The Dynamo and the Social

Thought this was an interesting piece at Slate based on Paul David’s paper. There are some obvious parallels with personal or mobile computing and education and the difficulties we have with using it well.

“Electric light bulbs were available by 1879, and there were generating stations in New York and London by 1881. Yet a thoughtful observer in 1900 would have found little evidence that the “electricity revolution” was making business more efficient.

Steam-powered manufacturing had linked an entire production line to a single huge steam engine. As a result, factories were stacked on many floors around the central engine, with drive belts all running at the same speed. The flow of work around the factory was governed by the need to put certain machines close to the steam engine, rather than the logic of moving the product from one machine to the next. When electric dynamos were first introduced, the steam engine would be ripped out and the dynamo would replace it. Productivity barely improved.

Eventually, businesses figured out that factories could be completely redesigned on a single floor. Production lines were arranged to enable the smooth flow of materials around the factory. Most importantly, each worker could have his or her own little electric motor, starting it or stopping it at will. The improvements weren’t just architectural but social: Once the technology allowed workers to make more decisions, they needed more training and different contracts to encourage them to take responsibility.

Last year’s OECD report was one of many to suggest that it might, just might, be a little more complicated than putting more computers in classrooms. I do wonder whether, at some level, the school as an organisation will have to undergo a similar redesign to make the most of our new dynamos.