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See some of Dyson's writings.

Release 2.1: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. E. Dyson. Broadway, 1998.

Release 1.0: Esther Dyson's Monthly Report


At this year’s PC Forum, Esther Dyson’s annual conclave for both the digerati and glitterati under the Arizona spring sun, the main theme was about “making virtual businesses real.” In the shadows and hallways, among the deal-making and networking, there were lots of other thought-provoking conversations—including one I had with Esther herself. “So what about,” I asked, “the real future of learning and how technology is going to change it, make it better, or make it different. What do you think?”

Easy enough, straightforward question, asked lots of times in magazines and meetings, of lots of people, probably every week for the last many years. But I’d never heard an answer from this lady, a guru-ess of the internet par excellence.

Responses to this kind of “big idea” question are hard, even harder when you ask someone who’s obviously given huge amounts of thought to this and a thousand related things to the basic “internet-changes-world-we live in” topic. Her first reaction, courteous but thinly veiled bemusement, was delivered via pure body language: “What am supposed to say? Like do you want the one—all-singing, all-dancing epigram—that will wash away human confusion in one sentence?” She smiled at me.

I persisted. She grabbed a small fruit tart from the lunch table nearby, and we sat down in the conference tent and began to talk. An unapologetic multi-tasker, she spoke while also clicking away on her laptop, but answered my follow-ups patiently. Some highlights of the twenty minute exchange.

Esther: “Let’s start with learning and education per se. Begin with some inevitability. Money in the world is now in ample supply and physical manufacturing is becoming a commodity. So, what else are people going to invest in long term except learning? This will only get bigger. The world has no need for more physical workers. It needs mental workers.”

Brook: “But a lot of people still don’t get that. Why isn’t that part of more future planning and investment?”

Esther: “Look, learning as a topic is still not sexy. People think about their own, usually terrible, school experiences, and stop there. They can’t make the leap to imagining something else. Also, they just assume the government is supposed to do it for them.”

Brook: “So what about the technology revolution. What’s really going to be different in the future regarding learning?”

Esther: “Well where we are today is obviously still pretty primitive. The future will show that stuff like CD-ROM courses will not be very significant. Learning doesn’t go on online; it goes on in your head. The real impact will be things like just-in-time learning approaches and performance support. Audiences like sales people, things like building motivation.”

What you’ll see—and what we already see—is technology helping to do the rote, unimaginative tasks, and freeing people to do the value-added human things. With technology, the FedEx guy can stop worrying about the package and spend more time smiling and talking to customers. And that’s important learning. Learning is about reassembling mental models. That’s still going to be a people thing.”

Brook: “Any other promising technologies?”

Esther: “Well, there will be some value coming from technology approaches based on simulations. Those start to get at human mental models. But in general, it’s hard to describe the future paradigm based on specific technologies. Communication is clearly also a major part of the story, but again let’s not overemphasize it. The ‘net enables communication to take place faster, and at lower bandwidth. It speeds access to other people; it speeds ability to talk back. Communication among people is tremendously important for learning, and technology obviously helps here—but it doesn’t change the circuits in your brain. That only comes when technology and organizational approaches are combined in new ways. If I had a billion dollars to invest, I’d invest it in teacher training. The leverage is in the people who have to do things in new ways and teach others.”  

Brook: “OK, let’s finish up with some advice. If one is interested in this topic, what are three things to consider or focus on in charting the future?”

Esther: Well…first, I just want to reemphasize the need to focus on the people who teach and learn—really understand the human processes and only then how they use technology to augment them. Second, anything that helps rearrange mental models will be important. Simulations are very promising, but there will be other things too. Third, people have to understand the need to invest in themselves, and begin conscious programs to manage their own professional destinies. We’re going to see more codification of skills and competences as the whole employment market becomes more ‘liquid.’ Emphasis on portability. Technologies and structures that facilitate the talent market for skills will be critical.”

Then she walked away.

Esther Dyson is the chairman of EDventure Holdings which publishes the influential monthly computer-industry newsletter, Release 1.0, and sponsors two of the industry's premier conferences, PC Forum in the US and EDventure's High-Tech Forum in Europe.


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