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Technology In Future Tense

Interview by Rebekah Ramos

David Pearce Snyder is lifestyles editor of The Futurist magazine and former consultant to the RAND Corporation. A social forecaster, he has published over 100 studies, articles, and reports on the future of a wide variety of institutions, industries, and professions. He has also served as an instructor for Congressional and White House staff development programs.

At what point are we now in the "Information Revolution?"

It generally takes two human generations – 70 to 80 years – for a new technology to evolve from its first practical demonstration to general adoption throughout society. During the first two-thirds of this period – about 50 years – the new technology remains so costly and unreliable, and so incompatible with existing systems that it actually drags down economic performance, reducing both productivity and prosperity in a nation. Once a new technology has matured through a half-century of trial and error R&D, it typically produces an explosion of productivity and prosperity – since the matured technology is capable of improving virtually every operation to which it is applied. Since the computer turned 50 in 1996, we have already begun to experience the cornucopia of high-tech innovations that will not only give rise to a quarter-century of soaring productivity and prosperity, but will also dramatically alter how and where – and with whom – we all work and play in the U.S. and around the world.

What will ubiquitous computing look like in the classroom, in the home, in the workplace?

Within ten years, nearly all U.S. adults – and most students – will own a Personal Digital Appliance (PDA), a device combining the features of a cell phone, pager, Palm Pilot and a wireless Internet terminal. By 2010, PDAs will outnumber PCs, and will be many people's only computer. Too small to contain substantial memory or data processing internally, PDAs will rely upon the Internet for their computing power and data storage. Too small for more than a minimal visual display, PDAs will routinely tap into flat wall-screens in most homes, offices and schools. And too small for a really useful keyboard, PDAs will make use of voice input. Within five to seven years, verbal interaction with all electronic devices will be common-place.

On the job, employees will use their PDAs to access expert systems and decision-critical data, and simulations and instructions that will make continuous learning a daily workplace reality. In the classroom, students will use their PDAs to display their work on the wall screens that will replace today's black and white boards. At home, students will use their PDA's to access homework assignments on the Web, as well as work on-line with other students on group projects.

How will this carry over in teaching and learning?

Obviously, universal access to powerful, cheap, info-com technologies like PDAs will provide a whole new media realm for teacher-student-class interaction. But more importantly, while the increasingly rich information content of every aspect of social and economic enterprise may or may not mean that all American's will need a college degree to prosper in the 21st Century, it is certainly clear that to be socially and economically productive from now on, all public school graduates must enter adult life with a mastery of the basic industrial era curriculum: they must be literate, numerate and articulate. Unfortunately only 25% to 30% of us learn effectively in a "passive auditory mode" – that is, sitting and listening to a teacher teaching. This suggests that schools will have to adopt more effective alternative instructional methods; the most effective instructional method we know of for most people is "contextual" or "experiential" learning.

There will be an emphasis on experiential learning through mentoring, internships, community service, and apprenticeships supported through public/private partnerships. Individualized curriculum will be made possible through the widespread access and adoption of technology. And teaching methods will become less authoritarian and more facilitative as students begin to direct their own learning. Taking its cue from corporate training, the classroom will include an element of virtual experience mixed in with the real experience. In addition, on-line universities will proliferate, leaving traditional universities to be retrofitted as research institutes or retirement communities for those of us longing for the nostalgia of academia.

In what way will technology either close or widen the gap between the haves and have-nots?

Technology will close the gap in two ways: First, network computing through relatively low cost PDAs will enable all students in public schools to access the powerful and sophisticated computational resources that will be fundamental to the "info-mated" workplace. Current gross disparities in local access to technology should begin to diminish immediately as net computing literally explodes into the marketplace. Second, good instructional software has proven remarkably effective at building a capacity to learn and a capacity to formal reasoning among students from economically disadvantaged settings.

Do you think that computers will create a global culture?

Yes! This will happen primarily through the proliferation of the Internet. Even in countries where Western culture is viewed with hostility, the essentiality of the Internet makes it difficult for governments to block its infiltration. Simultaneous language translation will be commonplace in the next ten years and will enable scientists and students to freely communicate with anyone in the world. There will always be individuals or entire societies that will withdraw from the modern world, and certainly, the adoption and impact of the Internet will vary among different cultures.

Where do you think computers will have the greatest impact on our lifestyles?

Computers will ultimately improve the quality of human decisions, which will be based on increasingly better data. We’ll all be using chatty cyber-assistants that will warn us when we are about to make a wrong decision and advise us on the best course of action. We'll be able to buy a wide variety of personalities for our little cyber-buddies based on cartoon characters, movie stars or historic figures. The coming collaboration between the computer and its creator holds great promise for the enhancement of realizable human potential. However, should we become so dependent on it, the result could very well be what Hans Moravec describes in his book Robot: that computers will eventually become smarter than we are because, unlike humans who have to be reprogrammed when they are born, computers can accumulate data, knowledge and insight from generation to generation.


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