Future School

A 1910 call for predictions about the year 2000 included this vision of how students will learn, one not far from what Teach Paperless sees. Image: French National Library.

Fans of late night television may remember a prognosticating segment from the Conan O’Brien Show where Conan and sidekick Andy Richter would “take a look into the future…all the way to the year 2000!”

Dimming the lights, donning black capes and using flashlights beamed upward onto their faces to look “futuristic,” Conan and Andy made goofball predictions such as, “Twinkies from 1973 will still be fresh,” in between a band member singing a high pitched chorus of “In the year two thousand, in the year two thou-sand!”

Given that Conan’s show was running in the 1990s at the time, the joke was always that no all-pervasive physics-altering futuristic world had yet arrived, nor was it like to. Instead, a prosaic world of non-sequitur possibilities was our likely inheritance. Conan’s now created the “In the year 3,000,” version, with similarly un-futuristic results.

Beam me up, Scotty

But our cultural predisposition to believe that the future will always be shinier, robotized and fantastically hyper-connected hasn’t diminished in the wake of Conan’s unmasking. That’s why we get magazine bits with economists, engineers and others offering their take on what life will be like mid-century. Predictably, it’s always steeped in a vast disconnection from the real world of actual resources and complexities such as energy sources, populations, climate and history.

One such list was pointed to recently by a Facebook friend, “21Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020″ from a blog called Teach Paperless, a consortium of writers exploring life in its digitized form.

Some of the items listed are uncontroversial, such as rearranging classroom furnishings to teach more forum style rather than hierarchically, and more through practice than just theory. Or imagining that better cafeteria food will be on offer, though in this case the author, Shelly Blake-Plock, attributes better food to the phenomenon of handheld devices, which is essentially what he gives as reasoning for almost everything that’s going to happen in education over the next nine years. He says kids doing online comparison shopping will force out $3 servings of macaroni and cheese. Where the lower-cost, higher quality food will come from is left out of his explanation.

Out of the loop

I can’t fault Blake-Plock too much. Like most of the world, he likely didn’t get the memo on energy decline, living as we do with a nearly total news blackout on one of the most crucial topics that’s going to drastically and unmistakably affect our lives in the coming years, as soon as 2020.

Without that knowledge, Blake-Plock and others like him imagine a future of dizzying innovation delivered via the interface of mobile devices, Tweets and chargers. This class of people naturally describe an increasing relationship between technology, communications and computing of all sorts, orbiting around e-social networks that will, it is presumed, run indefinitely on an endless supply of cheap, available energy. It’s a utopia where we never sleep and where we work all the time — but happily so since it’s all “social” and compelling and the difference between work and leisure is eroded in the playground of electronica.

And there’s no end to this. Consider a few of Blake-Plock’s ideas about how we’ll deal in the future…all the way to the year 2020.

Texting our way to paradise

One of the obsolete elements for him will be parent-teacher conference nights. Instead, he says,

Ongoing parent-teacher relations in virtual reality will make parent-teacher conference nights seem quaint. Over the next ten years, parents and teachers will become closer than ever as a result of virtual communication opportunities. And parents will drive schools to become ever more tech integrated.

How nice. I’m sure teachers will love adding to their list of chores keeping up virtual relationships with 30-80 parents, always on call to answer their latest text messages.

Sure, teachers already e-mail parents. But seriously—we’ll be so absorbed into our shiny little screens that we’ll no longer care to have a face-to-face conversation with our kids’ instructors, getting to know them in a human way? And we’ll give our already underpaid teachers more to do, expecting each to maintain a Facebook “group” for parents or host weekly mass Skype calls? And what about when teachers can’t keep up — will failure to text back in a timely manner be cause for dismissal? Apparently drilling down into the implications of such a techno-fantasy is inconvenient for Blake-Plock, possibly an intellectual casualty of the very social networks he exalts.

Forget attendance offices, too, says Blake-Plock. They’ll be gone, replaced with “bio scans. ‘Nuff said.”

Ah, so, not only will the world have produced the long-feared bio-identity chip to implant in our bodies and those of our children, but it will have manufactured and distributed them pervasively as well. I’m sure no one will object to that. Is Foursquare behind this? Will being last to school assure that you get to be the “mayor” that day?

But Blake-Plock really gives his prejudices away on item #3, Computers, which she says will be obsolete…sort of.

Ok, so this is a trick answer. More precisely this one should read: “Our concept of what a computer is.” Because computing is going mobile and over the next decade we’re going to see the full fury of individualized computing via handhelds come to the fore. Can’t wait.

So our kids will be doing everything hunched over a screen the size of baby’s palm? Okay. Fortunately since Blake-Plock imagines the near disappearance of actual schools (excepting the bevy of green buildings he sees being built to accommodate the new wall-less, experiential, paperless, techno-utopia of 24-7 learning driven by the social-network innovators who will set the pace that will put teachers who can’t keep up out of a job), we won’t have to see this sea of kids hunched together separately, wired into zones that tickle their nerve centers but leave their bodies behind.

I’m tired just thinking about all this efficiency.

Energy is to economy what air is to breathing

But moreover I’m saddened that so many people are so hooked into a fantasy about a hyper-wired future that has little if not zero chance of ever manifesting.

Cell phone and hand-held technology depend on myriad inputs that are not simply conjured from thin air, however magically they appear in iStores and Web ads. All that plastic wrapping of the device itself comes from…you guessed it, petroleum. Oil. The very stuff the International Energy Agency said has hit its peak. In the future, all the way to the year 2020 (and before) the cost for everything is going up, uP, UP! And all this because of the increasing scarcity and rising cost of energy. That’s difficult on its own, and made no easier when jobs are going down, down, down. This is the dot to connect to make predictions about the future.

The amount of rare earth elements needed for production of “a handheld in every pot” is astronomical. The coal-fired power to ramp up all these mobile devices on a daily basis is also a pretty big ask from the electricity sector, especially when coal is peaking out, too.

The practicalities under-girding every vision of the techno-utopian vision are shattered when we look at what it would really take to deliver such materials. Similarly, if you’re imagining a future of growing industries, you might want to connect that possibility to the state of the economy, which is currently defined by spreading sovereign debt crises, dried up credit, ghost wealth and banking corruption that’s just shy of killing us all.

Memo to the dreamers: it’s great to dream. There’s a lot to be said for how we are already connecting using networks and innovative communication devices. And I’m definitely in the camp that wants to see the amazing Internet preserved in the inescapable economic contraction that we’re now more or less permanently faced with. I say permanent not because I’m pessimistic, but because economic growth relies on energy and our energy paradigm is built on oil, gas, coal and nuclear (uranium), all of which are in permanent decline.

If you wish to see the Internet preserved as something that does connect us, does allow for the sharing of information, does spur remarkable opportunities and learning, your focus should not be on how whiz-bang you can make its next iteration, all the way to portable devices implanted in our visual cortexes as we dematerialize to and from school Star Trek style.

Chop wood, carry water

Instead you’ll be asking how can learning happen using less, not more energy. You’ll be focusing on what kinds of work kids can really do in the future, which will look a whole lot more like cobbling shoes, tailoring clothes, glass blowing and farming than like Harry Potter’s moving newspapers and a satellite for every school district.

No matter what you might have heard, there’s no such thing as a perpetual motion machine. And today’s reigning techno-fantasy for cheap abundant power, nuclear fusion, is forever 20 years and 3 trillion dollars away.

Anyone who wants to do some learnin’, and cares about how kids will learn in the future, should invest some up-front time in gaining basic energy literacy for the 21st century. That’s an education that will do you, and everyone else a world of good. The bad news is that what you’ll find is that we’ll have less and less of the stuff that’s driven our economies, lifestyles and opportunities and that we – like Blake-Plock’s dire predictions for the paper, printing and copier industries — will “either adjust or perish.”

It’s very difficult for people to imagine, much less accept, a decline and loss of lifestyle and cultural paradigms. Mental resistance to this is acute. Picturing a future of rotary phones, good old fashioned letters and electricity only on for two hours a day seems laughable, I know. But the geologic facts of resource decline are unmistakable. Far better then to imagine a future of key priorities strategically parceled out, than to lose one’s head in grandiose fantasies that won’t stand up to the hard reality on the ground.

Get that one straight, and you get an A plus.