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The internet is more than a series of tubes

Monday, November 12th, 2012 | Posted by Bethany Stolle

Before going on vacation a couple years ago, my husband and I bought a Kindle reader. Since then, I’ve also installed the Kindle app on my phone, iPad, and laptop. My Amazon shopping habits have changed, too. Unless I’m looking for a highly-designed book or a reference text that I’ll refer back to frequently, I always check to see whether the latest novel or business book that attracts my attention is available on Kindle before deciding whether to buy.

This coming from someone who works in publishing, holds a library card, and hates to see small bookstores close.

But I turn to Amazon repeatedly because the Kindle is one part of an incredibly effective ecosystem. I don’t always love the Kindle device itself; taking notes can be tedious, and I rarely return to the passages I’ve highlighted. I have a love-hate relationship with Amazon’s one-click solution that simplifies the checkout process at the same time it decreases the amount of money in my bank account. Despite my complaints, Amazon has a huge selection of books it can deliver to any of my devices in less than a minute. Their attention to delivering value across an entire system outweighs the shortcomings of individual parts and keeps me coming back to use their services.

This personal experience with a cultural shift toward digital publishing kept popping into my head as our class explored the changes in traditional systems thinking to contemporary uses in design applications today.

Several decades ago, discoveries in physics and the industrial, mass-manufacturing model defined the language of how we thought and spoke about systems. Systems were mechanical, contained, ordered efforts. Some systems were complex, but they still had inputs and outputs, logical hierarchies and central controls. (See Hugh Dubberly.)

I remember a few years ago when Senator Ted Stevens used rudimentary, mechanical language when he referred to the Internet as a “series of tubes.” Ultimately, he spawned an Internet meme, teased by people who had a sense of the complex, networked, and dynamic structures that enable people to go online and communicate across the globe.

Today, there’s a shift toward organic, biological language when we’re talking about systems. The Internet is a web. Software has bugs. Computers get viruses. Products have ecosystems and lifecycles. Information flows like streams or rivers. Designers consider sustainability. Networks have become less centralized and more “organic.” (Interestingly enough, even the notion of a “meme” grew out of concepts in evolutionary biology.)

In parallel, the field of design has increasingly moved toward user-centered and participatory design methods in order to address large, messy, “wicked problems” like hunger, climate change, and poverty. Which brings me to the work we’re doing at AC4D this year—trying to tackle wicked problems in education.

When I look at the current state of education in the United States, I see a parallel with the changes happening broadly in the field of design and systems thinking. Schools and districts and states and national standards are parts of a complex web that make up our educational system. Just as systems thinkers are moving from mechanical to biological language, I think our educational system should move away from traditional industrial approaches (like funding schools based on which bubbles students fill in on standardized tests) and instead consider what other methods might prepare students to work in fields that are just starting to grow or haven’t developed yet. (Again, more organic language.) Doing this may mean the teacher’s role changes as well, much like the designer is becoming a facilitator within a system rather than an author creating something for others.

Much like Amazon and the Kindle, not every component of the education system will work flawlessly. However, using systems thinking, especially with biological language, may offer a better starting point to address problems in design and in education.

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