Sunday, September 25, 2011

More Getting There From Here

[Now with update!]

The future is always just around the corner, and it seems the promise is always outweighed by the challenges of making the turn. The objections range from "how do we learn to do ..." to "what will we do for jobs?" and always seem to wind up with the perennial "what happens to the people who can't do it?". As if I had answers for questions about things that haven't even happened yet ...

One of the regular dismissals of proclamations about the future has to do with how a given technology will be adopted by industry and just people in general. Take for instance the future technology of 3D Printing. This is the stuff of Star Trek, right?

Nazzo fast, Guido.

A little segue here, to take another look at those questions that keep getting asked. I tend not to get all worked up about the how's and what's that always accompany change; people have been successfully adapting to changing circumstances for as long as there have been people. Now, because it's all of a sudden us having to make the change, we've somehow forgotten how? I don't buy it, and we would all be better off trying to find a way to incorporate whatever opportunity we can into out lives instead of objecting to others doing the same. No one is able to be successful at everything - and some of us seem incapable of mastering anything - but the more of us who do succeed at doing so, the more of us there are who are able to help the rest along. Which is pretty much the same messy way humans have adapted and developed throughout our history.

One of my principal hobbies is shooting (and generally spending money on) firearms. It's an American thing. I spent much of my teen years shooting 1903 Springfield-pattern rifles and 1911-pattern pistols and have taken every opportunity that came along to try my hand at whatever firearm I have been presented the chance to shoot in the years since. I'm well aware that the shooting sports and industry is steeped in the traditions and technologies long since refined to achieve the degree of finish and performance now regarded as routine and normal, so imagine my pleasant sense of surprise to read this and this and not watch the blogger have to wade through a storm of objections and dismissal by others. Those old reactionary American Gunnies slipping into the future like it was scripted by John Moses Browning himself.

Actually, I submit that the culture and mental attitude that is fundamental to modern ownership of firearms in America has much to do with why such fantastic-seeming technology, and the individual empowerment it provides, seems so readily accepted. The near-universal acknowledgement of The Four Rules (enthusiastically encouraged by the showers of scorn heaped upon those who publicly violate them) along with the widespread practice of personal licensing for private concealed carry of handguns (in 49 of the 50 US states) has, I contend, nurtured a somewhat self-reinforcing atmosphere of accentuated personal responsibility among gun owners, especially notable within the online members of the gun owning community, that exceeds anything experienced by our gun-toting ancestors. I expect the historically recent efforts to exile guns from private hands, and the apparent rejection of those efforts by our fellow citizens, has had much to do with the psychological attitudinal change that has accompanied the shift away from the "group rights" mindset toward that of individual rights common today and has also contributed to this willingness to consider the unorthodox as well. Whether or to what degree I'm right about any of that, I do think that gun owners seem better prepared to accept and adopt potentially disruptive technologies that offer the potential to expand their capability to participate in gun ownership then other sub-sets of the American populace have so far demonstrated. No doubt the historical attitude of self-sufficiency and independence associated with gun ownership strongly contributes to this willingness to accept the challenges that accompany untried opportunity as well.

What this instance also provides is a real-world example of how disruptive technology gradually transitions from threat to routine practice. Go read that wikipedia link to 3D printing in closer detail; the boys and girls at Cornell University can print food? When is that home appliance going to be for sale at Walmart?

One of the regular objections raised in discussions of this type of technology relates to education. At Phil Bowermaster's site Transparency Revolution I've recently participated in a discussion on a variant of this concern; here, here, and here, with a related post here. How we gain knowledge and experience in using it for some practical purpose isn't only a matter of having it presented to us in a controlled fashion within a regulated and structured environment (to the extent our public schools ever really were such a thing), especially now that the capability to obtain the information is literally at almost anyone's fingertips.

An example of what I mean can be read here. World of Warcraft is certainly one of the most popular time sinks online multi-player games in the world today (can you tell I'm one of the few to have successfully resisted the allure? :)). It is also the forum of choice for a presentation of the latest research findings into individual and group cognition by a research group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If that topic of research is of interest to you, and you can gain access to "... the Ironforge Library on the Saurfang server", your attention and contribution will likely be welcome.

The more general education point of the linked post by Labrat at her personal blog Atomic Nerds (and you too should contribute to her husband Stingray's efforts to help raise money for prostate and testicular cancer research) can be summed up best in her own words:
The thing is, though, that what game developers are essentially in the business of is making learning such a fun and organic activity that people pay in real money and real time in order to do it. It doesn’t matter how basic the game is, all that any of them offer is a chance to master an activity at progressive levels of difficulty; Tetris is a spatial puzzle that speeds up. You can see rotation of objects through space as a challenge on many, many different IQ tests. Pac-Man is another spatial puzzle- track yourself and several other moving objects through a maze, complete the maze within a time limit and without running into any other moving object. Any of the original simulation genre is complex systems manipulation and mastery, and the flight simulator became so detailed that its devotees can spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on equipment and the software to do something that has no game goal but is just as complex and difficult as flying a real plane, minus the g forces and fatal consequences. The later Sims games are a combination of resource management, virtual architecture, and learning how the AI works. Portal is another spatial puzzle, speeded up and with extra dimensions and physics problems added.

MMOs take things to the next level; something like Portal is meant to be played out over a certain number of potential gameplay hours, but an MMO developer has to make the game interesting enough, and content extendable enough, that players remain interested and engaged with the game for years. Depending on the game and the size of playerbase it’s looking to command, there are usually multiple layers of gameplay to learn and potentially master; a developer’s challenge is to make the transition between “kill ten rats, get ten silver” to “level up (gradually increase in complexity)”, to “master your class and take part in competition demanding great knowledge of the game and your role in it, teamwork, practice, and research” fun enough to be worth paying money for- and the fun is in the learning process; even very achievement-oriented players walk away if there’s no challenge to it.

EVE Online is probably the most extreme example; the point of the game is participation in a player-driven economy, which rather than being centrally controlled by the parent company is entirely player-organized and run, to the point where fantastic acts of economic sabotage that nearly any other gaming company would put their foot down on is merely part of the game experience. It’s also the only game with a player-created and elected governing political body, the Council of Stellar Management, which exists to represent the playerbase to the developer team. It is, in essence, a virtual state with virtual corporations and virtual militaries and mercenaries who do what is in nearly all respects work, with the difficulty curve to match and little effort made to make it more accessible to newer or more casual players. The work IS the point of the game. In essence, people pay real money for a non-real job with far fewer protections and benefits than a real job, except for the freedom to experiment.

One more link to consider before you dismiss all this as wishful thinking. Al Fin is one of the more consistently well written and wide-ranging of topic blogs I'm aware of. S/He and/or they recently posted about an interesting educational practice the Israeli's have developed called Talpiot. From the Al Fin post:
Talpiot is a program for bringing the best of the best of Israeli youth together into an intensive mental, physical, and military training regimen. 5,000 youth apply every year, and 50 are accepted. Out of those 50, only 40 will complete the training, and be commissioned as lieutenants in the IDF. They spend 9 years total, including education, training, and military commitment ...

... Talpiot is run by the Israeli Defense Force with the aim of creating an elite officer corps which is capable of responding to any threat by the innovative use of the most advanced technologies -- or any tool within reach. If these elite soldiers later become leaders in business, technology, finance, and other vital areas of society, it should come as no surprise to anyone who is paying attention.

Consider if you will an online game community structured much like the EVE example from Labrat's post, that begins at the basic levels of academic instruction and proceeds ultimately (and only really expected to attract the most fractional percentage of the total player community) to some reasonable facsimile of the Israeli Talpiot program structure (or at least it's academic/intellectual content), that is available to anyone who can gain online access at whatever schedule s/he requires and at the pace of advancement they are capable of achieving.

Think it could never work? From Labrat again, consider this Proof of Concept:
More accurately, this would be titled “clever biochemists induce a population of people who do spatial reasoning puzzles for fun to solve their spatial reasoning problem for entertainment and bragging rights”.

If American business entities large and small were to jointly create a mechanism (a straight-forward trust fund to finance purchase/maintenance the servers, etc once the game itself was written would accomplish this - look at the EVE model, management and repair/expansion of the game is a player responsibility), they could fund this EVE-like online educational game to their - and our - mutual advantage. If their HR departments could track at least some of their individual employee's achievements within the game, and a financial benefit for the individual employee was offered for success achieved in stipulated courses of instruction, the pending skilled/educated employee crunch that gets much moaned about might become a non-issue and the question of where the jobs will come from become self-evident. Players would probably have to roll their eyes at the inevitable product placement, but whatta ya gonna do?

Some disclaimers; I don't play electronic games, online or otherwise; there's only so many hours in a day, and so much money to be extracted from the wallet, so I'm all too aware of just how far all this strays from an personal expertise I can claim. That said, I've repeatedly learned new (to me) skills and knowledge throughout my life in order to continue some semblance of gainful employment. If I can pull this off for going on six decades now, pretty much anyone who can see the screen and hit the keys can too.

I will also readily admit that some better mechanism for gaining practical expertise to accompany all the theory needs to be developed along with the educational game I suggest here too. There's always going to be some problem needs solving. Indeed, this may not prove to be a practical mechanism at all, but I contend it does illustrate that a solution to being able to take advantage of the opportunities the disruptive future will present are available to us now. It only remains for us to make the effort to begin the gradual process of preparing ourselves to overcome the risks that are always associated with opportunity.

UPDATE 9/27/11: RobertaX takes a look at this too.

10/07/11: And Clark at Popehat gets all linked up on the details.

10/10/11: Phil at Transparency Revolution points out yet another application for educational games.

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