The future, Flossed

Mental_floss_01Photo: Geoff Oliver Bugbee,

To kick off this Saturday, Mental Floss is doing a panel, The Future According to Mental Floss. Panelists are Mary Carmichael, Henry Cunningham, Elizabeth Spiers, and Ethan Zuckerman. 

Mary Carmichael of Mental Floss, moderates. Elizabeth Spiers wrote for Gawker and founded DeadHorseMedia. Henry Cunningham works with developing nations on education and is a Fulbright scholar at the University of Louisville. Ethan Zuckerman founded Geekcorp and works with Global Voices.

Ethan describes what he does as filling in the blank spots left by traditional media. There is, roughly, an equal amount of news from Japan and Nigeria, but CNN doesn't generally reflects the news from Nigeria. Global Voices wants to give voice in countries. Because it's a read/write medium, the Web can now offer balance. It can "amplify, translate, contextualize" all those voices to offer a compliment to traditional media.

Likewise, DeadHorseMedia produces media in sectors not generally covered. Elizabeth gravitated to blogging because mainstream media didn't cover finance, which she did professionally. Hedge funds, for example, get little coverage but nonetheless important simply because of all the money be moved.

Harry gets his students into work and real world experiences. He also has worked with foreign governments to assess need. He ascribes the failure of some UN programs to simply to not being wanted. Likewise, he says that when students see a connection between academic and professional work, they are more likely to thrive. Student engagement is his passion.

[Questions from the moderator, Mary, are in italics]

What about the introduction of laptops planned by the government of Libya. Bill Gates is opposed.

Ethan points out that the one laptop per child program is actually quite sophisticated. It consumes about a twentieth of the power of other computers. It can build and participate in a mesh network. The cooling fans and the lack of hard drive differentiate it.

Echoing Henry, Ethan asks: what are the needs? We can't even replace schoolbooks with laptops in the US.

Libya has oil, with is problematic since it tends to defer, he suggests, future planning.

Is it enough to make the technology available?

Elizabeth: she's sees shades of a "let them eat cake" attitude toward that notion. The infrastructure and literacy rates make it hard for the technology to have its intended affect.

Ethan: There are important differences between technologies. No one here writes code for a cellphone. The laptop program is also an attempt to also create coders. People in the developing world do not flock to buy laptops. 100 million cell phones have been sold in sub-Saharan Africa. It can substitute for transportation costs. Are laptops that relevant?

Part of why the 2000 election in Ghana went smoother than another election he can think of, was that people took phones the booths. Calls were often relayed by radio media, which acted as a check on potential abuse at the polls. It's simple technology, effectively used.

What should we do with education in the U.S.?

Henry: its a big job. We lag the rest of the world in math and science. There is a shortage of those teachers. How can we get more children into the sciences? Literacy rates are far lower than they should be. Kids must be able to read as well as use consumer information technology. How can we teach literacy in homes that lack two parents?

Elizabeth: kids are advanced without cause. More parental engagement is crucial. The educational system cannot be expected to be parents.

Ethan: Kids are good at discovery, which gives him hope. A participatory culture is emerging. It's a positive. Creating and furthering knowledge is a skill that can be learned. It's a skill he believes children are using. Some kids are being asked to write for Wikipedia.

What are the worst predictions?

Elizabeth: Flying cars. Also, video on demand is also not scrutinized enough as a business proposition. YouTube and Gawker is read during business hours. Why should 20-30 minute news programs be a hit? Video consumers aren't that patient.

Ethan: Virtual worlds, like Second Life, will not substitute for face time - that being behind avatars that are more attractive and will promote interaction. There are two problems: the technology sucks badly. The other: Zimbabwe recently just shot down the broadband Internet. When politics intrude, text is becomes important. Appropriate technology matters.

Interaction in virtual worlds masks rather than reveals.

Henry: He doesn't believe that virtual universities will succeed. Online teaching skills are bad. The interest is not there. It costs too much. What about kids who learn hands on?

What can we expect?

Henry: Many Americans he meets live in other countries. Mobility encourages interdependence. Globalization as a trend will only become more pronounced.

Ethan: about a billion people are online after 40 years. Two billion will be online in the next five years. We will be listening to those people, many of them from countries that we don't typically pay attention to. We only THINK we are in a globalized society. Brazilian and Chinese participants will challenge us to broaden that idea.

Elizabeth. Fragmented media can now be capitalized. Concept testing can be done for ideas that most likely wouldn't make it in traditional media. Amateur sitcoms can be produced and run at far, far less.

That's all I've got.