from the world's big
Are We the Designers or the Designed? with Jason Silva
Whether we're conscious of it or not, the things we design can design us as well. "We become what we behold," as the old proverb goes. Such is the power, explains Jason Silva, of ontological design.
Jason Silva is the Emmy-nominated host of National Geographic Channel’s #1 rated and Emmy-nominated series, Brain Games, seen in over 100 countries. “A Timothy Leary of the Viral Video Age” was how The Atlantic described television personality, filmmaker and philosopher Silva, who has also been described as “part Timothy Leary, part Ray Kurzweil, and part Neo from ‘The Matrix.’”
A self-professed wonderjunkie, Silva is the creator of the web series SHOTS OF AWE, micro-documentaries exploring creativity, innovation, the co-evolution of human and technology, futurism, metaphysics, existentialism and the human condition.
Silva’s work has been featured in The Economist, Vanity Fair, Forbes and Wired, among many others.
Jason Silva: I’ve recently become obsessed with the role that design plays in the construction of our mindware and the construction of our sense of self. And I remember I was in Cape Town giving a keynote for IBM and this guy that I met called Mahool, a computer scientist, brilliant guy who was a fan of my web series Shots of Awe, showed up for this talk. And we ended up connecting and going and hanging out and spending the day walking around the botanical gardens of Cape Town in the middle of a storm on this bridge that went over the canopy of trees. It was a total kind of — you couldn’t ask for a better stage for a sort of cerebral conversation. And I was talking to him about my desire to steer awareness. Again, how do I transcend to what Michael Pollan calls the been theres and done thats of the adult mind. How do I elicit a childlike sense of wonder? How do I control and steer subjectivity? My obsession. And so he said, “Oh, that’s easy. You know we do that all the time with design. It’s called ontological design.” I was like, “What? Onto, what? Tell me again. Ontological design.”
And I was like, “What does that mean?” Well it has to do with the nature of beingness itself, ontology, what it is to be, what it is to inhabit a mind world, a life world, a worldhood. And basically the idea of ontological design is very simple. It basically says that design affects us in a way that is much more pervasive than we’re normally privy to. The notion is that whether we’re conscious of it or not everything that we design is designing us back. We are being actively designed by that which we have designed. This, of course, echoes Terence McKenna’s idea that we become what we behold. Or Marshall McLuhan’s notion that first we build the tools, but then they build us, you know. Or Steven Johnson when he says our thoughts shape our spaces, you know. We build cathedrals; we build architectural dwellings and then those spaces return the favor. Those spaces build our thoughts. Our thoughts build our spaces; the spaces return the favor. So my friend was talking about this notion that ontological design implies that there’s this hermeneutic circle in the sense of mind emerges into feedback loops between brains, tools, and environments. There’s a meaning-making circle. The self emerges like the ouroboros, like the dragon that’s eating its own tail, right. Or like Escher’s hands where you have the hand that is drawing the hand that is drawing it. So it’s like this infinity loop.
And that that’s basically how the way mindware emerges, you know. Who we are — the feedback loop should be the metaphor of our age, right. Instead of the DNA molecule, it should be the feedback loop. There was an essay written in Aeon Magazine recently about this notion. But again it’s not just our genetics that determine who we are; it’s the feedback loops between self and world. And this is the notion of ontological design. And I think the takeaway being is that by harnessing those feedback loops we can build better mindware. We can build systems; we can build cities, cityscapes, dwellings, spaces. Even the words we use to map our reality can be improved recursively because it’ll feed back and then improve who we are. Better tools, those tools then interface with us and create better ideas and then we use those tools to build new tools. And then those new tools interface with us and so on and so forth until novelty approaches infinity and realities fly apart as Diana Slattery writes in her book Xenolinguistics. Yeah, so again it should give us as humans a sense of responsibility for authoring the mindedness of the future, you know. The minds of the future can be built. It’s kind of a social engineering project. Everything that we design should be thought of as a building block, as new construction kits for our reality.
You can imagine why my head exploded when I was with this guy over the canopy on a bridge in the botanical gardens of Cape Town during a storm and the guy starts telling me about ontological design. Because I was witnessing ontological design happening in that moment. That stage, that context in which we were — over the trees in the botanical gardens was conditioning the nature of my subjective experience as he was telling me about this idea. I was witnessing the power of our creative and linguistic choices to author my subjectivity. Even the words we were using to describe, to map our experience were being fed back into our experience. And it’s just a reminder of the sort of dizzying freedom that we have to compose our lives, to compose our experience. Timothy Leary used to call this the vertigo of freedom. It’s a crazy idea, right? But I find it reassuring. I find it inspiring that we have — we are the music makers. We are the dreamers of dreams. We have the pen. We get to be reality engineers, reality architects and I love that. I love that idea.
Directed/Produced by Jonathan Fowler, Elizabeth Rodd, and Dillon Fitton
Whether we're conscious of it or not, the things we design can design us as well. "We become what we behold," as the old proverb goes. Such is the power of ontological design. Jason Silva, host of National Geographic Channel's Brain Games, explores the feedback loops that cause the brain to be influenced by locations and designs.
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.
- Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
- "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
- In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.
- Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
- Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
- The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.
Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.