefits from increased enrollment. A school whose quality scales positively. No, I don’t know what that paradigm is.

It’s not just education, though. We need geodesic social institutions, farming techniques, and infrastructural logistics. It will not happen automatically. We must prepare the internet to handle the influx of the uneducated and teach them cheaply, quickly, and well.  Only then can harness the planet’s booming population, to go from “the earth is full” to “the earth is fully staffed”.

* * *

Let’s say you take Gilding’s more cynical view, as nearly half the TED audience did. Or maybe you think that massive-scale education isn’t feasible. Then we’re then left with an uphill, but by no means unwinnable, battle. Saving the world is not a matter of high-profile, globally-significant changes, this view posits. That doesn’t mean everything must be mundane and imperceptibly incremental. Tracking the statistics of carbon emission and so one is still important, but there is also room for deft breakthroughs. That’s right: we’re hacking civilization.

Government? There’s an app for that. Adopt a Fire Hydrant is an app shown during a talk by Jennifer Pahlka at TED 2012. It’s exactly what it sounds like: citizens sign up to dig the snow away from a fire hydrant during winter. This keeps snow plows and other vehicles from running over the hydrant, and it’s accessible if the fire department needs it. The volunteers take a few minutes of their week to tackle what would otherwise become a significant problem at the city government level. In addition to promoting active participation in bureaucracy, the distribution of work benefits from higher levels of participation.

Another example of crowdsourcing comes from Ushahidi, which is a software platform developed for reporting human rights abuses in Kenya. It has since expanded to other kinds of crisis mapping across the world, including the Haiti earthquake. Named after the Swahili word for witness, Ushahidi allows reports to be aggregated, mapped, grouped, and more effectively dealt with. It’s described in yet another TED talk, this one by Clay Shirky.

In the talk, Shirky talks about the kinds of collaborative work the internet enables. He calls it “cognitive surplus,” and it’s similar to what Diamandis calls the “rising billion”, except with more limited ideas of what people contribute. Anyone can contribute a data point to Ushahidi but far fewer can improve its source code. Tools exist so that you don’t have to write code in order to contribute, but these contributions make a much smaller global impact. These contributions are LOLcats.

If Ushahidi is a productive use of cognitive surplus, then a LOLcat is “the stupidest possible creative act.” It’s tempting to try to get the Ushahidis without the LOLcats, Shirky says, but it doesn’t work that way. They are a not only a necessary byproduct but a gateway for people to begin sharing and collaborating, eventually on worthwhile projects. What makes a project worthwhile, Shirky concludes, is the distinction between the communal value of LOLcats and the civic value of Ushahidi. If cognitive surplus is to make a difference, it needs to create value for those other than the creators. I add that paradoxically, those best suited to create are a small, highly-trained minority — those who can write software, rather than just use it. They are the basis on which they world of laypeople communicate and share. Ushahidi is a great example of a clever solution, but its story is how such solutions are made.

Sometimes there are obvious solutions waiting in plain sight. For centuries we’ve used pi as the circle constant, the bridge between the world of lines and angles and the world of curves and circles. But it turns out there’s a better choice of constant. Rewriting two-pi as tau simplifies almost every relevant equation, from high school trigonometry to graduate-level formulae. If you haven’t heard of tau before, you probably think I’m either nuts or kidding. I’m neither. I think that saying “5/8 tau” is a lot more natural than “5/4 pi” when you mean “5/8 of a circle”. While I think that switching to tau would clarify scientific papers and engineering documents, the real benefit is reducing confusion when children first encounter the circle in math class. That will lead to a more numerate population, which means more engineers to solve our big problems. (You can read more of my thoughts on tau, or Michael Hartl’s Tau Manifesto.)

If you really want to make more engineers, give a bunch of high school students what they’ll need to get through engineering school: some hands-on experience and a lot of inspiration. FIRST robotics does exactly that. The kids turn a box of motors and electronics into a working, drivable robot, weighing upwards of 150 pounds. The robot plays a sport-like game that changes every year and is revealed just six weeks prior to the ship date. It’s a whirlwind tour of task analysis, designing with constraints, iterative prototyping, mechanical fabrication, computer programming, and robot operation. (Yes, the kids drive.) Just as importantly, it teaches “soft” skills like teamwork, “Gracious professionalism,” “Coopertition,” and chaos management. Many alumni go on to be engineers, and those that do are better prepared for the long hard road that awaits them.

Finally, there’s TED-ed. This newly-launched arm of TED aims to create educational videos, but unlike the Khan Academy they go for quality over quantity. The introductory video posits the notion that the videos aim “to capture a lesson.” This is impossible, because a lesson isn’t what the teacher says but what the students think. Luckily the handful of talks produced so far don’t seem to imitate textbook or Khan Academy style of direct instruction. Instead, they have charismatic speakers exploring a concept and demonstrating how remarkably cool the topic at hand is. The reason TED talks for grownups work is because the material isn’t factual. You don’t watch a TED talk to memorize information; you watch it to become a better person. Similarly, TED-ed should aim to inspire, not to provide information. Judging by Chris Anderson’s blog, that is indeed the goal.

Inspiring the next generation of engineers only does so much. They have to translate that drive to learn into learning something; the desire to change the world into actually changing it. The only way I know how to do that is through a traditional undergraduate engineering school followed by years of training and work in the field. I’m rather biased; in fact I’m an undergraduate in a traditional engineering school who plans on spending years training and working in the field. But the next time you drive over a bridge, think about the engineer who built it. How safe would you feel if you knew he or she had learned about steel strength from a YouTube video? Now consider that another engineer built the car you’re driving in — and yet another built the 18-wheeler in front of you.

If you’re going to save the world, one of the worst things you can do is attack the problem too directly. Instead, it will take inspiration, collaboration, innovation, and a lot of hard work.

* * *

Maybe I’m taking this saving the world business a little too seriously.

After all, each generation has seen their own share of challenges. The world didn’t end after the fall of Rome or World War I. Here’s another example of the standing-on-the-brink mentality.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease,
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Rings a bell, right? Now let me yell you that Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote those words in 1850. Despite being 162 years old, Ring Out, Wild Bells is a dead ringer for the problems we face today.

Maybe that’s a much-needed note of caution and prudence. Or maybe it’s denying our impending doom. Either way, we’ll find out soon enough.

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