John Seely Brown on Technological Evolution: Your iPad is Like an Arthropod

How do we understand the rate of technological change and how can we develop the tools to best adapt to this change?

John Seely Brown on Technological Evolution: Your iPad is Like an Arthropod

What's the Big Idea?


How can we understand the dizzying rate of technological change and how can we develop the tools to best adapt to this change?

Learning guru John Seely Brown finds an intriguing analogy between the disruptive technology of today and what evolutionary biologists have observed in the fossil record during a period over 500 million years ago. The Cambrian period was like evolution on steroids. After a period of long evolutionary stasis, a warming climate created marine habitats that gave birth to new complex life forms. Among the great evolutionary innovations of this period were animals with external skeletons, or arthropods. 

To follow Brown's analogy, if anthropologists many years from now are to look at our current "Cambrian explosion" they will see that in the early 21st century human biology did not change so much. Instead, humans have co-evolved with technology, acquiring increasingly sophisticated tools in a short period of time. So how are we to master these tools? According to Brown, as human beings functioning in the 21st century knowledge economy today, we develop mastery through imagination and play

Your iPod is like an arthropod. 

"To be successful in this new type of Cambrian moment," Brown tells Big Think in a recent interview, "imagination and play go hand-in-hand." This is good news: you don't need to spend your time reading and mastering user manuals for various gadgets and applications. Throw that classical education notion right out the door, says Brown. He continues:

Do you know anybody that goes back to school to learn how to use an iPad? Do you see anybody reading a manual like the old days to understand something? No. What do you do? The first thing you do is play with it. You see kids playing with it. You even see my cat playing with it.

What's the Significance?

Imagination and play help us connect the dots, Brown says, which is something you will never accomplish through rote learning alone. What Brown is describing is a new form of education that has now become possible with Internet technology. In other words, use your iPhone 5 to "start thinking about new possible worlds." 

This fundamental shift is described in Brown’s most recent book, The New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change. Brown says 21st century education needs to involve a willingness to say “Let me connect the dots but also let me tinker with the system.” That means "screwing up at times," according to Brown, yet "if you feel comfortable with just playing with something," he argues

pretty soon almost subconsciously you figure it all out. And so I think that in this period of radical change both imagination and play go hand-in-hand and if you can take learning on as an adventure, suddenly it becomes very exciting.

The type of learning that Brown describes is not only refreshing, fun and exciting, but necessary for survival in the 21st century knowledge economy. Let us remember, after all, that the Cambrian period that began as an explosion of new life forms also ended with a mass extinction. As glacial cooling and possibly oxygen depletion occurred, those that could not adapt died off. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

Northwell Health CEO Michael Dowling has an important favor to ask of the American people.

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
Keep reading Show less

Science confirms: Earth has more than one 'moon'

Two massive clouds of dust in orbit around the Earth have been discussed for years and finally proven to exist.

J. Sliz-Balogh, A. Barta and G. Horvath
Surprising Science
  • Hungarian astronomers have proven the existence of two "pseudo-satellites" in orbit around the earth.
  • These dust clouds were first discovered in the sixties, but are so difficult to spot that scientists have debated their existence since then.
  • The findings may be used to decide where to put satellites in the future and will have to be considered when interplanetary space missions are undertaken.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists stumble across new organs in the human head

New cancer-scanning technology reveals a previously unknown detail of human anatomy.

Credit: Valstar et al., Netherlands Cancer Institute
Surprising Science
  • Scientists using new scanning technology and hunting for prostate tumors get a surprise.
  • Behind the nasopharynx is a set of salivary glands that no one knew about.
  • Finding the glands may allow for more complication-free radiation therapies.
Keep reading Show less

Millennials reconsidering finances and future under COVID-19

A new survey found that 27 percent of millennials are saving more money due to the pandemic, but most can't stay within their budgets.

Personal Growth
  • Millennials have been labeled the "unluckiest generation in U.S. history" after the one-two financial punch of the Great Recession and the pandemic shutdowns.
  • A recent survey found that about a third of millennials felt financially unprepared for the pandemic and have begun saving.
  • To achieve financial freedom, millennials will need to take control of their finances and reinterpret their relationship with the economy.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Personal Growth

    6 easy ways to transition to a plant-based diet

    Your health and the health of the planet are not indistinguishable.

    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast