Don’t forget the indirect impacts as technological change permeates society. Don’t forget the dual value of human learning (and change) that comes with new technologies; Make sure to support this understanding and further learning.

(Also related: thoughts on predicting the future always misses cultural change… compilation coming soon)

Pointer from: SerendipitySearch // Already stored due to a mad grab through CMU’s Herb Simon files back in March 2018
Place digested: Dining Table
Time digested: Sept 29, 2018



Key themes:
  • We think of revolutions as being sudden events, but the revolution launched by the steam engine took, by any reasonable account, 150 years
  • Don’t forget the indirect impacts as technological change permeates society
  • No single-purpose device is going to bring about a revolution, however convenient or useful it may be. Revolutionary significance lies in generality.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of immersion
  • Don’t forget the dual value of human learning (and change) that comes with new technologies; Make sure to support this understanding and further learning


We think of revolutions as being sudden events, producing far-reaching changes in a very short period of time. But the revolution launched by the steam engine took, by any reasonable account, 150 years

Conversely, what we sometimes call technological change actually permeates society, affecting it in far more than merely "technological" ways.

And though again it seem surprising at first one of the largest migrations in human history was brought about by air conditioning, which transformed what many people thought of as uninhabitable parts of our country into the very attractive sunbelt.

I've already alluded to one lesson to be drawn from all of this, and that is the lesson of unpredictability. A genealogical chart of the First Industrial Revolution would encompass about six generations.

A second lesson, also alluded to, is the extent to which the ramifications of any one technological change depend upon the stimulation it provides to other inventions, and the links that are made from it to inventions that may be independent of it, as steam was linked to electricity.

A third lesson is the importance of what we might call "education by immersion."

A final lesson to be drawn from this history is the lesson of generality. In the last analysis, the reason that the steam engine and the associated inventions proved to be revolutionary is that they didn't do anything specifically. Rather, they allowed us to move in innumerable directions.

No single-purpose device is going to bring about a revolution, however convenient or useful it may be. Revolutionary significance lies in generality.

A problem solving program, an expert system, is an organized but highly flexible way of making sure of information that is incomplete and imperfect and that comes to it in a variety of forms and sequences. A capability for imprecision no longer marks the boundary between what computers can and cannot do

An important part of the anatomy of an expert system is a database, indexed by a set of cues that the system can recognize. When one of those cues appears, the system retrieves relevant information from its database

The first computer we acquired at Carnegie Mellon was an IBM 650. When we got it, in about 1958, we didn't have any idea what we were going to do with it. The electrical engineers didn't want to be associated with it because they were afraid they would have to maintain it; the mathematicians didn't want to be associated with it because it seemed beneath their dignity

So we put it in the basement of the business school, but we were very careful not to put a lock on the door. What happened was that the students swarmed all over it, just as previous generations had swarmed over the Model T. It was then that the faculty began to learn about it, to save themselves from embarrassment. What was happening was education by immersion.

On occasion, I was called in to advise in such situations, and my advice was usually, "Before you buy a computer, decide what you intend to do with it, and then plan your installation around those intended uses." That was terrible advice, and I probably ought to return the fees I got for giving it. Fortunately, my advice often wasn't taken, because the motivation for getting the computer was not to use it but just to have it. But then it arrived, and when I observed what happened afterward, I realized that the best advice was, in fact, just to have one around, for that's the only way a company or a university, or anybody else, is going to learn what to do with it.

Before the computer and all the associated devices can have any great impact on the educational system, there have to be major developments in our understanding of what the educational process is. Up to now, particularly at the university level, we have operated on what I call the "infection theory" of learning. This theory holds that if you assemble a large number of people in a room and spray a large number of words at them, some of those words will be infectious and will stick with some of those people and perhaps affect their future behavior. (Another form of the theory is that people are infected if they spray themselves with words from a large number of pages of print.)

The idea that having a lot of screens and boxes around makes human beings less interested in talking to each other, or doing all the other kinds of things that human beings do, just isn't borne out by the facts

If computers are to have real educational significance, there will have to be a major advance in what's now called cognitive science. We must gain a much deeper understanding of what it is that a student learns, what it is that a student should learn in order to become capable of exercising particular skills, and how that learning comes about. The theory we need does not so much concern the electronics we have available as it does the human component in the system that does our thinking and our learning.

In general, for every megabuck we spend in hardware and systems software, we will need to spend another megabuck for research on effective learning and development of modern learning environments

By way of conclusion, let me say that, as I hope the examples of the steam engine and the computer make clear, new technology is simply new knowledge; and as such, it resides not in machines but in the human brains that invent them, develop them, and use them. Even though the machines can help us learn about their characteristics by our use of them, still, in the last analysis, we have to think about technology in terms of human knowledge.

Our task is not to peer into the future to see what computers will bring us, but to shape the future that we want to have a future that will create new possibilities for human learning, including, perhaps most important of all, new possibilities for learning to understand ourselves.