Technical advancement depends on new knowledge and novel applications for knowledge.
So far, so blindingly obvious one might say, but hovering above the unfettered toolmaker-empiricist is the theorist. Theorists are the makers of paradigms, ‘ways of looking at things’, who organise knowledge into structures. These abstractions are capable of propagating technologies and ideas very rapidly indeed.
Apparently it has always been thus. On the radio today, I heard that the Neolithic farmers of Britain disseminated their tool making and stone circle building across the entire country in only a matter of decades. As Richard Dawkins would have it, ‘cultural memes’ are very infectious and spread quickly.
But, and here is the rub, a paradigm will eventually work to prevent any change that is not an elaboration of itself. Even in so called ‘scientific method’ (where in principle a theory can be refuted by a single contrary instance, and never ‘proved’ by repeated confirmations), theories and their paradigms become amazingly persistent, despite having passed their sell-by date long ago.
If your mindset, paradigm, cultural meme or whatever you may have first encourages rapid change, then conserves it, the patenting of knowledge colludes in shackling our plucky toolmaker-empiricist mentioned above.
Long ago, steam power development, which swept the world in a remarkably short time was slowed massively by patent disputes; Matthew Boulton being particularly litigious.
Conservation of the status quo has been called the ‘Monday Morning Problem’ by philosophers of science. Quite simply, if you debunk a major theory on Friday afternoon and your life (and the lives of countless others) has been spent elaborating it, what on earth will you do on Monday Morning?
Conversely, if you think of a new development to an already heavily patented technology, don’t expect the lawyers to let you into production any time soon.
We are currently deep into an unchanging IT paradigm which is looking rather stable. It is a heavily elaborated way of looking at computers and software (licences, patents, closed source code), which means that after initial and rapid change with high dissemination, little has changed in the most recent 15 years. This is particularly the case in education, where ICT in 2011 is nearly identical to that 10 years ago.
In real life, you rarely get to overturn theories or revolutionise paradigms. The open source revolution, which is a radically unshackled way of looking at software and computing, although hardly thwarted hasn't overthrown the prevailing system... due to Monday Mornings.
But you cannot stop little paradigms growing, and at a certain point they will spread like wildfire.
It was with great happiness that I found out today that our colleges will migrate their course management software, or virtual learning environment (VLE), from Blackboard to Moodle over the summer recess.
It will be supporting 10,000 enrolees, and share the single sign-on handled by open source LDAP. By the way, the college currently licenses Blackboard for £40,000 per annum so they might save a few pennies too.
In a very traditional, once 100% proprietary software organisation, another mindset is creeping in. I don’t expect a revolution, but I do expect the open source paradigm to grow while leaving me safe to plan my Monday Mornings.