The End of Open-endedness

David Graeber has a far too long essay in The Baffler, which is not worth reading in full. In the end, though, it comes to a common but worthwhile point: the structure of research today can’t be open-ended in any real way, due to creeping managerialism, and this kills any possibility of revolutionary technology:

That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.

This is a major problem in technology, though maybe not for reasons Graeber would identify. As Engelbart noted, the Tool System is only one half of the equation. True progress uses the Tool System to leverage change in the Human System, and in turn uses changes in the Human System to identify necessary tool modifications.

Engelbart’s solution to this, still underappreciated, was to have a team of developer-users that could alternate quickly between designing tools and constructing the culture and practice around them. That takes time, but as the Mother of All Demos showed, it can have fantastic results, because sometimes the future is only comprehensible when delivered as a package.Current models of development don’t allow that sort of development to occur, and while that is not the reason that flying cars never came about, it is the reason that computer technology has advanced so slowly since the 1960s.

If you wanted to really revolutionize educational technology, for example, here is what I think you could do. Get together a representative group of developers to pair with a small laboratory school, and work so closely with it that the developers could walk in each day and observe ways in which the latest build had succeeded or failed. Talk with teachers about what works and what doesn’t. Organize technology around a new curriculum, then organize the new curriculum around the new affordances of technology.

Do this with ten, twenty, fifty schools, each school no larger than 500-1000 students. Leave these experiments alone for seven years.I guarantee you at the end of seven years, one of those schools will have truly revolutionized education, and produced more innovation and “progress” than we’ve seen in the past 50 years. And the reason would be that the practice and the technology and the culture and the curriculum all grew together, reacting to the possibilities each exposed, rather than being developed separately.

But we can’t do that sort of thing because “waste” and “metrics” and “accountability”. So in this case I agree with Graeber. I just wish he’d find a way to get to his point sooner.

Source: The End of Open-endedness


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