Jennifer James

I just came across my notes from a Jennifer James presentation I went to a few years back. It really resonated with some of the other books I have been reading recently like The World Is Flat and A Whole New Mind. I thought it was worth re-posting.

The morning’s keynote speaker was Jennifer James,a cultural anthropologist speaking about the challenges of today’s transitions. She was an interesting choice of opening speaker for a room full of techies but by the end of her talk I was impressed, if slightly befuddled.

The gist of her message is that we are currently at a huge tipping point in our history with technology changing not just the way we do things but the way we are. Children in particular now have access to information ‘anywhere, anytime’ (also the theme of this conference). She started with the example of how adolescents around the world now have the ability to talk together, which means they can start to overcome tribalism (a localized view of the world).

She likened the technological change that is happening to the end of apartheid in South Africa. The reason the transition out of apartheid was bloodless was that Nelson Mandela was a leader who told a compelling story of the future. He helped South Africans imagine a new cultural tapestry (a word she used a lot) that did not yet exist; because they could imagine the new tapestry they were able to forgive past atrocities. Their actions weren’t governed by a past paradigm, but by the vision of a future one.

She then suggested that many leaders around the world today are not telling compelling stories of future; they are retelling stories of the past. Holding on to the past.

How is this relevant to technology? Well, she suggests that Technology is slowly going to tear apart our cultural tapestries. Not all at once, but slowly. It is human nature to resist. The more technology pushes us the more we push back. Homo sapiens has always done that. They key is to find the balance.

We are is a system in transition with incomplete knowledge and change creates tension.

You can take bits and pieces out of our cultural tapestry and its fine. But when a large chunk like religion is torn out then the tapestry reacts. The question is what does this do to people? When does it become too difficult and you get war? When it gets too difficult she suggests the fallback position is always tribalism (or for us science types we start to use out amygdala- the lizard brain).

In terms of change in the classroom she suggests that we are raising the most intuitive generation in history. The children we teach have not just a greater technological sophistication but also a greate psychological sophistication. They ask us questions we would never have considered asking our teachers. Do you think this is true?

As a result kids are disengaging from the school process because it no longer matches their energy. To meet their need we are moving towards more individualization in the classroom and technology allows us to ratchet up individualization.

SHE MENTIONED THE IB!! Particularly the Diploma Program Theory of Knowledge course which is about thinking about thinking.

She concluded by reiterating that we can’t see the new tapestry. We are caught between a loss of so much and a lack of visionary leaders who can help us see the new tapestry. Over and over in history we have these voids – tipping points. Always these are times of burning of witches and Armageddon.

You kind of have to read between the lines.

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