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August 04, 2008

On the Nature of "Change"

The calendar has turned to August and a small twitch has returned to the back of my neck as 'back to school' is now within sight. While these pages haven't been updated through July, I thought I'd start August with a reflection of an exchange initiated by Jeff Pulver in his facebook pages. Over the weekend Jeff posed the insight that we should focus on the things we can control rather than being consumed with the 'stuff' we can't control. I started thinking about how we battle the need to control in a world that seems to be ever more 'out of control'. Below is a slightly abridged version of my exchange with Jeff. Insights and feedback, as always, welcome....

Jeff, I like this reflective impulse. When public personalities such as yourself take time to remind all of us that the very technologies that we create and consume need to be tamed in order to find and maintain balance in our lives, the light bulbs do go off.

The old Mario Andretti line that "if you feel you're in control you aren't going fast enough" is an artifact of an interesting inherited worldview.

The pursuit of control is an interesting existential need. 500 years ago, the emergent Renaissance era was largely defined by placing humans at the center of the universe. Controlling nature became the ultimate pursuit for western society and has guided much of our philosophical thiking for these past 500 years. Through multiple 'scientific revolutions', building off of each other, we have reached a proverbial inflection point. The emergent, hyperconnected 'Net is as much as any force in human history responsible for the current dislocation and sense of loss of control in the traditional centers of power.

Jeff, you are one of our generation's Galileos (heretic, storyteller, visionary). But where Galileo helped to usher in the scientific worldview, we are now in need of a new, equally compelling worldview that helps us make sense of the emergent unity of the 'Net in which we again understand that we are an intimate and active participant in the making and remaking of the universe of our own creation.

I would suggest that emergent era might be termed something like is the Epoch of Ambiguity. Those who learn to embrace ambiguity and actually strive in the multiple inconsistencies that present themselves will thrive. Mastery of ambiguity is not control. There are multiple dynamics at play, many of which are made possible by the communications and technology revolution of which you (and us) have been championing. The resulting condition not only resulted in us 'loosing' control. Control is not shifting elsewhere. What is emergent is a new (500 year?) arc of human activity and ingenuity. Examples of the new emergent condition abound. The shifting and conjunctural forms of power and alliances on the world stage, the tsunamis of population movements moving to work, the growing pervasive distribution and availability of advanced communication and technology, and the growing cross-border and 'regionalization' of people, commerce, and ideas are not only creating dislocation. I do not see this as a matter of a 'transition' from one period of 'control' to another. The permanent state of affairs is dynamic change and layers of ambiguity. Some people, geographies, and cultural heritages and traditions are thriving in the emergent era.

One of the many challenges is that when you are at the center of the receding order, it is mightily difficult to view any other dynamic as anything but the loss of control, whether that is an individual, an organization, a region, a country, or set of cross-boundary cultural practices.

I can't think of a better and more exciting time to be involved in the world of education and technology.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
August 4, 2008

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