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Tech Futures: The Class of 2025?

Author Vernor Vinge looks into the future--and sees super-high-tech schools.


November/December 2008

in his most recent novel, Rainbows End, the Hugo Award–winning author, computer scientist, and technological theorist Vernor Vinge has laid out a sharp vision of how students and technology will interact in the future. His fictional high school classrooms of the year 2025 take social networking and virtual-reality technology to a whole new level. Everyday kids wear cutting-edge computer interfaces: They read instant messages and connect to the Internet via high-tech contact lenses, and clothing-embedded computers and sensors allow them to experience virtual-reality environments. Kids spend their entire academic lives online, plugged into vast, worldwide computer networks merely to do their schoolwork. For instance, two students assemble an entire symphony orchestra by simultaneously networking hundreds of students in both Boston and Chile.

But as futuristic as it sounds, Vinge’s tech-saturated classroom may not only be plausible, but even strangely
familiar to tech administrators in schools today. Scholastic Administrator asked Vinge to school us on what he thinks the real-world future might hold.

Q What is the academic future of social networking?
A There is a difference between broadly having a good idea and actually having a workable implementation. One of the Internet’s most important uses is as a test bed for exploring and investigating how social networking in the future will be accomplished. For instance, if you’re in the classroom now, social networking tethers you to a laptop. But what you really want is something that can hook you up to the people you need to talk to, and do that in such a way that it leaves your hands free and leaves you free to move around. Wherever you walk, you’re connected. I’m really watching for the rise of cell phones being accepted more thoroughly. I think that we’ll see minute-by-minute collaboration, and not necessarily with just your circle of friends. It may be something much larger—the human social network connected with devices in the environment. In my story, reality itself is highly networked.

Q Why are students more technologically comfortable, while educators seem to lag behind or even oppose tech?
A The most plausible reason is that young people are more plastic, and also don’t have an investment in the status quo. Many children feel apprehension about how they’re going to make their way in the world. The unofficial motto of the school [in Rainbows End] is “Try hard not to be obsolete.” Students’ anxieties and their perception of any chance of success depends on their exploiting their ability to use technology.

Q How important is networking? In the novella Fast Times at Fairmont High (2001), a class is asked to complete a project without using computer networks, and one character says, “Next you’ll be teaching rock-chipping.”
A I can see networking in real time coming to totally dominate the workplace. I think there will be obvious and tremendous advantages of networking in real time—and I’m using the term networking in both its technical meaning as well as its social meaning. In the last 10 years, we’ve had job tenures drop to a year, two years—you don’t expect to stay forever at a company, or even in the same job. In this sort of network situation, I could see job tenures being measured in minutes. As Ms. Chumlig [the teacher in Rainbows End] says, “It’s important to know something about something.” Knowing what’s behind this magic [technological] sea of empowerment, that’s the whole story. If you don’t know that, you’re just dead.

Q As technology becomes ubiquitous, do you fear the obsolescence of words on a page—or textbooks?
A I think we’re going to get some neat things to use in parallel with pure text. But pure text still has one extraordinary virtue—more than any other art form—in that it uses the reader’s mind as the display device. It directly connects with the imagination in a very pure form. Literature, in the sense of characters and spaces and punctuation laid down on a page or screen, is a type of technology that will probably last as long as natural humans do.