Unlearning Negative Conditioning

6 11 2010

“If at first a new idea doesn’t seem ridiculous, then there is no hope for it.”

That was Albert Einstein, and our institutions of learning would be a lot better off, as would we, if he had been responsible for masterminding their missions and policies.

Unfortunately, our schools are not based on the premise of learning new ideas, big picture thinking (systems thinking) and decision making, but rather on memorizing history, and classifying people’s aptitudes based on one mode of learning. This has had quite a profoundly negative effect on our perception of our capacity to learn. So, very much like understanding why we resist change, this step is critical in order to shed negative reinforcement. Indeed, this understanding and therefore unlearning our bad learning habits is the last preparatory step in the adaptability process.

Fear tells you this:

I can’t do it.

It certainly isn’t true. But it’s important to understand why that fear constantly steps in, that is the key to undoing the effects of lifelong negative reinforcement. This fear has everything to do with our learning institutions.

Continual self doubt is simply the residue of being negatively reinforced for so long. It’s akin to being afraid of change. You have been told since you were a child, by teacher, parents, grading systems, and certain marketing institutions that sell products by using negative reinforcement, that you are either good or bad at something, that you have aptitude for certain things, but not others, and that you need things you don’t have in order to be whole. People who decided as children that elementary school math class didn’t come easily and quickly often believe as adults that they are simply not good at math.

It’s all a matter of focus, desire, and finding the proper learning method and tools for your disposition. Ultimately, when it came to education, Albert Einstein’s advice was to hold imagination in higher regard than knowledge. That means to trust who you are and let your sense of wonder, curiosity and playfulness guide you. Your intellect is a given. Think of it as a large empty tool box in your mind. Knowledge is simply material—tools—you gather to fill that box. You can attain any knowledge you want.

And in terms of the best way for you to learn something? Consider that each toolbox might have a different lock. You just need to find the proper key. Are you a visual learner? Tactile? There are ways to find this out, if you don’t already know. And if you do know, for instance, that you are a tactile learner but you’re trying to learn a new skill where hands-on teaching isn’t immediately available, don’t despair. There are tools now that can offer you a tactile experience when you need.

Perhaps the most important aspect of learning new skills is to be open and assertive in terms of what you need in order to learn something efficiently and comfortably. There is no shame in needing tools. People get so ashamed if they don’t learn something immediately, even if the method of teaching is crude, such as the mind-numbing, convoluted worksheets most public schools use to allegedly teach our country’s children math. That shame is societal conditioning. It has nothing to do with your ability to learn.

The tools are here! It’s the 21st century. The primitive group-think method of 20th century classrooms aren’t where education ends.

Because of conditioning, upbringing, training, and exposure, certain knowledge might come easier and faster than other pieces of information. And you can argue that not everyone’s toolboxes are the same size, or that other factors, such as biochemical substance imbalance in the brain, cause different capacities. But you know what? These are minor differences, particularly when applied to the realistic, every day, new things you must learn to keep up with changing times. But let’s be clear here. If you really wanted to become a physicist today, and you are 35 years old, have never been good at math, and are a working at Burger King, you could in fact do it. It’s all a matter of focus. You are just fine the way you are, capable of learning anything, and nothing bad is going to happen.

The key is to start by asking questions, and knowing that there are no stupid ones. You will discover that there are many more avenues to find answers, and to do so with immediacy.

The first question you may want to ask yourself is what new things do you need to learn. Make a list. Then ask how you can best learn them, and finally, where do you find the tools you need. If you have a smart phone, that great shared memory tool that is thankfully a new turbo charged organ in our bodies, you can find out easily, using your sense of digital kinesthesia to jump in and research our global network of tools and ideas, and get social feedback while you’re at it, join a community of people just like you.

If you encounter self doubt along the way, that the newness you’re experiencing is somehow false and wasting your time, take a look, just for fun, at a few examples of attacks on technology that seem idiotic now. Guess, for instance, which technologies people thought would cause death and illiteracy? Trains, telephones, and phonographs.

Nick Bilton interviewed on the NPR show “On the Media”

There were scientists of the day that said that if we traveled on a train over 20 miles an hour that our bones could explode.

The telephone, for example – 1876, front page of The New York Times, and the telephone debuts, and the article, you know, starts off describing what this technology is but then goes into this long list of things that the telephone is going to do negative to society. And one of them is that people will never leave their house again.

Not even a year later, out comes the phonograph, and the front-page article in The New York Times about the phonograph says the telephone that was just regarded as the invention of the century is about to be eclipsed by the phonograph, where people can buy bottled quarts of conversations, and they’ll never leave their home again.

And there’s a great line that says, you know, blessed be the boy of the future who never has to learn how to read.

Our online social senses and digital kinesthesia

23 09 2010

We are developing new senses that not only allow us to learn and change with a greater capacity than ever before, but to network and interact for business and pleasure on an entirely different scale. These are senses that can change our standard of living, improve our overall quality of life, even help us think in ways that weren’t possible before.

Online social senses can be thought of as a capacity to perceive what happens in online spaces. They are needed to explore and perceive these worlds, and to enable us to interact in these worlds, reply and react to what’s going on. So just like hearing and sight, we develop a digital kinesthesia as we try to find a position in each of the opportunities the online world affords.

How we learn to navigate online communities is important to understand because it is having an increasing impact on the information input we experience. It is, in simplest terms, a huge sensory input. People who are active users of Facebook find that it as a significant impact on their daily lives. Keeping pace and knowing what’s going on with hundreds of connected “friends” and their conversations is an example of digital kinesthesia.

One important difference between physical reality and online reality is that we have different personalities online that aren’t synthesized, which means we have multiple identities to consider in time and space. But don’t think of this as a negative, but as a positive, even if at first it feels overwhelming and scattered because it’s not fused in a single being. We have multiple identities as we travel through online world having different experiences, different things to react to, with no single, static environment.

This experience of divergent identities is not a single experience. In the physical world, the limitations of geography means a person creates a relationship with the environment and people that by definition is constrained by those limits. Seldom do you get to touch more than a couple of people at a time, for example.

In comparison, our multiple identities share experiences with other online identities that are vastly different. We interact with tens, hundreds, thousands of people at a time. This makes these shared experiences fundamentally different.

Our digital projections (online identities) will only become richer and richer, representing our will, desires, and nature at a higher degree of expansiveness, not to mention accuracy.

The simple activity of creating connections in the online world of social networks creates intersections, overlapping shared experiences with other identities. These intersections are sensory input.

Online agents will also enhance our ability to engage. With increasing degrees of machine autonomy in decision making, we will only get more informational input, and choices, over time.

With more and more machine to machine communication, as our mobile networks grow, we will be able to enhance our human endeavors in new ways. We will, for example, be able to have long distance relationships that have immediacy and persistence. We are already starting to, but it will only feel more and more like we’re in the same time and space, regardless of physical location.

With social networks, we are building digital projections of our selves are part of a universe that really has no boundaries. You, therefore, have no boundaries in your ability. You can reconsider your ambition entirely.


22 08 2010

Memory, knowledge acquisition, data visualization, decision-making, and the creation of social and business bonds – an enormous part of what we do with our brains – is now being mediated and extended by machines. In the 1960s the word “cyborg” was coined from the combination of cybernetics (a 1940s word for the science of communication systems) and organism. Cyborg was defined then (and in some dictionaries still) as:

“…a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body” — New Oxford American Dictionary

But extending our physical abilities is no longer fictional or hypothetical. A procedure as simple and commonplace as cataract surgery (over 3 million are performed every year in the US according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology) involves the placement into the eye through a small incision an artificial lens made of plastic, silicone or acrylic that performs the function of the eye’s natural lens. Even more radical surgery is now regularly done to replace or augment limbs or organs and to repair a wide variety of damage done to our bodies by age, accident, or disease.

While these are examples of mechanical enhancements, computers are increasingly becoming an integrated part of our bodies as well. Computers are used, for example, in artificial hearts in order to monitor and control operation in the body. In most cases today the enhancements are intended to merely restore a person’s faculties to those that they enjoyed before an accident (or age) deprived them of “normal human” ability. But using tools to extend our abilities is a basic human activity, it is what sets us apart from other animals. Having these tools “built into the body” simply extends this behavior.

Today the connection between computers and our bodies is usually through looking at a screen and typing on a keyboard. But “built into the body” interfaces are already appearing, for example in hearing aides. Over time these capabilities will expand and our integration with computers and will increase human capabilities “beyond normal human limitations.” Some people will be frightened by these changes while others will embrace and accelerate this process of adaptation.

Computation Economy

9 07 2010

Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock” (1970) “The Third Wave” (1980) and “Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Violence at the Edge of the 21st Century” (1990) developed the thesis that human civilizations have developed from early tribal groups in three distinct “waves” and that we are currently in the third. In each stage we built our cities and institutions based on a different set of strengths.

In the first wave, agrarian societies, Toffler observed that the organized production of goods depended upon control of the land on which crops were grown or livestock grazed. Civilizations that prospered in this era were ones that had strong militaries since defending physical assets was essential to the control of wealth and power.

Widespread development of currencies as a way of storing and exchanging value (though typically still based on precious metals) and the development of banking institutions with the ability to move currencies geographically and between economic and political spheres through investment and loans allowed wealth to be abstracted from underlying physical assets. This process transferred power from property holders to merchants, just as the value in goods moved from raw materials to finished products. But this process only accelerated and became what Toffler calls the second wave with a change in the means of production.

Until the 18th century production of goods was largely dependent upon human or animal labor. But engines, initially powered by steam and later by gasoline and electricity, changed the relationship between labor and production. Suddenly a machine could do the work of first many men and then tens, hundreds or even thousands of men. Ownership of these machines – capital assets – became more important than ownership of land or control of people as the balance of the value that they produced shifted decisively to the machine.

The industrial revolution, as we more commonly refer to this second wave, brought about a radical shift in every aspect of our society. The forces unleashed by the steam engine destroyed the agrarian world order, eliminated entire classes of work, denigrated the role of professional craftspeople, and doomed the aristocracy. It also brought about the greatest period of innovation, increase in longevity and broad spread of prosperity in history. Instead of laboring in a field, the majority of people now labored in factories. But this was accompanied by enormous growth in first the upper class and eventually the middle class. While some may still look back on agrarian times with nostalgia for a simpler time, the vast majority of humanity has lived longer, healthier, and happier lives as the industrial age developed into maturity.

With “Future Shock” Alvin Toffler announced that we had entered what he later called the “third wave” – an information age. Where money and machines had shifted wealth and power away from those that controlled military forces, in the third wave Toffler predicted that a new shift was underway – from control of capital assets to the control of information. Speaking on what he would later call the coming “Power Shift,” Toffler said:

“The central change that the economists have not yet been able to get their arms around, is the change in the role of knowledge in the broadest sense of information and ideas and data, (and) the relationship of that to making wealth in an economy.”

Already in 1990, Toffler saw that the structure of power that had held the world together through the industrial revolution was being radically transformed by information technology. The first uses of the new technology were in our industrial institutions, changing the scale and operational characteristic of these organizations. But for the past thirty years this technology has been expanding to every level of human society, even changing who we are as individuals. We can expect that the coming world will be as different from the industrial world as it was in turn to the agrarian world that it replaced.

Collaboration at Global Scale

18 06 2010

Civilization is, in one sense, a set of tools for limiting competition and encouraging collaboration between people. The ability to coordinate and cooperate is crucial to developing solutions to global problems. One key development emerging is something that sociologists call collective intelligence. By contrast with our own individual intelligence, this capability emerges from certain kinds of organized group communications. The cheap (in some cases virtually free) computing and communications that has become available over the past decade is rapidly expanding the circumstances in which this phenomenon can emerge. Organizations and individuals are beginning to do things differently as a result.

Virtually everything businesses do, for example, can be enhanced as a result of the connected web of people that we build around us — Invention, product development, purchase decisions, support services — every point at which decisions are made and value is created through the knowledge component of our work.

Biological vs. Technological Time

10 05 2010

How can something be 50% done but also only 5% complete simultaneously? Well in the case of the human genome project this was exactly what happened — looking at the sequencing over the period from 1990 when the project was funded to 2000 – when the “rough draft” was published, almost none of the genome had been sequenced at the halfway point (1995). Even taking the six year period from 1996 to 2002 (when substantially all of the sequencing had been completed) we see that 3 years in, 1999, less than 10% of the genome had been sequenced:

(Image from Strategic Genomics)

What is happening here is simple – it is the interface between linear time (that which we biological organisms deeply comprehend) and the exponential time that technology operates at. Stop and think about this for a moment. Assume that this notion of “time” that you have is not a constant, but in fact is the subject of your particular ability to perceive change. Our bodies, brains, and the culture around us are all calibrated to linear time. But the technology world operates on an exponential pace. And increasingly our world depends upon technology.

The Human Genome Project depended upon improvements in technology in order to achieve its goal. Sequencing technology improved every year and allowed the team to sequence more than twice the material each year that had been sequenced in the year before. This trend line continues — research and entrepreneur Craig Venter recently observed that each year more sequencing is done than the aggregate of all prior years combined. Such is the magic of exponential growth.

Dr. Andreas Weigend has similarly observed (The Social Data Revolution) that each year more data is created and stored than in all prior years combined. Technology is moving exponentially. Biology continues on at a linear pace. Are our lives more bounded by the biology of our bodies and brains? Or by the technology that defines our environment?

Smithsonian Magazine sought to answer this question in their latest issue, which celebrates the magazine’s 40th anniversary. This issue looks both backwards and forwards, imagining what life in 2050, 40 years from now, will be like. But they and the people they interview (visitors views of the Smithsonian at 50) fail to comprehend the big picture.

Over the linear timeline of 80 years, the first half, or 40 years, represents less than 5% of the changes that are driven by technology which are arguably the most important changes in defining what our lives will be like in the future. Or put another way, the next 40 years will bring 20 times more change then the last 40 years.

Reflecting on jet air travel, digital communications, personal computers, mobile phones, the Internet… the last 40 years did bring about 20 times more change then the 40 years prior — think about 1970-2010 vs. 1930-1970. Think about any linear (biological) timeline against an exponential (technological) timeline:

200 years ago exponential technological change didn’t matter to most people. We didn’t notice because technology wasn’t part of the way we lived our lives. Today everything we do is mediated by technology, and all of it is changing, radically, daily.

Are you ready for 20 times more change in the next 40 years than in the last 40 years?

The Challenge of Adaptability

14 04 2010

Despite significant differences in circumstances, personalities, organizational structures, and other cultural or regional differences some people are successful at adapting to the changing conditions of our crazy world and others are not.

Is it intelligence? Education? I don’t think so. I have seen incredibly brilliant people mired in their beliefs, unable to see how the world had changed and so must they also change… and people with a modest education and a lack of interest in “intellectual” subjects who seem to have a natural ability to transform themselves in the face of new information and circumstances. And vice versa!

In a recent interview at Google (reported on by the political blog Calbuzz) California Attorney General (and Gubernatorial candidate) Jerry Brown was quoted as saying:

The new comes out of the random. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. Some people think I’m a little random. But unless you’re open to new possibilities, you rarely come up with something new. If you’re rigidly programmed, if you’re managing what is, you can’t create what really needs to be.

Brown at Google: The Value of Being Random

From an evolutionary perspective it is understandable why rigid programming, to use Brown’s phrase, can have great value. When you are gathering berries and you hear that particular sound made by animals fleeing a predator it is great to instantly know that you are in danger and not have to spend time wondering what the commotion is all about. Survivors in our species were selected by their ability to develop a fixed understanding of their environment.

But recent research also suggests that there is an important role for the contrarian in our society – the person willing to think differently from the rest of the social group. Sometimes conditions did change and this person who was willing to think differently would save the tribe. And we celebrate these figures. Our literature is filled with stories of the individual who stood up to power, who saw the change coming in time, who did something different and was able to achieve greatness.

So there is likely a genetic thread in all of us which allows us to open our eyes to the world and recognize that it is time to be a bit random – to throw off our rigid programming and imagine what “really needs to be.”

The question to ask is, what must we do to learn this critical skill of adaptability. We need it more and more with each day of this new century.


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