The Challenge of Technology


David ThornburgDavid Thornburg is an award-winning futurist, author and consultant whose clients range across the public and private sector. In addition to his work with technology, David also consults on the relationship between classroom design and learning. He is the head of the Thornburg Center, a consultant group that focuses on emerging technologies and their impact on learning.

In this excerpt from his book, From the Campfire to the Holodeck, Dr. Thornburg explores the challenges of new technology. To learn more, be sure to check out the book and read his blog at

Technological Change

One of [Marshall] McLuhan’s great contributions was the understanding that every technology does four things: it does something new, it replaces something old, it rekindles something from the past, and it sets the stage for its own obsolescence by flipping into something else.

For example, let’s look at the word processor. When word processors came out, they allowed people to create nicely formatted documents without having to use typesetting equipment. Ultimately this made it easier for people to publish their own work, whether it was an article or a book. This clearly was something new. As for replacing something old, the typewriter has fallen from use since word processing software became commonplace. This happened for several reasons, chief among them being the ease with which documents could be edited without having to type them all over again. As for rekindling something from the past, word processing software rekindled an interest in typographic design, something that had been developed by printers since the 1500s and, especially, through the work of Aldus Manutius whose italic type is still commonplace today. Many popular typefaces are based on those developed many hundreds of years ago.

Early use of italic type.

Early use of italic type.

Consider Palatino, for example. Named after 16th-century Italian master of calligraphy, Giambattista Palatino, the modern Palatino typeface is based on the humanist fonts of the Italian Renaissance, which mirror the letters formed by a broadnib pen. This gives a calligraphic grace to the letters and makes them quite legible. The ability to choose among multiple fonts was largely unknown to those who used typewriters. In fact, once people started using word processors instead of typewriters, it was common to see so many typefaces being used that documents started looking more like ransom notes until people realized that with freedom comes responsibility, and typographic elegance became the norm for most people.

The real challenge in McLuhan’s tetrad is figuring out what comes next. What does the new technology flip into? In the case of word processing, one possible flip was the rise of interactive multimedia—something that required a computer and could not be done on a typewriter. Of course, this part of the tetrad is easy to see in hindsight. The challenge is to see what is coming next when the topic of exploration is, itself, a fairly new technology. As an old friend once cautioned me, “Watch out, David, those who live by the crystal ball shall eat crushed glass.” This was good advice, but it doesn’t keep me from trying to anticipate the future anyway.

Some technologies are easy to forecast—for example, those driven by evolutionary forces such as Moore’s Law. In its current form, this law states that the complexity (and power) of microprocessors, for example, doubles every year, and the cost goes down. We see this played out every time new computers come on the market, and are no longer surprised when our current computers suddenly seem old and out-of-date. But there are other forces for change, and some of these cannot be anticipated. We call these changes wild cards because they show up by surprise. Consider the transistor—a device invented in 1947 that had the potential to eclipse the vacuum tube in everything from radios to computers. When transistors came to market, they were, in fact, inferior to vacuum tubes, but their rapid improvement and adoption made vacuum tube–based devices virtually obsolete and opened the door to the invention of the integrated circuit and the modern laptop. The inability to see the future resulted in some quotes that look pretty silly today. For example, consider this quote from Popular Mechanics in 1949 (two years after the invention of the transistor): “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”

The Eniac, circa 1950.

The Eniac, circa 1950.

When this was written, the Eniac had been built. This first true digital computer occupied an entire room, making the Popular Mechanics prediction sound amazing. But no one seemed to realize that the days of vacuum tube technology were numbered, being driven out by the invention of a new device whose features and capabilities had already been demonstrated.

There are numerous examples of when people got it wrong because they simply extrapolated from the past without being aware of the coming disruption caused by the wild card aspect of some emerging technologies.

And, to make things even more interesting, the rate of technological change today seems to be accelerating. Futurists used to be thrilled when they could forecast developments five years out. Today, if lucky, the period is more like one year.

These observations should be taken as a caveat for our application of technology to learning spaces. McLuhan’s model shows that technology is on an ever-advancing path. There are many driving forces for change, but change itself is inevitable and rapid. No doubt you will see examples in this and later chapters as some of the tools we describe have either morphed into new forms or have disappeared altogether.



Book Cover Image for From the Campfire to the Holodeck: Creating Engaging and Powerful 21st Century Learning EnvironmentsHow to optimize educational spaces and teaching practices for more effective learning.

Author David Thornburg, an award-winning futurist and educational consultant, maintains that in orderBuy Now
to engage all students, learning institutions should offer a balance of Campfire spaces (home of the lecture), Watering Holes (home to conversations between peers), Caves (places for quiet reflection), and Life (places where students can apply what they’ve learned). In order to effectively use technology in the classroom, prepare students for future careers, and incorporate project-based learning, all teachers should be moving from acting as the “sage on the stage” to becoming the “guide on the side.”

Few people have influenced my thinking over the past thirty years as much as David Thornburg. This terrific new book continues that tradition.

Gary Stager, Ph.D., executive director, Constructing Modern Knowledge

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