Today, in our remembrance of the life of Neil Armstrong, we acknowledge his personal accomplishment, and his symbolic role in history. I remember staying up late over 40 years ago to see his first step onto the moon’s surface from our black and white TV. And I remember the earlier speech by President John F. Kennedy that challenged a nation to dream bigger, not smaller. In remembering Neil Armstrong, we also remember a way of life, a feeling about life that inspired us to overcome challenges, and to “shoot for the moon.” We remember when inspirational leadership promised the moon, and when the world watched every flickering black and white minute of it.
Remembering is more than memorizing with flash cards. Remembering is more than a banner that says “We Will Never Forget” that is brought out for an annual event. Remembering is a deeply reflective activity. So how should we remember Neil Armstrong? The news channels, by their nature, focus on recent events, not reflective remembrance. So in their coverage of today’s memorial service and historic perspective, the website experience was a mixed bag. I visited ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, NBC News, and USA Today.
Some covered the story on their front page, as a world event. Some listed a link under U.S. News. And others buried it even deeper under the topics of Science or Technology. This difference in categorization is a lesson in taxonomy. Was this just a technical topic? Does this story only have U.S. interest? Maybe our ability to remember is reflected in our ability to categorize, but also to advance. Forty years ago, I was not thinking about just the technology or being an American. So today, I remember Neil Armstrong, for his personal accomplishment and character, for his place in world history, and for all that he symbolized in a challenging and worthy organizational goal.
The problem with using this term “technology” is that we usually begin talking about technology for the sake of technology. It’s a big word, in that it needs to be broken down to be useful in a conversation. For example, it’s like asking if I like the “government.” Well, I don’t know if you’re talking about a war, my postman, taxes, NASA, or, well you get the idea. We tend to do this with our language. We clump subjects under one big term and throw it around to the point that we collectively lose track of “any” of the meanings. For example, we say “America” and I wonder if we are talking about a continent, a country, 50 states, 48 states, or an idea for protecting freedom. But the term “American Experiment” forces us to have a conversation about the “ideas” we live within, not just the dirt we live on. Similarly, “technology” is better described with the term “technological enabler,” which forces us to have a conversation about the “ideas” we are trying to enable.
I wonder how the early hunters were able to battle starvation without using the term “technology.” They were still able to sharpen and shape a rock, and fasten it to a stick to make a spear. They must have asked questions, at least in their minds, like “How can we take down the animal without getting hurt?”, “Don’t the long sticks keep them from hurting us?”, and “What if we put the sharp rock on the end of the stick?” The term “technological enabler” frees us from thinking that the solution must be complex, and forces us to have a conversation about the underlying questions.
To date, our technological enablers have been busy helping us answer questions related to “What?”, “When?”, “Where?”, and “How Many?” We expect to see online dictionaries, calendars, maps, and calculators. The Information Age was defined by the explosion in the amount of answers now available, but not by answering any new questions. The last decade has seen an explosion in “Social Media” as our technological enablers have begun to answer the many questions related to “Who?” And at some point, we will eventually turn our attention to the question of “Why?”
Today, thankfully, most of us are not focusing our everyday questions to battle starvation. In the knowledge economy we focus our questions instead on the reasons and rationale. Yet we have not yet adopted a user interface to the question of “Why?” Remember, dictionaries, calendars, maps, and calculators were already invented before the Information Age. The technologists just found new ways to present them and make them interactive. If we assume that humans always make the right decisions, or learn from them, agree on decisions, and keep track of those decisions, then the Information Age will work just fine to help us make informed decisions. But the major challenges we face today are due to “human decisions” and it is time for technological enablers to support our requirements of collaborative decision making, transparency, conflict resolution, and organizational learning. The Explanation Age is about the collection of terms and tools needed to allow us to say “You Are Here,” except not within a map for the question of “Where,” but within a thought process for the question of “Why.” Current decision making tools just focus on the question of “Which” as they support many variables into a single decision. But we need the user interface to mimic the thought process which ties our individual decisions into explanations. We need The Explanation Age.
I recently read a great online paper by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams” at http://www.squidoo.com/stop-stealing-dreams
. You should download his manifesto when you get a chance. It is not only one of the better descriptions of the problem with our educational system; it provides links to all of the other key books and resources on this topic as well.
The reason I particularity like this paper is because it starts with a basic question: “what is school for?” He also touches on the needs of the Industrial Age versus where we are now, and strikes at the heart of learning with his insightful view of “doubt and certainty.” Readers of The Explanation Age will recognize this as the foundational element of all reason, which is the balance we make between questions from curiosity versus questions from conviction.
It now seems abundantly clear to all that our institutions are broken at the “model” level. My hope is that we now turn our attention to fulfilling on the mission ahead. We have enough publications that point out the problem, and now have ample awareness that the problem is at the “model” level. It is time to start focusing on the publications that provide alternative models of learning, for education as well as business innovation. I respectfully submit “The Explanation Age.”
I was fortunate to be able to take a vacation to Orlando, Florida this summer, and visit Universal’s Theme Parks. Most people were there to see the World of Harry Potter, as evidenced by the extremely long lines. So I found an older section of the park to be more enjoyable. That’s when I spotted the “Tribute to Lucy.” It is like a mini-museum and store for people who still love Lucille Ball. Of course, there were the predictable displays and items to buy. But there was a small display, behind the glass, that caught my eye. It described another side of Lucy, not just as a comedian, but as a student and teacher.
Apparently, Lucy was quite active in teaching others what she knew about her trade, and had a busy lecture schedule. But she also attended seminars herself, as a student, to continue to push herself towards excellence in her craft. So, what kind of class would Lucy take where she could possibly learn more about comedy and acting? Behind the glass laid perhaps the secret to her success. On display were her notes from a seminar where the objective was to prove that people have an ability to predict. Understanding prediction was important to writing a hit show. Prediction is at the root of cognition and knowing, and also allows us to retain an audience.
In The Explanation Age, I present the main reasons behind all explanations. And all reasons have predictive qualities. For example, from your “reaction”, I will automatically predict your readiness and tendency. And from your reason of “want”, I will automatically predict your mood and values. But it also works in reverse. Understanding and controlling the predictive qualities of our reasons will affect the reasons within our own explanations, and the explanations themselves. There are over 600 terms semantically connected throughout The Explanation Age, to bring a new level of predictability to our explanations, our education, our artificial intelligence, our knowledge management, and maybe also to our entertainment.
I recently watched a TV show on the History channel called American Pickers. It’s about two guys that drive around looking for old junk, or rather what they call “rusty gold.” When they find an antique they think they can resell for a profit, they begin negotiating for a price. And as suspected, they want to pay less than the seller wants to sell for. You could call this a conflict. This is where the negotiating begins, to understand why someone places a different value on something from the value you place on it. It would be easy to start saying things like “you are being greedy” or “you are being cheap.” Or it could get even more personal with attacks like “you are a thief” or “you are a pig-headed…”, well you get the idea.
But instead of saying what someone is being like, or worse, saying what you think they are, they use a language that describes “where” they are. Instead of visualizing themselves as enemies, they visualize where they both are on the same map. So you hear a negotiation that sounds something like: “you are at $35 and I am at $25.” When they can both see where they are on a common map, it helps them find a way to meet in the middle. Is there something here that leaders can learn from pickers?
What does educational reform mean to you? In the 1950’s and 60’s it meant the end of racially segregated schools in America. Since then, it has represented curriculum reform, teacher compensation reform, teacher accountability reform, parent choice reform, and about a dozen additional reforms. But regardless the teacher, topic, or technology, there is a methodology that all teachers are taught which needs to be addressed if we are to have sense-making reform. This methodology is known as Bloom’s Taxonomy. In 1956, Benjamin Bloom proposed the six types of learning objectives that can be created for learners, and this limited framework provides the foundational skeleton for all of education and testing. This framework was created by talking to teachers and testers to get their lists of classroom objectives, to then group these objectives into six buckets. But as anyone in business understands, the first step in a successful change project is to know who your stakeholders are. Bloom talked to the stakeholders of teachers and testers to understand what they were trying to do, before organizing their classroom objectives into six buckets. Can you identify the missing stakeholder? Why not also ask the learners for what they were trying to do?
Is the Information Age sustainable? This is not a question for technology, but for us. We have more and more information, but less and less understanding. There are plenty of books that point out we have a problem, but few that point towards a path with a solution. Back in 1989, Richard Wurman wrote in Information Anxiety about the gap between “what we understand and what we think we should understand.” But now we should wish for mere anxiety as the problem. In Nicholas Carr’s recent book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, he provides evidence that using the Internet rewires our brain to help us multitask – but weakens our brain for deep thinking and comprehension. And in beginning to answer the question of sustainability, Mark Bauerlein captures the concern in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.
The Explanation Age is where we stop the nonsense of unlimited amounts of data with very limited access to the explanations. Instead of finding the descriptions and then digging for the decisions, we flip the approach. But this change entails more than technology or the user interface, it requires rethinking our philosophy of mind. This is the real change that will come after the Information Age – if we have enough “deep thinking” left to get us there. Please join the discussion. There is a lot to do. Educational reform, business innovation, and transparency in policy-making are not disconnected topics. They are directly related with the right philosophy of mind. Sense-making has no domain barriers. Making it the user interface will do more than create a new web site – it will produce The Explanation Age.
Every year, the Edge Organization (http://edge.org/) asks a provocative question, and this year is no exception. But this year, I have an answer. I believe everybody’s cognitive toolkit would improve with the realization of one concept (in four parts):
1a. Everything known comes from an explanation
1b. Explanations have common parts and patterns
1c. The mind’s explanation patterns are misaligned with the processes of the world’s institutions
1d. We find the solution to this problem within the book: The Explanation Age
Picture this. If I ask you a question related to "where" - you would show me a map. Or if I ask you a question related to "when" - you would show me a calendar. But if I ask you a question related to "why" - now what tool do we expect everybody to pull out of their back pocket? None right now, living in the Information Age, but that will change in the Explanation Age.
The New Year brings new resolutions for many of us. One of the questions I’ve been asking myself is if there are any new books that I should commit to reading this year. I’m reminded of the importance of this question as I think of the relationship between the books I have read and where I am today as a new author. Over the holidays, some relatives have asked how I got started in writing my book called The Explanation Age. The answer is not just that I have read many books, but that some specific books seemed to “stare at me” from their place on the bookshelf, which made me ask questions, and led me to writing my book.
What books are on your bookshelves that seem to stare at you? What questions do they ask of you? For me, it was a set of books that represented the ages of civilization. I’ve had this collection for over 20 years, and early on some clear questions emerged: Why are some periods of time defined as “ages” and given their own book within the collection, whereas other periods of time were simply “eras” and reduced to the first or last chapter of an age? Is the answer simply that an age is longer than an era, or is the answer related to something deeper like the difference between stable and transitional times?