How Ideas Emerge and Flow

Have you ever compared the relative sizes of things in the world using a logarithmic scale?  If not, try playing with this.  It’s an interactive site comparing the sizes of things in the universe, from the smallest understandable concepts to the entirety of the (known) universe.  Try starting from the largest items and move toward the smaller things, just to get an idea of the scale of our individual experience, compared to both the micro and macro universes.

Once you’re done playing with that, compare these three articles:

The “I couldn’t take the time to actually read things,” summary and comparison.

In each of these articles, it seems like the same concept (diffusion of innovation and ideas based on certain environmental and agent-oriented factors) is being discussed, but on different levels.  The first article (Wejnert) discusses innovation and diffusion on a global and societal scale, discussing concepts at an academic level.  Even the language of the article, compared with the others, feels much more lofty:

“As these and other studies suggest, the spread of innovations with private consequences occurs largely due to spatial and temporal contiguity between a source of a new practice and a potential adopter.”

The second article focuses the topic on a professional level, targeting the ideas of innovation, adoption, and personal leadership to a group of individuals entering a specific profession, rather than the larger, global community.  As a result, many of the “academic” details mentioned in the Wejnert article were omitted, replaced with practical advice and information for the development of professional communities.

Compared to the language of the first article, the second article reads much more like an article in a semi-professional magazine:

“In the old days the leadership-averse could hide out in bureaucracies. But as institutions are turned inside out by technology, globalization, and rising public and client expectations of every sort, the refuges are disappearing. Every professional’s job is now the front lines, and the skills of leadership must become central to everyone’s conception of themselves as a professional.”

The last article focuses the idea of innovation and leadership even further, applying it to a specific individual, working on a specific project.  Although it does discuss the ideas of innovation and the adoption and spread of new ideas, Hong focuses on the impacts these ideas have on function and design, specifically as applied to the relationship between a designer and user.  The article, unlike the previous two, is written in an obvious blog format, incorporating specific personal experiences and opinions into the article.

“To a large extent, I do agree about the point about the importance of functionality. If we had a system that could predict tomorrow’s stock market prices but was completely unusable, I’m sure we’d still see a lot of people making the effort to learn how to use it.  However, functionality and design aren’t separate things… [Design] also includes the internal “skeleton” of how the application is organized, the conceptual model, and metaphors conveyed to the end-users, as well as its functionality.”

To put it simply, each of the three articles was discussing the same or similar ideas, but just applied to different environmental scales (global, local communities, and personal).

Still don’t get it?

Here’s an example:

“In 5 years, one will not need a post-high school degree (that is, bachelor’s, master’s, or beyond) to be successful.”

Ridiculous sounding?  Good.  According to Dr. James Dator, professor of Futures Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, “Any useful statement about the futures should appear to be ridiculous.”  That’s not to say that I’m just throwing out a random statement that seems unfeasible, but a statement that only seems ridiculous when thought about given current conditions.  After all, think about your own world 5 years ago.  Did you ever imagine that the iPad, what is essentially a very large iPod Touch, would be successful?  How about 5 years before that?  Did you ever imagine that something like the iPhone would be invented and change the world?  Looking back at it though, one should be able to see the trends leading up to these events.

So where do I get the gall to make such a ridiculous statement?  I started with this article (found on Lifehacker, of course) about obtaining a free online college education.  Turns out I had actually used some of these sites (particularly the MIT courses) in my actual college education.  That is: My college professor used free material from MIT in my PAID college education.  On top of finding free college material, this article in Forbes on the idea of a “free college education for all” supports the idea that a college education from an “accredited” university may not become so relevant in the future.  Rather, what will be important is the knowledge that one actually has, regardless of the certifications accompanying the individual.

So where do the readings come in?

If we apply Agre’s analysis and ideas (that is, innovations and leadership on a community scale) to my statement, one could imagine that upon recognizing the economic benefits of a free college education, students (i.e. consumers of a university education) could begin to adopt the idea, eventually changing the behaviors of other students, particularly across the individual fields of engineering, education, and other schools.  As leaders begin to emerge who have discovered the value of knowledge (as opposed to obtaining a degree), such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Ty Warner, and Harrison Ford, many more individuals may follow their lead.  In addition, Wejnert’s approach takes this idea a step further, detailing the specific processes that would affect the diffusion of a “knowledge-centric” education, opposed to a “certificate-centric” education.

Wejnert’s discussion of media and socio-economic factors would be particularly important in drawing attention to the idea, especially as more individuals are exposed to successful individuals “adopting” a knowledge-centric education.  The social networking factors discussed in Wejnert’s article and detailed in the Agre article would also begin to play a major role as “early adopters” began to emulate the innovators.

In addition to the methods discussed in the readings…

Attention could be drawn to this issue by using some of the methods detailed in this article.  First, using “reverse psychology,” the idea of a knowledge-centric idea could be made appealing by presenting a less desirable alternative: the current education model.  Next, by emphasizing related ideas, such as correspondence learning and trade schools, the idea that a knowledge-centric education could be made more appealing.  Finally, by “underselling” the idea, or making it more compatible with current cultural and societal norms, individuals could be made to feel less alienated from the idea.


The Hong blog discusses the details of how to “wrap up” the idea, presenting the idea of a knowledge-centric education as a complete package, rather than just an alternative to the current system.  Hong’s blog encompass the idea behind many successful products, such as those developed by Apple; both design and innovation are key, creating a unique, usable product, rather than a simple tool.


6 responses to “How Ideas Emerge and Flow

  1. Woooohoooo! I loved your post, sort- of for personal reasons. I keep having this thought, maybe it’s my subconscious telling me my degree is worth nothing, not to get a masters etc. Degrees are solely “auras of authority” which please society. What about pleasing ourselves? That’s what life is about, right? And in doing this, we produce endorphins, good vibes, and that generates innovation too.

  2. I don’t think the population at large will ever realize that institutionalized education is a waste of time and become autodidacts. That’s like saying that everyone will suddenly realize that a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy and become fitness freaks. Not everyone has what it takes or the motivation to get a useful education without the aid of structure. Also, the college degree is used like a filter by companies to ensure that a candidate is worth while. For people to stop feeling like they need degrees, companies would have to start feeling the same way. In order for this to become a reality, every single job interview would have to be a lot more intensive while also become more of a cattle call, which would be a major drain on the hiring process. With degrees, someone’s resume at least comes with some kind of guarantee from an accredited organization that this person is at least at a satisfactory caliber of capability. Even progressive and new companies like Google require a degree for basically any position. Of course they always have the “(or 4 years relevant work experience)” as an option, but how the heck are you supposed to attain that, if every similar position has the same requirement?!

    So, if someone truly wanted this idea of knowledge based education standards without the need for certification they couldn’t simply become successful without an education like an actor or CEO that pulled himself up by his bootstraps. They would have to start a company that adopted hiring practices that didn’t take degrees into consideration at all and instead only looked at what the candidate was personally capable of through optional projects and an intense interview. If that company is shown to be successful with this practice it could propagate into other industries and give students the idea that the university system is a waste of time. However, that is not the case at all right now. I don’t think it will be in 5 years or any other time frame.

  3. Your analysis of the three articles in terms of environmental scale certainly makes sense. When confronted with words such as “geographical” and “spatial,” it tends to influence a macro-oriented thought on, as you have mentioned, a global sense. On smaller levels, diffusion also occurs, but regarding slightly different concerns.

    The idea of a free college-level education is attractive, and have had personal talks with others of how jobs should be based on knowledge and experience rather than degrees. However, I disagree that the current education model is more unattractive than a knowledge-centric one for this reason. Parents encourage a college education because of the degree it provides, which leads to job opportunities. I believe this to be the cause of a college education being a “standard” or otherwise a societal norm. If employers shift hiring towards knowledge-centric qualifications rather than degrees, then I can see such a type of education being more attractive.

    On a side note, the correct term for “reverse psychology,” as I have been told, is “manipulation.”

  4. Now here is a controversial topic. I think that type of education is great for some people but not for all. For instance myself I actually need a professor of that is right in front of me teaching me the lessons. However on the other hand I don’t want a professor at all. I think one way to market this is as we see today of how it can help people that do not have a lot of time to go to college or do not have the finances to pay. But marketing this and getting it out there is kind of controversial because some online schools are not accredited and are just phony. While others give you a good quality of education and give her a wide variety of job opportunities. Also the way you break down the article is make it very simple to understand these concepts. Sometimes I wish I had a brain like yours. 🙂 I don’t really understand how the reverse psychology thing goes. But I think it’s because people expect that if you actually go to a good college that you gain more knowledge and therefore have greater success? But seeing as online schooling is becoming more popular I think that Adobe more widely accepted.

  5. This is the sort of post and discussion I hoped this course would inspire. There are plenty of examples of people who thrived outside the educational system even before the Web, and your MIT example shows that traditional institutions are trying to get ahead of the inevitability of a more modular, learn-as-you-go educational system. In my non-university work experience, I was much more valuable to my employers when I learned new skills in the course of the job, not so much the skills I had before I was hired. The meta arguments of college being a place where you learn how to learn, or critical social skills, or just have a great time for 4+ years, with the content of your major being secondary, have their valid points too. I agree with some of the commenters that a conscious “reverse psychology” approach has plenty of drawbacks if you’re trying to effect widespread positive change, but creating an illusion of scarcity, like Google does when some of its new services are initially available by invitation only, is a tried and true approach.

    One thing I found grudgingly motivating about adopting a cell phone was not so much the idea of being able to send and receive calls from anywhere, but the constant messages about how many people were already doing it. To not have one made more work for your friends and family, and I came aboard on that basis. I suspect alternative education models will gain traction when society is inundated with stories of people who had success (and presumably, far less student loan debt) outside traditional universities.

  6. I think the free degree (or is it a degree-free) idea is wonderful. With the Internet coming to those out there that are not as well connected or well established as most of our fellow college students, it’s a great way to educate society as a whole. The Internet will be the main channel that most new ideas and this new way to educate the masses and give them an opportunity to rise from lower statuses. Governments should be figuring out ways to help their people gain access to the Internet cheaply so they can give them access to these free resources.

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