Tag Archives: Steven Johnson

From Programs to Platforms?

Photo of a building under construction.


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

I’ve raised this issue before, but it never seemed to have garnered the traction I had hoped it would, even though many experts are convinced that an adequate understanding of it and its implications is absolutely critical to the future of Cooperative Extension and higher education in general.

The issue can be summed up in one word: Platform.  We have got to demonstrate to present-day and future Cooperative Extension educators the indispensable, if not central, role platforms will play in defining their work.

I really believe that.

Platforms convey a number of meanings within the English language, but in computer parlance, it’s typically understood in terms of how software and Web development often provide the basis for further tinkering and innovation.

Indeed, we’ve learned a lot about the significance of platforms based on what has come out of these two undertakings.   The simple fact that the text you are reading is posted and readily visible on your monitor is a testament to the foresight and work of Tim Berners-Lee, who essentially built the World Wide Web off earlier software advances.

He built it by stitching it together from components that already existed.   He found a way to stitch all these components together using hypertext markup language. In a matter of speaking, he built a new platform known as the Worldwide Web by stacking it on older ones.   Of course, the Web, in turn, has served a platform for numerous other platform stacks, many of which have changed life on this planet in a myriad of ways.

These platforms have formed the basis for the growth of dense technological ecosystems.

Here’s the really fascinating part: The insights we’ve garnered from software and Web design bear a remarkable resemblance to what we’ve learned from disciplines as far removed as biology.

As Steven Johnson argues in his splendid book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation,” we see the same sorts of processes played out in nature.  For example, what is a beaver dam other than a biological platform?

Beaver dams serve more than just a means of pooling water.  They provide basis for the development entire ecosystems.  To put it another way, dams provide a means by which other species can, in a manner of speaking, stack their own platforms — in other words, to develop their own biological niches.

In this respect, we Extension educators are a lot like beavers.   We have been platform builders from the beginning of our history — a reality reflected in Seaman Knapp’s demonstration plots and Booker T. Washington’s “Movable School On Wheels,” better known as the Jesup Wagon.

Like busy little beavers, we have been developing ecosystems — or, in our case, knowledge ecosystems — for a comparatively long time, longer than most educational entities.

Within the past century, though, a number of factors have forced us to conceive our knowledge products in more lineal terms.  We’re currently defined by how we deliver programs— programs that are still conceived and carried out in the same linear fashion they were at the beginning of the 20th century

There is still a place for this.  Yet, a lot of people in all facets of education are more convinced than ever that the times are calling for a more open-ended approach to outreach.  This will require Extension educators to return to something more familiar — to close the circle, in a manner of speaking.

That will involve changing how we develop our educational products in the future, because closing this circle will require us to focus more on becoming the platform architects and builders of the 21st century.

In other words, we will be valued more for the platforms —the ecosystems of knowledge — we create than for the linear programming that we deliver.

Some in our ranks find such thinking almost inconceivable. Yet, this seems to be where all the trends are pointing.

Yes, it is a scary prospect for some, because it undoubtedly will call for a complete rethinking of how we interact with those we serve.

I, for one, think it could prove to be our finest hour.

Skepticism is Fatal: A Case for Social Media Adoption

Like it or not — and, frankly, many of us don't — a new Extension communication and outreach platform is being constructed on the old one.

Skepticism: I run across it occasionally as I discuss the absolute importance of social media adoption to the future of Cooperative Extension.

A few Extension educators steadfastly maintain that the learning curve required to master social media is not only too time consuming but also that social media have the potential of eroding personal contacts with their clients.

I think they’re wrong.  They’re wrong because the old way of doing things is untenable.  It’s untenable because a new platform is being built on the older 20th century outreach platform that our forebears first began building a century ago to serve our clients.  Yes, face-to-face contacts will continue to play an integral part in this new platform, though part of something even bigger.

Note that I use the term platform instead of more common terms such as models and networks.  I think it more accurately describes what we’re dealing with today. Platform is a more apt term to describe the open, highly fluid ecosystems of knowledge that form the basis for present and future innovation, many of which are being built — or stacked — on older ones.

That’s precisely what’s happening within Extension: a new outreach platform is being built on the old one. This fact holds some disturbing implications for those in our ranks who have not adjusted the new platform — it means that, professionally speaking, they in the basement.

This explains why social media adoption is more than simply a professional add-on or option.  It’s critical to our survival.  We’ve got to acquire the skills to operate effectively within this new outreach platform.

If we don’t acquire the skills — if we don’t become fully engaged, fully networked professionals — we will not survive the future.

A Fatal Illusion

As I see it, the people who resist social media adoption suffer from a kind of fatal illusion.  They mistakenly assume that the old 20th century communications order will carry over into the future or, at least, that enough of it will remain to ensure their survival.

Things are not working out that way. Granted, some elements of the old outreach platform will comprise parts of the new one.  Even so, the new platform that is emerging bears scant resemblance to the old one and operates on several entirely new premises and expectations.

Also, the old platform was seriously hampered by bandwidth limitations— bandwidth essentially defined as the amount of data that can be carried from one point to another in a given period of time.

Because of these limitations, the old approach required information brokers.  The task fell to people like us to plan and push educational programs down to our clients through this relatively narrow bandwidth — small wonder why plan-and-push delivery methods comprised the cornerstone of our 20th century outreach platform.

However, “that was then and this is now. “ The Internet and, more recently, social media, have all but swept away this old information order.

Something remarkable has followed: liberation.  The people we once knew as clients are liberating themselves from Extension educators and other information brokers.

They are liberating themselves by learning how to seek and retrieve information on their own.  They are no longer routinely turning to us and other traditional information brokers, such as reference librarians, for essential knowledge.

Think about it: These liberated audiences are no longer clients in any conventional sense.  They are no longer passive subjects waiting to be enlightened by professional educators.  They are developing their own venues for intellectual exchange with or without professional educators.

As futurists and social critics Steven Johnson and Matt Ridley have stressed time and again in their writings, the wellspring of human progress stems from fluid, open environments — the places where ideas in the course of meeting, mating and morphing produce new insights and innovations.

That is precisely what is taking place among these newly liberated clients: They’re building their own platforms: fluid networks where they  are engaging, discussing, sharing serendipitous insights and providing valuable feedback.

Like it or not — and, frankly some of us don’t — these liberated clients are creating their own highly fluid, open-source learning environments.   New media are enabling them to carry on open, highly generative, highly rewarding exchanges without us.

This new reality should drive home a hard truth to all of us: By turning our backs on these open, highly generative discussions, some of us are depriving our ourselves of many of the critical insights that will influence our professions in the future.

Refusing to adopt social media is like exiting off a high-speed six-lane Interstate Highway onto a service road and driving at a snail's pace.

Here’s another way of looking at it: Ignoring these emerging social networks is like exiting off a six-lane, high-speed Interstate onto a two-lane service road and driving at a snail’s pace.

We’re behaving like tortoises instead of hares. And forget all the endearing folklore associated with tortoises:  Within this new communications environment, hares will always trump tortoises.

The hares shall inherit the earth.

Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension

The key to Extension’s survival can be expressed in one word: platforms.  Social media adoption is critical to our future, but it is only the first step toward the overriding goal of learning how to build the most generative, open-source platforms of the twenty-first century.  Please see my new Alabama Extension publication (EX-128) titled  “Open-Source Platforms and the Future of Cooperative Extension” and view my recently posted youtube video, which is featured below:

Extension as an Emergent Platform — and What It Means for Our Future

London Skyscraper

Extension's challenge in the 21st century: Foster optimal conditions for the formation of the most generative platforms of the future.

I’ve mentioned before that I think Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, should serve as a primer for Extension’s transformation into a 21st century knowledge organization.

Our transformation rides on how well we grasp the central lesson of this book: that many of the greatest intellectual advances in history have been generated by emergent platforms, the complex systems that arise from relatively simple interactions.

Cooperative Extension is one such platform — one that has not only advanced human knowledge but that has also provided the basis for other emergent, highly generative platforms.

As Johnson stresses, much of our understanding of emergent platforms stems from what we’ve learned from software design and Web development.

He notes that the most generative platforms come in stacks. One of history’s most significant examples of such a stack is Tim Berners-Lee’s ingenious innovation, which we know today as the Worldwide Web. Indeed, the Web is a kind of archeological site comprised of layer upon layer of platform made possible by the Internet’s open protocols — small wonder why “platform stack” is now a term commonly used in modern programming circles.

Other stacks followed the Web, notably youtube, which was stitched together with elements of the Web, Adobe’s Flash platform and the programming language Javascript, Johnson observes.

Yet, similar kinds of platform occurred long before the Web.  Johnson relates the story of two young scientists at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University whose responses to the Sputnik crisis produced one of the most generative platforms in history, one that contributed to GPS and, ultimately, to many of the technologies that define 21st century life.

Cooperative Extension is a highly generative platform in its own right. Indeed, speaking as an Extension history buff, I’m struck by the stark resemblance of Extension’s development to that of the Worldwide Web and accompanying Web 2.0 platforms.

Extension is one layer of a considerably dense platform stack, built upon the Experiment Station platform as well as farmer institutes, which, in turn, were constructed on the older agricultural society model.  Extension also borrows heavily from other platforms, including the “university Extension” model begun in England in 1866.

In another stark similarity to 21st century Internet platforms, Extension was shaped by late 19th and early 20th century forerunners of hackers — and, yes, I’m using this term in the commendatory rather than the derogatory sense —self-taught laypersons, beginning with Seaman Knapp, who helped refine and retool outreach methods, much as 21st century hackers have stepped up to enhance the usefulness of everything from Google Maps to Twitter.

In generative terms, Extension turned out to be one of the most valuable platforms of the 20st century, producing or contributing significantly to a host of other platforms.  Boll weevil eradication, which provided the basis for other platforms — crops entomology, crop dusting, crops scouting, to name only a few — is one of the greatest examples.  Other platforms that were built off Extension or that borrowed significantly from it include the U.S. Farm Bureau system, public health education, applied home economics, 4-H, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service), and community resource development.

I’ve spoken in the past of the need for a radical overhaul of our outreach model.  But radical in this context does not imply thoroughgoing or wrenching insomuch as a harkening back to our roots.  Extension educators were building open-source, highly generative platforms long before this term or the underlying concept were conceived.

Our challenge will be to foster the most optimal conditions for the emergent platforms of the future — platforms efficient and generative enough to thrive within this the highly demanding 21st century knowledge environment.

Here’s the good news: Our transformation, while far from easy, is simple — simple in the sense that it requires an understanding of where we have been in order to understand where we’re going.  Despite numerous setbacks of late, we possess an institutional legacy that uniquely equips us with this understanding.

Colleagues have asked me why I remain doggedly optimistic in the face of all this cutting and downsizing.

This is why.

More Thoughts on Fostering Emergent Platforms within Extension

Is Extension up to the task of helping build the emergent platforms of the 21st century?In spite of all the justified concerns about the economy and spiking fuel prices, we live in unusually exciting times.

I really mean that.  The rapid acceleration of intellectual exchange that has followed the advent of the Internet and, more recently, of Web 2.0 has enabled some of the world’s brightest thinkers to gain deeper insights into the factors that drive human progress.

I personally derive immense optimism from that fact.  I think the enhanced clarity garnered from these new insights not only will help us surmount these current challenges but will also help transform Cooperative Extension System into the 21st century knowledge organization it must become.

The factors that have contributed to this enhanced clarity are outlined in Steven Johnson’s new book, Where Good Ideas Come from: The Natural History of Innovation.

Johnson borrows “platform,” a term commonly used in software programming, to describe those environments that provide the most optimal conditions for intellectual exchange and innovation.

No passage in the book better expresses the optimal conditions required for the formation of such environments than the quote from William Guier and Geroge Weiffenbach, the two young scientists at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory whose impromptu research in the midst of the Sputnik crisis contributed to one of the most influential platforms in human history.

The two credited their achievements to the open intellectual environment that prevailed at the APL in the 1950s:

APL was a superb environment for inquisitive young kids, and particularly so in the Research Center. I was an environment that encouraged people to think broadly and generally about task problems, and one in which inquisitive kids felt free to follow their curiosity.  Equally important, it was an environment wherein kids, with an initial success, could turn to colleagues who were broadly expert in relevant fields, and particularly because of the genius of the Laboratory Directorship, colleagues who were also knowledgeable about hardware, weapons and weapons needs.

As Johnson points out, “APL was a platform that encouraged and amplified hunches [and] that allowed those hunches to be connected with other minds that had relevant expertise.”

Of course, the APL is only one of many such platforms that have occurred at different times and places throughout history, though they have tended to share a few characteristics in common:  all provided environments in which diverse types of thought could “productively collide and recombine.”

As I see it, this is our 21st century organizational charge: to recreate open-source environments that secure the most optimal conditions for mutual exchange and recombination of ideas.

There is a strong emphasis among many public commentators and policymakers on building technological infrastructure as the most optimal way to foster creativity and innovation.

Without a doubt,  technological infrastructure has contributed mightily to American economic and scientific leadership throughout history, but so has human infrastructure — the kind of infrastructure Extension educators routinely and unfailingly provided throughout the last century.

We still have immense potential for providing human infrastructure in the 21st century. We Extension educators can still serve a valuable role  enhancing the connections that are being generated at breakneck speed by this emerging Web 2.0-driven technological infrastructure.  But reaching this potential will require a complete reassessment and retooling of our outreach model.

In the end, our success will depend on how adept we become at optimizing those conditions that have been shown to foster the most generative emergent platforms.

Sputnik Lessons for Cooperative Extension

Artist's rendering of Sputnik orbit.

Sputnik sparked a crisis as well as one of the most generative emergent platforms in human history.

Monday, October 7, 1957, was a day of bewilderment mixed with a generous but subdued measure of geekish awe at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

Americans had been confronted the previous weekend by newspaper headlines announcing the successful Soviet launch of Sputnik.

As science writer and bestselling author Steven Johnson relates in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, APL scientists spent the following Monday reflecting on this troubling event and discussing the implications for the arms race and for the future of U.S. scientific leadership.

Somewhere along the way, in what turned out to be one of the most far-reaching “AH HA!” movements in human history, two young scientists, William Guier and George Weiffenbach, realized that they could use equipment in APL’s inventory to track Sputnik’s microwave emissions.

This insight soon led the young scientists to another discovery: that they could use the Doppler effect to calculate the speed with which Sputnik was moving through space.

Guier and Weiffenbach were on the verge of what they later recalled as “the adventure of their lives,” only they didn’t know it at the time.

Several months later, they were asked by an APL administrator to subject this insight to reverse processing — in other words, to determine if the position of a receiver on the ground could be calculated based on the precise location of an orbiting satellite.

In a manner of speaking, the Soviets ended up being hoisted on their own technological petard.  This reverse processing not only proved to be achievable but also provided the basis for using satellites to navigate nuclear-powered Polaris submarines.

Less than a generation later,in the tragic aftermath of the Korean Airlines 007 crash in 1983, President Reagan declared that satellite-based navigation would become a “common good” open to civilian use to avoid similar tragedies — not to mention, potential nuclear crises —in the future.

In only a short time, this system acquired its current name — GPS — a common good that has provided critical guidance for everything from mobile phones to precision agriculture.

While scarcely aware of it, Guier and Weiffenback had begun initial construction on what Johnson describes in his book as an “emergent platform,” one that has benefited human beings in ways scarcely imaginable a half century ago.

There are a couple of lessons here for Extension educators.  First, much like Guier and Weiffenbach, we have constructed our own emergent platforms within the last century.  Much like the platform that grew out of the Sputnik crisis, these have produced their own far-reaching effects.

One notable example: The emergent platform that developed from efforts to control boll weevil outbreaks in cotton and that led to a wealth of innovations, including row-crop entomology, cotton scouting, crop diversification (notably the introduction of peanuts) and aerial spraying, which, in turn, led directly to the formation of the commercial airline company, Delta.

In fact, the platform that grew out of the Boll Weevil crisis was an unusually generative one  in terms of how information has been recycled and used for other purposes— something we should bear in mind as we reconstruct the new Extension outreach model.

Johnson’s Sputnik account presents Extension educators with another critical insight: Our success in the 21st century will depend on how well we create ecologies of openness — on how well we optimize the conditions for similar highly generative emergent platforms of the future.

Failure to Meet Code?

Seaman Knapp

Seaman knapp, 19th century forerunner of Extension work, and, arguably, one of the early architects of open-source ecology.

In one respect, I’m not worried about the open-source challenge to Extension.

Who were Seaman Knapp, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver other than early forerunners of collaborative learning?  In a sense, they were architects of open-source ecology long before this term became commonplace.

No doubt about it: Open source ecology is deeply etched into our DNA.

We often forget that that 19th century agricultural societies and expositions and Knapp’s cotton demonstrations were as much attempts to elicit the insight and feedback of growers as they were efforts to disseminate knowledge.  And don’t forget that Washington conceived the Movable School concept after expressing frustration that so many farmers refused to speak up at farmer’s conferences held on the Tuskegee campus.  Much like Knapp’s cotton demonstrations, the movable schools were as much about securing feedback from farmers at the grassroots as they were about educating them.

I was reminded of this reading Donald Tapscott’s and Anthony D. Williams’s Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

They apply a really thought-provoking term to the 21st century visionaries — entrepreneurs and university researchers, to name a few — who are striving to ensure that knowledge is shared as widely and as freely as possible among those who seek to advance the boundaries of human knowledge. They call them new Alexandrians.

The Alexandrian Greeks, as you recall, set out with one overarching goal: They wanted to ensure that all the accumulated human knowledge — all the histories, plays, literature and mathematical and scientific treatises — was assembled under one roof.

What they achieved was extraordinary for the time: They accumulated an estimated half million books in the vast library at Alexandria before it was burned in the fifth century.

In a sense, our early Extension visionaries were the new Alexandrians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: They searched for the most effective ways to ensure that all knowledge about agriculture and, later, home economics, youth development, and community resource development was made available to anyone interested in benefiting from it.

Extension educators were constructing open-source platforms long before we understood the significance of that concept.

To be sure, we’re still constructing open-source platforms.  My fear is that our platforms — or, if you prefer, our open-source ecologies — are not up to the task. To put it another way, I fear that we are failing to “meet code” — the building codes of the 21st century knowledge economy.

Our platforms are not dense enough and generative enough to keep pace with others.

What do the best open-source platforms look like?

In his superb book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural Science of Innovation, Steve Johnson describes platform building as “a kind of exercise in emergent behavior.” In human knowledge terms, platforms function as “hotbeds of innovation.”

The most optimal open-source platforms create environments within which different kinds of thoughts can “productively collide and recombine,” Johnson says.

I’m more convinced than ever that Extension’s success in the 21st century will ride on how adept we become in building these generative open-source platforms.

The more generative the platforms are, the better, because these ensure the widest possible following among our clients.

As we assess our future, we should begin with an affirmation, followed by a question.

First, the affirmation: Much like the coffeehouses of the 17th century, which provided the basis for so much idea sharing and innovation, Cooperative Extension is one of history’s oldest open-source platforms.

We should derive immense pride and inspiration from that fact.

Next, the sobering part — the question: Are our platforms dense enough and generative enough to compete in the 21st century?

Do they meet code?