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Monday, May 2, 2011

Rate Of Change, Speed Of Communication

This is a rambling Blog - with apologies if it strays away from anything on education and veers off a coherent path. I began writing without an ending in mind and little in between. It's a reflection on the present from someone intrigued about the projection of the future. That is, I think back to how things were when I was young and try to imagine how things will be when the learners at Heatly grow up. In this case, "things" refers to the rate of change around us and the speed at which information is communicated.

I suspect that I am not alone in trying to articulate the many different feelings that emerge from the news of the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-Laden. Certainly, there is relief associated with the elimination of the person considered by national security officials as our top terrorist threat, celebration that the surgical strike did not incur any casualties among the brave American men during the mission, and praise for those who planned and exercised this remarkable strategic effort. I wouldn't use sympathy to describe any feeling I have regarding the news of the successful raid on bin Laden's compound. Nor would I begin to imagine that this death will bring an end to the impact of terrorism. Rather, it's more like an end of a chapter, not an end of a story. I think that's why I am perplexed and confused about how I really feel. It's clearly good news, but that news is tempered by a belief that it doesn't bring promise of an end in the conflict. This battle with terrorists (not with a specific country or government or standing army) may very well be an ongoing struggle for years and years until it blends in as a normal part of life.

While bin Laden's death won't bring back the lives of the over three thousand victims of 9/11 it does affirm a degree of justice. Beyond the emotions and the questions (i.e. what did the Pakistani government know? how will terrorists respond now?...) I have found myself trying to perceive and experience this latest news through the eyes of someone much younger, with perhaps a far different vantage point and context.

This political and military victory offers some sense of accomplishment in a conflict that has dragged on for a decade. In other words, only a small percentage of the learners currently at were enrolled in school when the twin trade towers in New York City were reduced to rubble and entombed many innocent people. The dramatic figures of lost lives and the passage of time may have obscured the similar loss of life among passengers of the ill fated hijacked airline that went down in Pennsylvania that same day, or the victims of the crash into the Pentagon. That means most of the learners in our schools across the country are growing up without personally knowing what it was like without routinely hearing and reading about war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

The permeable nature of communication and the lengthy reach of the ever-present media have combined to expose people to an incredible amount of news - to the point where the bombardment of information can seem like the multitude of snowflakes that separate a blizzard from a flurry. One of my favorite quotes regarding the diffusion of information was voiced by a high level government worker nearly thirty years ago (pre-Internet, social media, Twitter...) when he likened sorting through the flow of information to "drinking water from a fire hose." In addition to the barrage of news is the speed at which it's communicated. For instance, when an acquaintance of my son was recently killed while working as a photo-journalist covering the conflict in Libya, he learned of the man's death via Twitter just before it was announced on the television.

I can remember when there were only three television channels - and the television stations all stopped broadcasting shortly after midnight. Contrast that with 24 hour cable television, Internet,... There is no starting or ending point, it just keeps going and going and going. Now, news is shared amid an incredible number of options - on television, through the Internet, and in the pages of newspapers. Subjects like the bin Laden death compete each day with a rich menu of other stories, most notably the economy. The combination of a lengthy engagement spanning ten years now and the overwhelming sources of information has undoubtedly left youngsters in a vortex where one may drown not from the swirling whirlpool of water but a virtual tsunami of information. Yesterday's big news is soon thereafter replaced by today's big news in an onslaught of the senses with photographs, video streams, graphics, carnival barker-like talking heads on television, and too much more.

How will historians make sense of all this? What will future time-lines of history look like when reporting the many events crowded into the news of the world? How can one sort through the myriad sources of information (and misinformation) and interpret everything into some discernible format and narrative? How will future textbooks (or their inevitable replacements as a source of information) present a comprehensive explanation of the endless stream of information? What's most important? What gets left out? Will last night's news become forgotten in the future, squeezed out by many more features and stories of even greater significance?

The accelerated rate of change leaves nothing static. The environment is constantly changing in an organic, dynamic, and fluid fashion. I can recall how the nation changed so quickly when I was young. I was ten when JFK was assassinated; eleven when the advocates of civil rights marched in Selma; fifteen during the Tet Offensive in Viet Nam, the unrest at the Democratic convention in Chicago, and the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; and sixteen when Neil Armstrong left his footprint on the lunar surface and hundreds of thousands left their imprint at Woodstock. Yet, I think that we presently live in times when one easily becomes dizzy from head-spinning rates of change. I believe that we have long ago lost the ability to control change and must now focus on our ability to adapt to change. That is perhaps the biggest difference between those of us over forty years old and those among us younger than forty. The difference in perspective is alarming. Success will belong to those who are most efficient and effective at sifting through the deluge of information with intellectual agility and determining what is really important and what makes a difference.

Just a thought.

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