Friday five: edtech innovation, the future of work, and security

Some epic articles this week, and some very cool videos:

What is Code? – via Bloomberg Businessweek

A brilliant article, staggering in its scope. Paul Ford explains in a concise but at the same time extensive way the significance and beauty of code, it’s place in our culture and . Delightfully meandering, he covers themes such as the origins of computing, gender bias, language and egos with humour and humility. At the end you feel not only a whole lot more confident about your grasp of technology, but also not quite so bad about faking your way through all those programming conversations and meetings.

by Boru O'Brien O'Connel for Bloomberg Businessweek

by Boru O’Brien O’Connel for Bloomberg Businessweek

I’m not going to try and summarize it here, that’s beyond my ability. So, really, read it, or parts of it, or whatever. Or even just check it out to marvel at the amazing photographs and the fun and cool animated graphics that give the design a retro but very clever sheen. The article even has underlying programming that notes your scrolling behaviour while reading and chides you if it thinks you’re skimming. Epic.

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Where should innovation in education come from? – via Medium

Medium has launched a fascinating series of letters between education leaders called “Build on This”, with the aim of discussing the current state of education innovation, and where this is going. It was kicked off with a letter by Sandy Speicher of IDEO to Richard Culatta, who leads the technology team at the US Department of Education. The exchange has only just started, but already it has produced a fascinating dissection of the current innovation overload, and the need to choose between rapid adoption and thoughtful evolution… Or can we have both?

“So many questions are discussed around innovation in education — Are things changing too fast? Too slowly? Should the innovations come from the ground, or from the government? If it doesn’t scale quickly is it worth it? Will technology save us? Or is the answer in our teachers? Do we really need to redesign education? Or do we risk losing something we’ve already got figured out?”

Sandy then goes on to provide the most insightful analogy I’ve seen in ages, that helps us realize how much of what is out there is hype:

“I always joke that when people say “we need to redesign education,” they’re saying something like “let’s redesign commerce!” It’s just that big. Our education system isn’t a thing that is designed; it is the outcome of many different designed elements and many different people’s creativity. Clearly there isn’t one simple answer. Because of that, it seems to me that it would help to unpack what the word innovation is really about in education.”

She then goes on to introduce four fundamental debates:

  • incremental change vs radical leap
  • the how vs the what
  • from the ground vs from the government
  • innovations vs innovators

All four debates are important and fascinating, but the last one particularly intrigued me, since it’s not something I’d thought of before. Innovators and innovations are correlated, but not the same thing. One innovator can produce many innovations, especially if he or she is given support and encouragement to do so. The point hints at the opening of the debate on the “commoditisation” of innovation, which is something I’ve been looking at for reasons unrelated to the education sector. Sandy elaborates:

“Is the goal to get great new solutions out there, or get more people to create new solutions? I’m a little biased toward the latter, because the more people that are applying their creativity in education, the more innovations we will see, routinely, over time. And they’ll have the benefit of being locally defined. But clearly, both are needed.”

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The World Wide What? – by FoundersForum

Tim Berners-Lee, Arianna Huffington, Sean Parker, Steve Case, Martha Lane Fox, Reid Hoffman, Martin Warsavsky, Michael Bloomberg, Jimmy Wales and more… And narrated by Stephen Fry… Just how did FoundersForum get all these Internet greats to participate in this humorous, silly short film about what the world would have been like without Internet? Because it’s to support the World Wide Web Foundation, which “fights for the open Web as a public good and a basic right.” Brilliant. And, they are surprisingly good actors. Or does the kudos go to the director?

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A World Without Work – from The Atlantic

This deep and mighty article is a fairly sobering look at the economics of the inefficiencies in the workforce. Will we be replaced by computers? Are jobs becoming obsolete? Does it even matter?

Author Derek Thompson (@DKThomp) argues that yes, it does matter.

“The paradox of work is that many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.”

The current work model is broken, or at least deficient in structure and motivation:

“Six years into the recovery, the share of recent college grads who are “underemployed” (in jobs that historically haven’t required a degree) is still higher than it was in 2007—or, for that matter, 2000. And the supply of these “non-college jobs” is shifting away from high-paying occupations, such as electrician, toward low-wage service jobs, such as waiter. More people are pursuing higher education, but the real wages of recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent since 2000. In the biggest picture, the job market appears to be requiring more and more preparation for a lower and lower starting wage.”


“A 2014 Gallup report of worker satisfaction found that as many as 70 percent of Americans don’t feel engaged by their current job.”

“Paid labor does not always map to social good.”

And widespread unemployment will have significant social consequences…

“Two of the most common side effects of unemployment are loneliness, on the individual level, and the hollowing-out of community pride.”

…that aren’t all going to be negative.

“To envision a future that offers more than minute-to-minute satisfaction, we have to imagine how millions of people might find meaningful work without formal wages.”

“It would be a future not of consumption but of creativity, as technology returns the tools of the assembly line to individuals, democratizing the means of mass production.”

“The despondency and helplessness of unemployment were discovered, to the bafflement and dismay of cultural critics, only after factory work became dominant and cities swelled.”

“Would office space yield seamlessly to apartments, allowing more people to live more affordably in city centers and leaving the cities themselves just as lively? Or would we see vacant shells and spreading blight?..”

“As the 40-hour workweek faded, the idea of a lengthy twice-daily commute would almost certainly strike future generations as an antiquated and baffling waste of time…”

“As full-time work declined, rearing children could become less overwhelming…”

“The demise of the formal economy could free many would-be artists, writers, and craftspeople to dedicate their time to creative interests—to live as cultural producers…”

Derek’s conclusion – that no work is bad but less work could end up being good – is uplifting. His article does include several policy suggestions to absorb the economic and societal change. And his underlying message of inevitable change and necessary adaptability is a refreshing call to take a look at the society we live in now. How can we improve it, for the good of all?

“Decades from now, perhaps the 20th century will strike future historians as an aberration, with its religious devotion to overwork in a time of prosperity, its attenuations of family in service to job opportunity, its conflation of income with self-worth…”

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The Future of Productivity by Microsoft – via Where Cool Things Happen

This futuristic view of productivity from Microsoft is an impressive video, with some mouth-watering gadgets.

Yes, I worry about data obscuring the view, and focussing more on the information than the experience… But the effects are cool, the ideas interesting, and it doesn’t hurt to fantasise…

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Software Is Vulnerable Because of You, from MIT Technology Review

Yes, just as guns kill because of us. We have a responsibility to use tools correctly, but we also are, let’s face it, going to make mistakes. And in so doing, we improve the tools with our input, solutions and choice swear words.

“We usually expect that we can walk across a bridge or into a building without the structure collapsing. We don’t have that kind of confidence with software programs.”

That hasn’t always been the case. Buildings and bridges are safer now because of the collapses.

“The problem with modern software is that we’ve been building our “skyscrapers” with the same materials and techniques used to build huts. Software began as a collection of bricks: simple procedures, sequences of commands for calculations, games, and curiosities. Decades later, we have millions of procedures interacting with each other on interconnected machines with access to all kinds of secret information. Yet we’re still using similar languages and tools.”

Actually, we’re really not. Software is a continually evolving process, and the hardware we use today is very, very different to the clunky computers of yore. Go on, just pull your main device out of your pocket and try and point out the similarities. I bet you can’t go past the 10 fingers.

Base computing is the same, yes. But base computing is not the problem, it’s just inert and quite dumb bits of yes-or-no information.

“Another way would be to make software easier to analyze.”

Software is getting more user-friendly all the time. And coders, even very, very basic level ones like me, know how to read code. We get what it’s trying to do, and often we can figure out why it isn’t doing it. Debugging software is getting more sophisticated all the time.

Your general user should not be expected to understand code. Technology and the programming that makes it useful should be for everyone, code-literate or not.

Security is weak, and yes, it’s our fault. We should use hardware and software in a more intelligent and careful way. But we’re not taught to do so. I gave a talk at a school the other day, to a group of 15-year-olds. One of them asked me what cookies were. It turns out that no-one in the class had any idea. Yet they all use smartphones, tablets and computers every day. Is it their fault that they don’t know? They didn’t even know that they should know that stuff.

I’m not excusing it, I’m saying that we need to do more to make everyone aware of Internet security and safety. We need to make security easier, because as humans we are generally lazy and only are really careful after something bad has happened to us. Why do you think wearing seatbelts is law in many countries? Because we wouldn’t wear them otherwise.

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Blossoming of 3d printing, via Co.Design

Stunning 3d printed jewellery. I’m not into jewellery, but the results are startling, and watching the process is quite lovely…


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