Society faces technological future

Joe Carlson

The Industrial Revolution has given way to the Information Age, and, in doing so, has propelled the societies of the world into an entirely new way of conceiving the planet and people around them.
“This is a different paradigm for the things we will be doing in the future,” said George Welles, president and founder of Imaging Futures, Inc.
Welles gave a lecture on Monday titled, “The future isn’t what it used to be,” to an audience of about 50 people in McNeal Hall of Home Economics on the St. Paul campus. The event included discussion about ways in which societies can cope with a world constantly changing by rapid technological advances.
“We’re trying to navigate waters that we have never navigated before,” Welles said.
In the lecture and conversations afterward, he said the new information paradigm is not simply a modification of past ways of thinking, but a whole new direction for problem solving.
“You can’t look to the past to predict the future,” Welles said, because technologies such as the Internet and supercomputers have never existed in the history of humankind.
For example, 80 percent of the money in the world exists as electrons shooting through copper wires rather than solid copper coins, a situation never known in history.
So societies are now forced to deal with something they have never seen before — and they don’t quite know how.
“There are no simple answers to any of this,” Welles said.
One of the most effective solutions is to be open and adaptable to changing situations.
“In general, we have come upon change faster than we ever have and we have to learn how to adapt,” said Ed Nater, a professor in soil science.
But we should be careful not to be shortsighted at the same time, Welles said. Critics of the new information paradigm have expressed fears that older, tried-and-true methods of communication like the printed word will become obsolete.
Welles said he does not see an end to the printed word because of the instability inherent in the rapidly-changing nature of technology.
For example, while evolving technology might force compact discs to become unreadable over time, as older magnetic tapes have become, the written word will never become unreadable under a new information storage format.
“Nothing I’ve got up here will be worth a darn in 20 years,” Welles said, standing among a collection of some of the most advanced digital technology available.
And just as the technology will never totally replace the written word, telecommunication will never take the place of face-to-face communication.
“If we completely replace (personal) interaction, we’re going to get a bunch of geeky people who can’t communicate in the business world,” said David DeBonis, a graduate student in scientific and technical communications.
How all of this new technology will affect teaching and university education is another matter. All of these issues are beginning to affect higher education and have produced a new set of educational ideas like lifelong learning and distance education.
Melding good teachers and good technology remains key in the conversion to more technology-enhanced education.
“I know some excellent teachers that aren’t up on this technology,” said Bruce Giebink, an education coordinator for the Minnesota Extension Service. “How do we blend the technology with their teaching ability?”
A computer-literate instructor who cannot teach is no better than a computer-illiterate instructor who can teach effectively, he said.
But some see the conversion going further than integrating technology into classrooms, Welles said. Courses can be put online and taught totally over the World Wide Web. Some have expressed fears that this conversion will in fact erase the need for classrooms at all.
“Does (education) happen in a mediated site or does it happen at home? My answer is both,” Welles said.
DeBonis agreed that technology will not eliminate university classrooms.
“Some content will be distributed over the Web, but I don’t think that buildings are going to disappear,” DeBonis said. “The majority of students going to the University can’t handle that … they need someone.”
Besides, he said, part of the experience of going to college is developing interpersonal skills and learning life lessons — such as failing a class because of too much late-night partying.
Whatever the University does, Welles said, it had better do it soon.
“Change is a wave that is coming up on the beach,” Welles said, “and you can either surf the wave and have a wonderful and exciting experience or you can drown.”