Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Future Will Be Cheaper

Capitalism is a race between innovation and stagnation. I thought of this listening to Timothy Ferriss, the most recent speaker at the Long Now Seminar series. He has a simple approach to learning: don't learn the way everyone else learns - rather learn the way the very best do it and then imitate them. Nor are we talking academic subjects here. Ferriss applies his approach (very convincingly) to language learning, sport and even cooking! You can get a flavour of the guy at his blog. Capitalism won't deliver innovation (and the productivity, growth, jobs, wealth and higher standards of living that go with it) unless there is a radical transformation in our approach to education.

What struck me listening to Ferriss was how badly we do the whole education/learning thing. Not just in Ireland - but more or less everywhere. The good news, for once, is that all of that is about to change. Some of it will be driven by economics: society can't afford our current education system, and students can't afford it either. But the biggest driver will be technology.

Take Khan Academy: I know from my children (both are in third level) that they and many of their fellow students use Khan Academy to help supplement their studies and even to prepare for exams. The difference is: Khan Academy is free... But there are many other examples of educational initiatives (iTunes U, for example) that are perfectly aligned to the needs, learning styles and preferences of 21st century students.

Marc Andreessen recently talked about the way is which 'software is eating the world'. Andreessen's VC company has been an early stage investor in Facebook, Groupon, twitter, Zynga and others - so the guy's fairly clued into what's going on. As he sees it, software will drive down the costs of many, many products and services that we currently pay high (and rising) prices for. Here's what he has to say:
My own theory is that we are in the middle of a dramatic and broad technological and economic shift in which software companies are poised to take over large swathes of the economy.
More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense.

Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.

...Health care and education, in my view, are next up for fundamental software-based transformation. My venture capital firm is backing aggressive start-ups in both of these gigantic and critical industries. We believe both of these industries, which historically have been highly resistant to entrepreneurial change, are primed for tipping by great new software-centric entrepreneurs.
Education and health haven't just been highly resistant to entrepreneurial change - they've been highly resistant to any change. But without change we face stagnation. And maybe even the final crisis of capitalism if Chris Dillow is right about the consequences of a failure to innovate.

But we can live in hope. So parents of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but the cost of putting your children through college! Off to DIY U with them...

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