Monday, January 7, 2008

Punching lines: what prevents change?

Quote: "The barrier to change is not too little caring; it is too much complexity." -- Bill Gates, Harvard University Commencement 2007

I came across Gates' address a couple of days ago and highly recommend it. It's forceful, and this line pulled the main punch. Gates argues that many people are concerned about global issues such as economic inequity, but the problems are so complex that we don't know what to do about it. Cutting through the complexity is one of the objectives of the Gates Foundation.

I'm often moved by a problem, only to stumble in a wave of helplessness and futility that discourages me from even trying to do something. India did this to me many times; the way it commands me to react is one of the things I find most rewarding about traveling there. Educational inequality sometimes hits me the same way: leveling the academic playing field seems daunting because disadvantaged students have to get beyond the system around them that had the same education they are trying to surpass. The latter is arguably easier to solve; I'm still tossing around whether it is any less critical.

Underneath Gates' complexity theory is an assumption that people need to feel they are having an impact, or at least being useful, to participate in a problem. Measuring impact is hard, especially for a single individual facing a global-scale task. Personally, I find micro-finance appealing because it provides some metric of utility to someone; I just have to be careful not to
think too hard about all of the people I'm not helping. Cliches about butterfly wings notwithstanding, we have a hard time believing in the impact of small acts. Most people haven't been trained to think in terms of large systems, but that's what charitable giving or community service often ask us to do.

This seems an educational challenge: we have enough people with some time or money to give to causes (my sense is that there is more of this available now as the middle class grows, but I could be wildly wrong on this). What tools do we learn for understanding and participating in complex problems though? I don't recall formally learning much along these lines aside from the importance of voting. This is a deeply social question to which computing technologies could be applied. What might we do?

As a side note, the "punching lines" tag reflects a new thread I'm trying for the blog. It'll label posts that respond to a concise quote that socked me in the gut when I first read it. Not lines I understood on re-reading, but ones that made me stop reading then and there and made my mind tingle.

1 comment:

Jodi said...

If you aren't familiar with the literature on service-learning, you might find it interesting. At its best, service-learning is all about trying to address complex problems, combining hands-on service experiences with deep reflection and more traditional types of learning to help students better understand complex social issues and empower them to take informed action to address underlying causes.