Horizons of Digeracy

The future, as the saying goes, is not what it used to be. But then, for that matter, neither is the past. My late granny used to say that someone who keeps looking at his past has his backs turned to the future. On the other hand, Roman orator, lawyer, politician, and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was – I suspect – not half as formidable as my gran, argued that “[t]o be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is man’s lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?” French philosopher Voltaire, on the other hand, agreed with granny – “History” he said “is fables agreed upon.”

I see The 2017 Horizon Report On Emerging Technologies (get it free here in PDF format) and Learning From Our Lives: Using Educational Biographies with Adults” — Pierre Dominice’s master work on the use of personal life stories and narratives in learning, as two sides of the same coin: one deals with forward-looking narratives, while the other investigates the importance of historical perspectives of our personal stories.

Dominice is a lifelong Professor of adult education at the University of Geneva. His research is based on almost one hundred educational biographies written, as well as recorded, and submitted by adult students at the University of Geneva.  Dominice argues that as adults write their educational biography, they have an opportunity to reflect on their learnings – both formal (through studies) and informal (through personal experiences), this reflection is both observant and critical. At best, he said, this reflection can help adults find meaning in their lifelong learnings, while, at the very least, it could supply them with coping skills for future learnings.

An interesting aspect to Dominice’s work is the question of learners’ needs, motivation and dreams. Motivation, he says, evolves in stages – which can be identified as one reads the biographies.  “We must all discover in the process of growing older what to do about contradictory needs,” he says “how to avoid frustration and achieve satisfaction, how to combine, for example, theoretical and experiential learning or formal schooling and more creative forms of learning.”  (p.115)

The study of life stories and biographies “is not limited to collecting autobiographical reports, but is a form of cooperative partnership in solving cognitive tasks […] it is a way of learning not only about facts and events, but – what is sometimes even more significant – the meaning of particular events for the lives of particular persons.” (p.45.)  

Learning from one’s experience is a staple-diet imperative on most management courses. Dominice’s unique contribution comes from the importance he assigns to one’s personal educational narratives – that which one did, avoided doing, considered doing or sought to do during one’s lifelong learning process. Dominice works from both oral and written versions of life stories – “[w]hen I read the written version of an educational biography, I realize the extent to which the oral narrative has been a first phase for maturing the life story told,” he said.(p.63)

The other side of the coin, that of the forward looking narrative, occupies itself with the study of probable developments. The term ‘trends’ is an essential,  powerful element in strategic planning, it is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for sellers and marketers – good trend analysis, they believe, is likely to help design and offer products that are more likely to be snapped up and bought outright. The Everett Rogers Diffusion of innovations theory offers an empirical model relating to product adopters. Consumers can be divided into purchase-channel groups: Innovators (2.5% of the population) pick on any change, they’d be then followed by Early Adopters (13.5%), and Early Majority (34%), Late Majority (34%) and, finally, Laggards (16%).  The idea is almost mesmerisingly simple – find the innovators and, through them, the early adopters, and you may get to ride life’s sexiest commercial surfboard.

But the study of trends is not limited to the commercial realm – The 2017 Horizon Report on Emerging Technologies is a case in point. Jointly released each year by the New Media Consortium (NMC) and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI), the report covers work done through the NMC Horizon Project – “a research-oriented effort that seeks to identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have considerable impact on teaching, learning, and creative expression within higher education […] Each year, the Horizon Report describes six areas of emerging technology that will have significant impact on higher education within three adoption horizons over the next one to five years.” The six areas of observation chosen this year are: mobile devices, cloud computing, geo-everything, the personal web, semantic-aware applications, and smart objects. 

  • Mobile Devices are the fait accompli of our times. With techno giants like Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, Google and others scrambling to offer new Operating Systems, handsets and a host of third party applications, as well as increased location/s awareness, mobiles are set to assume central position in the areas of learning, productivity, and social networking. Mobiles are destined to take over “a host of tasks that were once the exclusive province of portable computers. “
  • Cloud Computing – include almost everything, from data blobs to massive, immensely powerful and diverse “data farms”, or “large clusters of networked servers.” Clouds offer quick, robust, cheap and easily accessible storage environments. This development is important not only to the future of storage capabilities, but also to ‘deep web” searching facilities – clouds are dreamscapes for search engines, no mechanical parts, only massive clustered storage with data thoroughly indexed… yum-yum!
  • Geo-Everything. Nowadays, stored information (be it images, sound files, or documents) can be tagged automatically – many such files offer metadata about themselves (where was the picture taken, when, by whom) and additional keywords can be added. Again – this is a philosophy that takes search engines into account and, as such, it offers scholars endless research and analysis opportunities. The report notes, wisely (or is it ominously?) that “[t]he full implications of geo-tagging are still unfolding, but the impact in research has already been profound. “
  • The Personal Web. “The term personal web was coined to represent a collection of technologies that are used to configure and manage the ways in which one views and uses the Internet” and to organize content online rather than simply view it. Here one can list RSS, for example, as well as tags-aware applications etc. This, too, has massive implications for research and analysis because it allows researchers to collate, store, archive, search, retrieve and analyse information according to a specific (‘personal’) pre-defined rule base – “it is easy to create a customized, personal web-based environment – a personal web – that explicitly supports one’s social, professional, learning, and other activities. “
  • Semantic-Aware Applications. This is my personal ‘sweet spot’ – content can be browsed, viewed, searched and analysed by specific applications that can discern between various ‘semantic relationships’ between words, keywords, key phrases and concepts – based on previous searches and usage. These applications use “context to extract embedded meaning [and] are providing rich new ways of finding and aggregating content.”
  • Smart Objects. To quote directly from the report – “[s]ometimes described as the “Internet of things,” smart objects describe a set of technologies that is imbuing ordinary objects with the ability to recognize their physical location and respond appropriately, or to connect with other objects or information. ” This means, for example, that research papers may be able to connect to other resources for an update on certain information; people will be able to find updated information about each other on Skype or Facebook, as well as be able to send them automatically via MMS through cellphones (dynamic business cards). Field-research will benefit hugely from such objects (already in existence, tagged animals update statistical documents with their latest location and conditions, CCTV type video is beamed directly from within active volcanoes and tiny sensors count wild animals’ traffic around drinking holes in remote parts of Africa.)

Did The 2017 Horizon Report on Emerging Technologies leave anything out of their future facing narrative?

 Most definitely:

Search language and digital robotics are conspicuous in their absence. The six exciting technologies above will need an intelligent, dynamic, yet accessible language that will underline – universally – the way digital objects ‘talk’ to each other, as well as the infrastructure and tools (robots, or bots)  needed in order to facilitate the eternal process of indexing, referencing and inferring . The complex dance of bots whose actions are driven by a powerful unifying language (or set of languages) will act on massive amounts of data and info-clusters, and serve – to paraphrase the great Tolkien – “to rule them all, to find them, to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them.

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