The Ephemeralization of Educational Objectives by the Infostructure

an essay

Copyright © 1999 by
Sean Michael Ragan

This piece took first place for nonfiction in the Spring 1999 Adele Steiner Burleson semesterly writing contest in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin.

We are witnessing the beginning of an historical process whereby various kinds of communication technology will intersect and advance to progressively ephemeralize the six objectives of education as enumerated in Bloom's Taxonomy. The first stage of this process, the ephemeralization of knowledge, has already begun. It will be followed by the ephemeralizations, in order, of some or all of the remaining six categories of the taxonomy: comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. As this process unfolds, we will perhaps witness the gradual development of a kind of "global intelligence" in our computer networks.

To understand how and why this process will occur, we must first define three central concepts:

  1. the historical process of "ephemeralization" according to R. Buckminster Fuller,
  2. the hierarchy of "educational objectives" outlined in Bloom's Taxonomy, and
  3. the structure and origin of "the infostructure," which is, as far as I know, my own idea.

Ephemeralization: A Process in the Evolution of Technology

Consider, for a moment, the problem of long-distance communication (for reasons that will become apparent later, it might be more accurate to call this "long-distance transmission," but this phrase is too awkward for my taste). More specifically, consider the development of technological solutions to that problem. Recorded history has witnessed the evolution of long-distance communication technology from the runner of Marathon to the mobile phone. Along the way, it has seen such notable developments as the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and television. A list of "softer" technologies would have to also include such developments as writing, smoke signals, and the postal service. Today, we are experiencing the wireless revolution. Already it is common for phone numbers to be associated not just with particular places, but with particular people. As the ubiquity of personal phones increases, we approach a milestone in the history of technology--a time when it will be possible to speak to anyone, anytime, anywhere on the surface of the Earth, as casually as if he or she were sitting across the table.

R. Buckminster fuller called the historical process this exemplifies "ephemera1ization"--literally, the rendering transitory of a thing. The doctrine of ephemeralization holds that all technologies arise as solutions to various human problems (a definition which would naturally include such "soft" systems as the postal service and, say, mathematics), and that the ongoing advancement of technology leads inexorably to the eventual trivialization, both practical and economic, of these problems. The practical aspect of this trivialization is well demonstrated in the above example of long-distance communication. The latter, economic aspect, however, perhaps finds its best example in the problem of time-telling.

When clocks were first invented, they were not so much devices as edifices. Lucky was the town or monastery that had even one centrally-located time piece in the form of a clock or bell tower. Today, however, if I want to know what time it is, I have only to glance at, say, the clock on my computer screen, or the clock on my stereo, or the clock on my microwave, or of course, lastly, the clock on my wrist. In his biography of Buckminster Fuller, design critic Martin Pawley sums it up this way:

For [Fuller] the idea that the intractable limitations of nature would yield, one by one, to the power of the human mind explained and justified the transformation of the 18th century crafesman's priceless timepiece into the 20th century's mass produced quartz watch--a device that is not only infinitely smaller, lighter and more accurate than its handmade predecessor, but is also just as priceless--in the sense that it has become so universally available as to be almost without value.

Pawley's passage leads up to another important point about ephemeralization: In addition to the trivialization of problems--in both the practical and the economic sense--ephemeralization also leads to the physical integration of technological solutions to those problems. As a technology ephemeralizes its problem, that technology inevitably becomes both smaller and cheaper, with the net result that it can be packed into the same space with other technologies ephemeralizing other problems. Thus it is that the clock becomes part of the radio, or the car, or ultimately, the human being him- or herself.

The Infostructure: An Ephemeralization of Communication

We have already seen how the ephemeralization of what was above described as "long-distance communication" will soon lead up to what telecommunications engineers call "ubiquitous wireless communication," a fancy way of saying that eventually most people on the planet will have a personal phone and personal phone number that they keep with them some or all of the time. This represents the ultimate ephemeralization of the first stage of the communication process--transmission.

But transmission alone does not communication make. Behaviorally speaking, transmission is only the first of three problems in the process of communication, the other two being storage and processing, respectively. Further, if communication is to be more than one-way, this process must become a cycle, with information transmitted, stored, processed, and then transmitted again.

So if the ephemeralization of transmission is witnessed in the advent of ubiquitous wireless communication, what about the ephemeralizations of the remaining two problems? Not surprisingly, these problems--storage and processing--correspond to two other developing technologies: the digital library and ubiquitous mobile computing. Even less surprisingly, the extent to which each of the three problems is ephemeralized is directly related to its primacy in the cycle of communication. Thus, we find that transmission technologies are most advanced, storage technologies next-most advanced, and processing technologies least advanced.

The ultimate development of the electronic system I call "the infostructure" will accrue from the eventual ephemeralized integration of all three of these technologies into a single, monolithic technology of communication. The germ of the Infostructure is today's Internet, but the Infostructure proper will be much more ubiquitous than the Internet, and will not come into its own until the first two problems of communication--transmission and storage--have been more-or-less completely ephemeralized. To understand what this will be like, imagine a global communications network in which every individual person has near-instantaneous access to all the information in all the libraries of the world through his or her own mobile-phone-cum-computer, a device increasingly recognized today as the so-called "personal digital assistant."

When this happens, we will have witnessed the first phase in an entirely new epoch of ephemeralization. Previously, the problems which our evolving technologies ephemeralized were of a primarily physical nature, but when transmission and storage have both fallen by the wayside, the relentless historical process of ephemeralization will set to work on the final stage of the communication cycle--processing. Moreover, as processing technology grows more advanced and is progressively integrated into it, the infostructure will proceed through at least five more phases of sophistication, each of which corresponds to the ephemeralization of a basic mental, rather than physical, problem of communication.

What are these five phases? The answer we may find in a surprising place.

Bloom's Taxonomy: A Behavioral Blueprint of Intelligence

The book Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, conceived by a group of educators headed by the University of Chicago's Benjamin S. Bloom, was first published in 1956. The central idea of this work, which has since become known as "Bloom's Taxonomy," was to provide a schema for the classification of desired outcomes of the educational process. It was intended to facilitate communication among educators and pedagogues in much the same way that the biological taxonomy facilitates communication among zoologists and biologists. Bloom's Taxonomy contains six classes of cognitive, as opposed to emotional or kinesthetic, educational objectives:

  1. Knowledge - the recollection of the symbols which constitute information
  2. Comprehension - the understanding of the meaning "contained" in information
  3. Application - the deductive use of information to solve a problem
  4. Analysis - the inductive detection of structure and organization in information
  5. Evaluation - the making of judgments about the value of information
  6. Synthesis - the recombination of information into meaningful structures

Unlike the biological taxonomy, however, Bloom's Taxonomy is arranged in a hierarchical order. Knowledge is considered to be the most fundamental objective, with each subsequent objective--from comprehension to evaluation--encompassing all those "below" it. Thus, comprehension implies knowledge, application implies comprehension and knowledge, analysis implies application and comprehension and knowledge, and so forth.

In keeping with the Skinnerian psychological tradition in which it formulated the taxonomy, Bloom's group of educators was uninterested in entangling itself with complicated epistemological questions like "What is knowledge?" and "How do I know that I know something?" and so forth. Therefore, each of the six educational objectives of the taxonomy is formulated not philosophically, but behaviorally. Put differently, the Bloom group was not interested in what a student feels when he or she knows or comprehends a thing, but rather what he or she does. For each objective, then, the book provides a broad sampling and description of the kinds of exam questions and exercises which can be used to test for it. For example, on p.78, we learn that "[tlhe major behavior tested in knowledge is whether or not the student can remember and either cite or recognize accurate statements in response to particular questions.. . the form of the question and the level of precision and exactness required should not be too different from the way in which the knowledge was originally learned."

There is a sense, then, in which we may read Bloom's Taxonomy as a hierarchical organization of the kinds of problems which an intelligent communicator is expected to be able to solve. It is, in a way, a kind of behaviorist blueprint of intelligence as measured by communication. Not intelligence in the sense that more modern thinkers like Howard Gardner have used the word, of course, but rather in the more robust sense of "consciousness" or "self-awareness." Indeed, this implication of the Taxonomy was not lost on its creators: "As we examine the classification so far developed," they say on p.19, "we note an additional dimension not usually considered in educational and teaching procedures. One of the major threads running through all the taxonomy appears to be a scale of consciousness or awareness... Further, in the cognitive domain especially, it appears that as the behaviors become more complex, the individual is more aware of their existence."

The Ephemeralization of Educational Objectives by the Infostructure

Speaking from a purely stimulus-response perspective, there is no reason why the behavioral benchmarks of intelligence set forth in Bloom's Taxonomy are only applicable to human beings. In fact, the behaviorism which informed the disposition of the Bloom group is exactly that behaviorism which informs the famous British mathematician Alan Turing's classic test of machine intelligence. The so-called "Turing Test" is really quite simple: If a person of normal intelligence is connected by teletype terminal to a computer in another room and allowed to "converse" with it by typing, and that person believes he or she is conversing with another person instead of a machine, then the computer can be said to be "intelligent." In exactly that same behaviorist spirit, it is possible to read Bloom's Taxonomy as a kind of graduated Turing Test. If a computer can, for example, given the same kinds of knowledge-level questions as a human student, consistently produce the same correct answers, why can't we say that the computer "knows" whatever information just as well as the student?

Viewed from this nondiscriminatory behaviorist perspective, Bloom's Taxonomy articulates rather neatly with our earlier discussion of the ephemeralization of communication by the infostructure. What Bloom's Taxonomy really provides us with, under this paradigm, is a breakdown of the sub-problems which attend to the third and final problem of the communication process, that is, to information processing. Within the limits of the definitions used by Bloom, knowledge corresponds technologically to storage, and the remaining five objectives--comprehension through synthesis--correspond to increasingly sophisticated problems of information processing.

Today, with the capacity to quickly store and retrieve virtually limitless amounts of information becoming steadily more available to the average person, the problem of knowledge is becoming increasingly ephemeralized. After all, the ages-old educational imperative that students memorize useful information is essentially an artifact of the scarcity of information--you memorize it, in other words, to make sure it's there when you need it. As information storage is increasingly ephemeralized by physical technology, however, and as the infostructure comes concurrently into its own, the problem ceases to be too little information and becomes too much. When the infostructure arrives, the chief problem faced by human minds will no longer be knowing--it will be making sense of the ocean of data in which we will find ourselves afloat.

Educators will have to respond by phasing out knowledge-based education in favor of education targeted on the five more sophisticated objectives: comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis. The focus will have to shift from learning specific information to learning a way of manipulating information. Classes such as creative problem solving, speed-reading, statistics, computer programming, and rhetoric and composition will be the order of the day. Knowledge as the fundamental goal of education will be superseded by comprehension.

While some purists may resist such a transfornation as an unnatural intrusion of technology into the province of education, the fact of the matter is that education, even as it exists today, is already a kind of technology. True, it is a "soft," institutional, and generally non-mechanical technology (like the pony express or Robert's Rules of order), but it is a technology nonetheless, in that it is an artifice developed by humankind to help solve a problem. What's more, the problem solved by education is essentially a communicative one, and while education itself is not a link in the behavioral cycle of communication, its products are. Education, as we know it today, is like a factory, and its purpose, at least cognitively, is to produce intelligent processors of information.

But the history of the ephemeralization of communication is a history of such "soft" technologies being replaced by "hard" ones. Consider, as an example, the relationship of the pony express to the fax machine. Both are technologies of information transmission, the one "soft" and the other "hard," but to say that the fax machine is simply a kind of vastly improved pony express is completely ludicrous. Cellular phones, to use another example, have not "improved upon" smoke signals; they have rendered them obsolete. Similarly, we are today witnessing--as the process of ephemeralizing knowledge/storage continues--the replacement of the "soft" technology of ink and paper with the "hard" technology of keyboards and computers. The first phase of the infostructure will correspond to the advent of the approaching "paperless society."

The second phase of the infostructure--the ephemeralization of comprehension--will represent the beginning of the third and presumably final replacement of "soft" communication technologies by "hard" ones, only in this case, the "soft" technology in question will be the intellects we use to process information and the schools we use to train those intellects, and the "hard" technology will be the Infostructure and the personal digital assistants (PDAs) which are its avatars. As the ephemeralization advances through the remaining objectives of comprehension, application, analysis, evaluation, and synthesis, more and more of the cognitive responsibilities of communication will be assumed by the infostructure, with fewer and fewer left to the human mind. The infostructure will get smarter while we get dumber.

Conclusion: The Global Brain

It will begin innocuously enough. Our PDAs, connected through the infostructure to everybody else's PDAs, will keep our schedules and make our appointments for us. When we get up in the morning, we will find ourselves in the habit of asking them what we're supposed to do that day, where we're supposed to be, and when, and with whom. When we drive home from work in the evening, we will ask them what the best route through rush-hour traffic might be, and they, connected as they are through the infostructure to traffic cameras and traffic reports, will tell us. University students (as long as there still are universities) will download course schedules and syllabi directly into their PDAs, which will then automatically plot class and study times for an entire semester into their daily planners. These students will then spend most of their days running around campus with their heads down, punching buttons on their PDAs to find out where they should be going next.

All this is foreseeable in the near future. But what will happen when the ephemeralization process has encompassed not just knowledge, but also comprehension? At this second phase of the process, the infostructure will not only be remembering information for us, it will also be understanding it for us.

It is not as far-fetched as it might seem. As long ago as 1990, Paul Jacobs and Lisa Ray scientists at the GE Research and Development Center, published an article describing the successful implementation of a program called SCISOR, for "System for Conceptual Information Summarization, Organization, and Retrieval." Having been fed news articles in normal English text, the SCISOR server was subsequently capable of answering plain-language questions about the content of those articles, and even of formulating Mitten summaries. Behaviorally, there is no reason to say that a program like SCISOR isn't just as capable of reading and comprehending text as a human being, and at greater speed and rate of recall. This is a truly staggering prospect. When our computers aren't just storing our information, but are also reading and explaining it to us, not only has the textbook been ephemeralized, but so has the teacher.

Beyond this point, it becomes increasingly difficult to predict the social ramifications of continued ephemeralization. While we might, as an intellectual exercise, try to imagine what a third- or fourth-phase infostructure would be like (application and analysis ephemeralized, respectively), it is almost impossible to conceive what it would be like to live with a fifth- or sixth-phase infostructure, that is, with an infostructure capable of evaluating and/or even creating new information. At this point, we would clearly be reckoning with a planetary intelligence of some kind, and our problems become not so much sociological as moral or spiritual. Life will have achieved a new kind of order, and by that time, it may no longer be up to us to decide what our place will be in that order.

Allow me to conclude this essay with a kind of scientific parable. In the study of evolutioriary biology, the process whereby multicellular organisms first developed brains is called "encephalization." At first, these organisms were just clumps of nondescript cells. They had no fronts and no backs, no ups and no downs, no collective anatomy to speak of whatsoever. They were just clumps. When they "realized," however, through mutation and conferred adaptive advantage, that moving around their environment improved their access to the food supply, they began to experience a concentration of nerve cells along the periphery of their bodies which was forward relative to their preferred direction of movement. Because new information was most likely to come from the space they were moving into, it made sense to develop sensors along that edge of their bodies. As this line of evolution continued, these concentrated nerve cells began to directly communicate with each other, and eventually assumed control of the movement of the entire organism. Thus the first primitive brains emerged.

It is surely no coincidence that the central metaphor of the information age--exemplified in words like "cyberspace," "navigator," "website," and so forth--is a spatial one. There is a very literal, if relative, sense in which we move forward into the realm of digital information. I am reminded of the famous MTV advertisement in which a man, seated in a stationary lounge chair before his television set, is subjected to a kind of virtual gale of sights and sounds blasting across his face, causing his hair and tie to blow back and knocking over his martini glass. It ought to come as no surprise, then, that we, like our ancestral clumps of cells so many billions of years ago, would evolve special sensory apparatus to cope with this torrent of information exactly along that boundary at which it enters our sphere of consciousness, that is, within the technology of communication through which interface to it. And thus, as the ephemeralization of communication continues, and the links between us grow stronger and faster, the encephalization of our collective organism likewise continues, and a new kind of brain emerges.