I am surprised to see that Jane Goodall is still alive and writing. I remember this famous British primatologist from the 60s when she made groundbreaking discoveries about animal behavior. She observed wild chimpanzees teasing termites out of holes with modified twigs. With that insight, she broke our complacent beliefs that only humans make tools. Though a bit humbled, we still convince ourselves that we are rather clever.
These days we have some mighty fancy tools. Like chimpanzees, we have opposable thumbs and this comes in handy when swiping or texting. Chimpanzees have hands made for swinging through trees. Our thumbs have evolved to Instagram our swinging. We cannot do without, but we’re not so sure these days if we’re using a tool or a toy. Nor are we so sure that our inventiveness is born from necessity. Maybe we are simply programmed now to manufacture more needs.
We should relent and admit that most of our waking life is about manufacturing, be it commodities or consent. Throughout the world, we agree that a good education means a good career track, which means an early advantage over one’s neighbor. One score higher, one school better, one rank higher in a chain of command. All this effort is to be a slightly bigger cog so that we can turn smaller cogs in this big mean machine. Information is power, or so they say, so it’s easy to continue stoking the engines in our educational institutions. It’s not that hard. Cogs usually move in one direction and for one purpose.
If we look into our crystal balls, we can see a future turned inside out. What if manufacturing doesn’t require an assembly line anymore? What if there is no need for mass production or mass marketing? What if we care less about a brand? If this were to happen, the chapter of industrial revolution would close. More startling is that it could all happen with a little desktop printer.
At present, 3D printers are too slow to take the place of assembly lines, but costs of the printers themselves have come way down. A cottage industry 3D business will cut costs in design, labor, management, advertising, distribution and just about every other cog that makes an assembly line run. No more indentured labor. No more sweatshops. The competitive edge will not come from something made faster, cheaper or smaller. In the way that a recipe has no monopoly over who cooks and eats it, competition will only be for the better design and the more creative idea. In this new world, what will be the strongest tool?
If we don’t quite get it yet, we’ll say the strongest tool is the computer. Or some will have a case for saying it’s the gun, but without a doubt the most powerful tool is the brain itself. Granted, it depends on how it’s used; as an obedient grey lump or as a creator of things never conceived of before. Institutions can’t treat our brains like magnetic tape anymore, cannot keep the gates or dictate who is smart or not. Hammering at our brains, we’ve been holding the wrong end. The new education must help us move from cogs to creativity, from consumers to creators.
Information is power, but almost everyone has access now. If creativity is the true power, how can we cultivate it? If Jane Goodall can live another twenty years, maybe she can figure it out. We know that primates use tools, but how do we develop our brains to invent, and can it happen in a school?