Getting Flat, Part 2

by Doc Searls

In Getting Flat, Part 1, I looked at what Tom Friedman says about Linux and open source in his new bestseller, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, and also in "It's a Flat World, After All", a feature that ran in the April 10, 2005, edition of the New York Times Magazine. To sum both up, Tom says the flat new world is one where "anyone with smarts, access to Google and a cheap wireless laptop can join the innovation fray".

In Part 1, I said Tom's flat-world insights are right-on, though a bit compromised by emphasis on competition--much of which isn't there--between Open Source communities and Microsoft. I also said he gave insufficient credit to open source for flattening the world in the first place--making Google and cheap wireless possible, for example.

In Part 2, I want to examine the human origins of the open-source materials we're using to build this new world. And I want to start by distinguishing them from corporate origins. Again, this is not to diminish the importance of big-company contributions to the flat-world revolution but to subordinate them to the profound work being done by individuals and small groups.

Here's what Tom says in his New York Times feature: "Wherever you look today... hierarchies are being flattened and value is being created less and less within vertical silos and more and more through horizontal collaboration within companies, between companies and among individuals."

Notice that the frame of reference is corporate. Tom continues:

Do you recall "the IT revolution" that the business press has been pushing for the last 20 years? Sorry to tell you this, but that was just the prologue. The last 20 years were about forging, sharpening and distributing all the new tools to collaborate and connect. Now the real information revolution is about to begin as all the complementarities among these collaborative tools start to converge. One of those who first called this moment by its real name was Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard C.E.O., who in 2004 began to declare in her public speeches that the dot-com boom and bust were just "the end of the beginning." The last 25 years in technology, Fiorina said, have just been "the warm-up act." "Now we are going into the main event," she said, "and by the main event, I mean an era in which technology will truly transform every aspect of business, of government, of society, of life."

The problem here is that big companies aren't very flat. Worse, they tend not to like the flat world. Tom provides an excellent example:

Microsoft sent teams to Chinese universities to administer I.Q. tests in order to recruit the best brains from China's 1.3 billion people. Out of the 2,000 top Chinese engineering and science students tested, Microsoft hired 20. They have a saying at Microsoft about their Asia center, which captures the intensity of competition it takes to win a job there and explains why it is already the most productive research team at Microsoft: "Remember, in China, when you are one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you."

What's wrong here isn't simply the focus on Microsoft in a country where open source is a huge phenomenon. It's that both Tom and Microsoft continue to believe IQ tests are important ways to measure citizens in a flat world. Because if there's one thing the world is flattening fast, it's the old caste system we call The Bell Curve.

Not surprisingly, no company on earth is more vested in the bell curve than Microsoft.

A friend who worked at Microsoft once told me he could describe his employer in two words: more school. He explained that the company is built by and for academic achievers like the two guys who founded the company. I read recently that Microsoft's two founders, Paul Allen and Bill gates, had SAT scores of 1600 and 1590, respectively--back when scoring was much tougher than it is today. My friend noted that Microsoft executives "can't go two paragraphs without using the word 'smart'." He asked, "Are there any other companies that want to know your SAT scores? Your GPA? Or that grade you on a curve?" He also said Microsoft was the first company to call its facility a "campus". Not sure if that's true, but it's plausible enough to make his point.

I can save Microsoft a pile of time and money by reporting a fact no school wants to admit, one that will flatten the world far more than any other factor: pretty much everybody is smart. What's more, they're all smart in their own ways. Meaning that the sources of innovation in China are a lot higher than 1,300 out of 1.3 billion.

Microsoft isn't unusual in the premium it places on school performance and school-type measures of human capacity. We've all been doing that ever since the Industrial Revolution, when modern school systems began. If we want to break free of big company silos and big company thinking, we need to break free of our equally industrial notions about schooling, which are based on the belief that talent and intelligence are rare.

Here's how iconoclast educator John Taylor Gatto put the matter in Harpers several years ago:

... we must wake up to what our schools really are: laboratories of experimentation on young minds, drill centers for the habits and attitudes that corporate society demands. Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don't let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a pre-teen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there's no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I've concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven't yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

Gatto was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. That same year, he announced his retirement in "I Quit, I Think", which ran as an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal. The gist:

David learns to read at age four; Rachel, at age nine: In normal development, when both are 13, you can't tell which one learned first--the five-year spread means nothing at all. But in school I label Rachel "learning disabled" and slow David down a bit, too. For a paycheck, I adjust David to depend on me to tell him when to go and stop. He won't outgrow that dependency. I identify Rachel as discount merchandise, "special education" fodder. She'll be locked in her place forever.

In 30 years of teaching kids rich and poor I almost never met a learning disabled child; hardly ever met a gifted and talented one either. Like all school categories, these are sacred myths, created by human imagination. They derive from questionable values we never examine because they preserve the temple of schooling.

That's the secret behind short-answer tests, bells, uniform time blocks, age grading, standardization, and all the rest of the school religion punishing our nation. There isn't a right way to become educated; there are as many ways as fingerprints. We don't need state-certified teachers to make education happen--that probably guarantees it won't.

Stop and think for a second here. How much of the world's best open-source code is being created by people who were trained to write that code in school? How much of it is the product of mentoring and self-education instead? How much of the intelligence behind it is as different as fingerprints?

What if the old industrial schooling system is as threatened by open source as the old proprietary software system?

Think about that while reading this excerpt from "Dumbing us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling":

I've come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us. I didn't want to accept that notion--far from it--my own training in two elite universities taught me that intelligence and talent distributed themselves economically over a bell curve and that human destiny, because of those mathematical, seemingly irrefutable, scientific facts, was as rigorously determined as John Calvin contended. The trouble was that the unlikeliest kids kept demonstrating to me at random moments so many of the hallmarks of human excellence--insight, wisdom, justice, resourcefulness, courage, originality--that I became confused. They didn't do this often enough to make my teaching easy, but they did it often enough that I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down. Was it possible I had been hired not to enlarge children's power, but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.

Bit by bit I began to devise guerrilla exercises to allow the kids I taught--as many as I was able-- he raw material people have always used to educate themselves: privacy, choice, freedom from surveillance, and as broad a range of situations and human associations as my limited power and resources could manage. In simpler terms, I tried to maneuver them into positions where they would have a chance to be their own teachers and to make themselves the major text of their own education...

I dropped the idea that I was an expert, whose job it was to fill the little heads with my expertise, and began to explore how I could remove those obstacles that prevented the inherent genius of children from gathering itself.

I quote Gatto at length not because I think his case is extraordinarily important, but because nothing I have ever read has resonated with me more.

In kindergarten I was one of the smart kids, with an IQ at the top end of the bell curve. By the 8th grade my IQ score had dropped to the other end. (I learned all this from my mother, who taught in the same school system and had access to the records.) Over the years, my known IQ scores have achieved a range of 80 points.

Here's an undeniable fact: nobody has an IQ. Tests that measure IQ aren't thermometers or dipsticks, despite the quantitative implications of "quotient". They're merely bunches of questions. You might answer them well on one day and poorly on another, without being smarter or dumber at either point in time.

I hated being judged in school, right from the start. In fact, I hated being in school at all. In kindergarten I'd stare at the window and wish I could leave. The teacher sent me to the "thinking chair" repeatedly for not paying attention. I remember wondering what I was supposed to be thinking about. In first grade they put me in the slow reading group, because I was uncomfortable reading out loud. I could read; but for me reading Dick and Jane out loud was torture. And the sweet suburban sentiments of the books only made me wish I was out playing rather than cooped up in a classroom.

So slow I stayed, pretty much. My Iowa Test scores started well in 1st grade, but by 8th grade they were down to the 10th percentile in vocabulary. My reading score was zip. It couldn't be lower if I'd done nothing with the test. Come to think of it, that's probably what I did.

My reading probably was better than most of the other kids in my class, though. Same with my vocabulary. At home, I devoured books. I just hated school, hated homework, hated the whole system. Athletics, too, because it was another caste system with a bell curve.

By the end of junior high, the school system wanted me to join the other academic failures at the local vocational-technical high school, where they taught how to fix cars and work a drill press. Fortunately, my parents believed in me and sent me off to a Lutheran prep school, which I only half-jokingly called an "academic correctional institution". My grades still sucked, but at least I had a good time and learned a lot anyway.

By junior high I was already a ham radio operator and a committed geek. And, like geeks and misfits everywhere, I worked constantly to increase the delta between my soul and the bell curve. In other words, I educated myself, just like Franklin, Edison and the rest of history's productive misfits.

I say all this because it's clear to me--and probably to Tom Friedman, too--that the flat new world isn't big on fitting. Here we reward differences. We value uniqueness, creativity, innovation, initiative, resourcefulness. Every patch to the software in the server that brings you this essay was created by somebody different, with something different to contribute. Yes, a meritocracy is involved. But I can assure you it has nothing to do with grades or IQ tests. It has to do with quality of code and with the virtues that produce it, only some of which are fostered in school.

In the flat new world, educational opportunities are limitless, even without help from school, government, churches or business. Much of what you need to know about pretty much everything is out there on the Web somewhere--especially if you're a technologist. Yes, the Web isn't everywhere. But it's in all the flat places, and the flatness is spreading, fast. Which is another of Tom's points.

Of course, the average and the dumb are still plentiful, no doubt about it. But try this concept on for size: most of them were made that way. They were shaped in large measure by school systems that have had, from the dawn of the industrial age, a main purpose: to produce employees for boxed positions in corporate org charts that take the shape of pyramids, wide at the bottom and narrow at the top. The many supporting the few. We may have needed a caste system that made each of us a ranked product--and we still call ourselves that--of an education. There were few alternatives in the industrial age, aside from farming and other relatively solitary occupations. But there are plenty of alternatives now, as many as there are individuals with access to broadband.

The flat world is different. The flat world really does reward individuality, creativity, freedom, initiative. Tom says that too, but he also seems to think school can solve the problem when, in fact, school may be a big part of the problem. And not only in the US. Other countries may have better educational systems than we have in the US, but those countries also produce plenty of intellects whose self-education is far more helpful than whatever they obtain from school. And the ability to self-educate is essential in the flat new world.

As Tom puts it in his book, "once the world has been flattened and the new forms of collaboration made available to more and more people, the winners will be those who learn the habits, processes and skills most quickly. There is simply nothing that guarantees it will be Americans or Western Europeans permanently leading the way."

Tom says we're coming into a time of crisis for American companies, schools and families. Not because we are especially threatened by successes elsewhere in the world, but because we're complacent here in the US. Worse, we feel entitled. That's why we're falling behind. He sees parents as the responsible parties:

Helping individuals in a flat world is not only the job of governments and companies. It is also the job of parents. They too need to know in what world their kids are growing up and what it will take them to get there. Put simply, we need a new generation of parents ready to administer tough love: There comes a time when you've got to put away the Game Boys, turn off the television set, put away the iPod, and get your kids down to work.

Work matters, but curiosity matters more. Nobody works harder at learning than a curious kid. And nothing works harder to disable a kid's curiosity than the narcotic we call television.

More than half a century ago, Fred Allen called TV "chewing gum for the eyes", and he's more right today than he was back then. In those days there were only three TV networks, all of which felt an obligation to offer at least some intellectually stimulating programming. Although you'll still find educational programming on any well-stocked cable line-up today, you have to ask, "Is any of this better than what I'm going to find right now, on my own initiative, in a book or so on the Web?" In most though admittedly not all cases, the answer is no.

Though I doubt I'll live to see it, I am sure some day we will look back on massive TV consumption the way we now look back on drunk driving and ubiquitous cigarette smoking: as an unhealthy practice that, for a few dumb decades, was the norm.

In his chapter on Parenting, Tom observes that most of the students going to California Institute of Technology come from public schools. Caltech president David Baltimore says, "I give parents enormous credit for this, because these kids are all coming from public schools that people are calling failures. Public education is producing these remarkable students--so it can be done. Their parents have nurtured them to make sure they realize their potential. I think we need a revolution in this country when it comes to parenting around education."

I don't think we'll have much choice, because too much of the flat world is built on on open-source code produced by smart kids and former kids who not only realize their potential but their potential effects on the world.

The flat new world is being built on a new class of natural resources: ones produced by human minds.

Several years ago, when Jackson Shaw was still at Microsoft, I explained to him how "Linux grows on trees". He got the point even more deeply than I had meant it. "I see", he replied. "It isn't that Linux grows on trees. It IS trees."

Open-source code isn't about changing the world. It's about making and remaking the world with boundlessly abundant natural resources.

There's no limit to the power and variety of those resources. They're as abundant as fingerprints, multiplied by all the useful and creative work they can do over the course of lives that only make their flat world wider.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He writes the Linux for Suits column for Linux Journal. He also presides over Doc Searls' IT Garage, which is published by SSC, the publisher of Linux Journal.

Load Disqus comments