25 January 2015

Do we all have to be David Bowie now?

The compound verb "to reinvent oneself" was created to describe David Bowie's career moves. I'm absolutely serious. The expression didn't exist before that. Either out of a restless inability to keep working in the same mold for more than an album and the subsequent tour (i.e. he gets bored easily), or a prescient grasp of the idea that pop music will cannibalize anything that stands still too long, he would regularly transform both his visual appearance and his musical style totally. He "reinvented himself" as the press described it. And as we all know, it worked. When he was playing his best game, he got ahead of the curve and he was the one creating the changes. 

What can we learn from this regarding disruptive ideas and disruptive technologies, and especially what it means to the question: how do I, as an individual, navigate the fluid world created by all this disruption?

Bowie was reacting to a disruptive influence: pop music. In the sixties and seventies recording technology (the eight-track recorder), musical instruments (the synthesizer and all the permutations of the electric guitar), studio technology, stage equipment, marketing methods, network television, and high-speed long-distance travel were all bringing about rapid changes in the entertainment business. On top of that, there were disruptive ideas affecting music: war protest, exploration of psychedelics use, resistance to authority, questioning of sexual tabus, resistance to the power of capitalism. Bowie could see that you had to ride this wave or be drowned by it.

When you talk about disruptive ideas and technologies, it's hard to determine which is the chicken and which the egg. The materialist view is that the technologies enable the rise of ideas (i.e. television enabled people to question authority, since it was letting people see the Vietnam war in ways that contradicted the official version of events). It is impossible to prove, but I would suggest that the technologies also come into being in response to ideas arising on deeper, non-material planes. The idea of equality has been percolating in the back of humanity's mind for centuries (millennia?). Technologies that give people equal access just bring that impulse into being in the physical world.

Equality and decentralization are seriously disruptive ideas. Take for example this presentation Sugata Mitra gave a few days ago at an education conference at the Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala. In essence (anticipating all the TL;DW reactions), his research shows that groups of children given networked computers, the proper atmosphere, and unstructured time can, as teams, teach themselves nearly any subject if they are given the right questions to research. There are many arguments against this, but one of them is NOT that children don't learn this way. The studies and the data are copious.

This is more than a little scary, considering that until recently it has been assumed teachers and trainers were among the few traditional professionals in the world that couldn't be replaced by computers. Add to that the trend toward e-learning (computer-based, interactive teaching programs) in industry, and it looks like there will be far fewer teachers and trainers in the future.

Often -- as in the trend toward e-learning that I cite above -- the driver for these changes is financial; decision makers are either trying to save money or increase profits. But I'm sure you'll recognize that there are frequent examples in which the driver of the change is ideological, spiritual, or simply a desire to be in harmony with the zeitgeist. 

In my own life I have found myself questioning how aikido and other martial arts classes are taught. Japanese martial arts are a seriously top-down, authoritarian affair. Class starts by bowing to an image of the art's founder (the "shomen", or the "head" of the room), and then the students bow to the teacher. During the brief time I had an aikido school in Davis, California, I adopted a radical practice of assembling in a circle. We turned and bowed to the shomen (which I see as more of a spiritual practice -- acknowledging the kami, or spirit, of the school), and then we turned toward the center of the circle to bow to one another. No bowing to me, as the teacher, per se. It may seem like nothing to you, dear reader, but I assure you it would be seen as sacrilege by many.

There are other areas of my life I have felt compelled to introduce more equality into, and I find that I also am less and less comfortable with accepting the right of "authorities" to dictate the agenda. 

There are no easy, absolute answers. I do believe that children, up to a certain age, need authority. Being allowed to determine everything for themselves is actually a source of stress. In Waldorf schools (which all of my children attend) the idea is that the teacher is firmly in control during the first few years, and as the children are trained to use their freedom, the reins are slowly loosened. 

And I don't believe in being my children's "best friend", either. I'm their father. They need that.

The problem we as individuals have is that all of this disruption, all this abandoning of traditions and institutions for good or bad reasons and adoption of new practices at a rapid pace, is moving at a speed that's outstripping our economic and political systems' ability to react. If you watch the Mitra video, you'll see someone in the audience, a teacher, ask the inevitable question: what happens to teachers once this catches on? I think he fudges the answer and suggests teachers will have a marvelous new "meta" role in education institutions. I'm not convinced. I think there will be lots of teachers out of work.

So what is our choice? Writers can't make a living creating articles for magazines anymore. Small dairy farmers can't live from the milk their cows give selling it at government-set prices meant for mega dairies. Librarians are dropping like flies as libraries close. The list goes on and on. Everyone has to innovate; such as the small dairy farmer starting to make specialty cheeses from her milk that she can sell at farmers' markets, or the writer maintaining a company's blog

Do we all have to be David Bowie now? Do you know how to reinvent yourself?        


Alexander Svitych said...

Theo, I have enjoyed all the posts throughout this week, but I think this one is my favorite. So many issues linked in harmony into one post, starting from David Bowie and on to the unstoppable acceleration of our lives...

And it's amazing that I've been contemplating too over most of the issues raised here.

David Bowie's "Space Oddity" is one of my favorite songs ever. I think it also expresses his nature. It's a song that we must always venture out of our comfort zones, reinvent ourselves as you are saying.

I loved your note on the "chicken and egg" situation about ideological and technological spheres of the mankind. The TV example is a great case for the industrial epoch that is gradually ceding to the post-industrial one. In this newly emerging work it's also hard to say whether social networks sparkled political awakening around the world, or "the idea was there". I guess it's both, the relationship is dialectical.

I truly agree that we don always seem capable to manage the changes that are happening so fast. And I believe many traditional professions will be outdated in future (Bill Gates said the same recently). For me personally the speed of the ongoing transformations is sometimes scary. But at the same time it is promising. I think we live in a very unique epoch of human history.

So totally agree with the idea of your post that reinventing ourselves must become our habit if we want to ride the wave, and not get drowned. I'm sure there will be both riders and drowned like always. This will apply both to individuals and whole nations.

So my personal attitude towards this is: Do what you can, and come what may.

Anonymous said...

I've watched, and thought about, Sugata Mitra's experiments numerous times in the last five years. And I think he's wrong: teachers aren't going to survive as a profession in the current environment. The American public sector is facing massive budget shortfalls in the next few years, which will translate into shuttered schools and diminished jobs. The legal framework for teaching as a grouped profession practiced by a cadre of teachers working together in a school is being diminished, too. And the technical specs for an online school being good enough to replace a large number of adults is growing. So the profession is going to die, at least in its current form, just as the profession of coachman did, and with as great a certainty.

I don't think that state of affairs will last. Tutoring in some fashion is likely to catch on; apprenticeships, too, for certain professions. There will be windows of opportunity for scholars to be stewards of a learning tradition. But the future that Sugata Mitra is describing will likely become the New Wave of Education in the next ten years, if the energy resources that run the internet don't run out first.

Theo Huffman said...

So the question is, Andrew: are you preparing to reinvent yourself?