Teaching Students The Seventh Sense

A teacher needs a "sixth sense," or an ability to read the ebbs of flow of energy in the classroom. Especially in the inner city, teachers should respect the advice of Jon Postel in terms of Internet protocol, "Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept." My sixth sense also says that we should listen carefully to Joshua Cooper Ramo's The Seventh Sense, and its analysis of what used to be called "the spirit of the age." Given my lack of expertise regarding the inner circles that Ramos describes, I must be awfully careful in judging his account of how a new age of networks is rapidly transforming our world. But, it is clear that we teachers should be discussing this world historical transformation with our students.

Ramo grounds his predictions in history; in fact, much of his discussions of continuity and change is old-fashioned - the type of narrative of discontinuity which fell out of favor long before Baby Boomers like me attended grad school. Ramo borrows George Orwell's view that history is the history of weaponry, and he describes today's digital networks as transformative tools of destruction. Ramo often describes history as the product of merchants, soldiers, and sages of the past. He then describes Gen X digital entrepreneurs as the same type of caste, who who are similar in many ways to previous elites. Even though his narrative sometimes feels like the old "Great Man" school of history, The Seventh Sense makes an impressive case that today's networks, even more than military and financial powers of the past "will deliver the real, perhaps even final, leverage."

In some ways, digital networks are like the great rivers and other physical systems that directed the paths of history. At times, Ramo describes them in ways that aren't fundamentally different from past systems, "Networks are like churches or schools or congresses; they reflect the aims and ethics of the people that build them." He then describes ways that 21st century networks will be transformative in completely new ways:

We will see, over and over again, networks shifting and even destroying the nature of even the most solid-looking objects. New links, exploding unto operation around us everywhere now, alter everything from how doctors operate to how investments perform. The failure to spot, understand, and use this connected power will be a source of our biggest future tragedies.

I think Ramo makes a unique contribution to understanding history because he has "a new understanding of power" and "a new instinct" for describing the ways that "pulling, taffy-like web of ties between the small (your watch) and the big (connected data systems) stretches constantly." I believe he provides an insightful account of the ways that networks provide connections across the globe, but how they have gates that do adequate or inadequate monitoring of the networks' access, and communications processes. I'm pretty sure that Ramo makes the case that "our future will hinge on a mastery of gatekeeping ... The network craves gates, we'll come to see, just as it craves connection." (the above emphasis is mine)

Ramo describes a "constant evolution" of digital technology that is "susceptible to "twitches, infections, or innovations." New networks are different because they are "complicated" or packed with interconnected stuff, as well as "complex," which is the result of surprising interactions that turn the complicated into phenomenon that become subject to "all the wildness of complexity." (emphasis is Ramo's) I'm not completely convinced that the new distinction is that fundamentally different than the distinction between complex, objective systems, and systems that are also subjective. (emphasis is mine)

Perhaps I'm just angry because I've seen the way that social engineers, oblivious to the people dynamics of schools, created such a mess with our complex institution. Regardless, the problem with this new complexity is that the result is "the creeping opacity of power, like a thickening fog settling between us and the world we inhabit." Worse, "our world is being lead into the future by a class of old leaders who don't understand networks, and a collection of new technologists who don't understand the world."

Ramo criticizes today's leaders, "who honestly don't have the technical instincts the Seventh Sense demands." I'm not convinced by his criticism of President Obama on this, however. He says we need a brand new sensibility, as he ridicules President Obama's admonition, "Don't do stupid stuff." As evidence, Ramo cites the terrorism unleashed by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but that was the legacy of President Bush's failure to heed that simple rule. He adds, "A whole new landscape of power is emerging now, it will permit a new generation of statesmen and stateswomen to use all the fibers of our age in pursuit of a grand strategy that doesn't begin with 'Don't.'" It seems to me that the prime rationale for gatekeeping starts with the work "Don't."

At times, Ramo seems to glorify the caste, the handful of experts, who can design network protocols. As opposed to political leaders, they appreciate "the seductive allure of the black box, of what it means to control such a central point of connection." He further writes about digital pioneers and entrepreneurs, "The two decades between the collapse of the Wall and the 2008 financial crisis had a magical aspect for a lucky few. There was a lightness of hope, mixed with the speed of a suddenly opening world. Life was a feedback loop of profit and, frankly, amazement at how easy it was to connect."

Ramo seems to being celebrating the compression of time, "the centripetal charm of acceleration," and the few technologists who dare to know "what you can't know," who engineer "the maddening black-boxing our world," who are the gatekeepers, not the "gatekept." Then, he pulls back. Ramo still hasn't recovered from the shock of learning that "the most important things in that will happen our lives will happen in secret."

But, what about elites who do not recoil but celebrate such a discovery? I may be grasping at straws, but I think his bottom line in regard to the technological caste is that they revel in the power of their secret knowledge but they "don't understand the world." (emphasis is mine)

My question isn't necessarily how many or how few leaders are developing the Seventh Sense. I sure hope that we won't do something stupid and fail to follow Ramo's advice on the "hard gatekeeping" of our digital networks. (The recent hacking of the Democratic Party files, supposedly by Russia, makes this an even more pressing issue.) My concern is how to prompt conversations by the citizenry that will create the sensibility that Ramo's calls the Seventh Sense. Ramo was influenced by the Chinese approach to decision-making where the first question is, "what is the nature of the era?" I want public school classrooms where students can debate such a question. One of the stupidest things we could do is continue down the technocratic school reform path that has been driving the clash of ideas out of learning.

So, I'd challenge Ramo to look at the contemporary school reform era. It would make a nice case study in the process of technocrats, who don't know what they don't know about an issue, and who place their faith in experimentation over reality. He already does a great job of explaining the computer hackers' mentality and the mindsets of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. I bet he'd be shocked to learn how "the New Caste" which "is in the business of making knowledge widely and instantly available," drove so much of the corporate reform campaign that inadvertently turned schools into a sped-up version of the Model T assembly line. I don't believe Ramo is exaggerating in his diagnosis of the forthcoming "rupture in the fabric of human history." That is why we need to teach our children to question authority, to practice creative insubordination, and restore the clash of ideas to all types of public schools.

Ramo helps me understand why digital pioneers, who so reveled in the disruptive innovation which enriched their careers, would unintentionally impose policies that resulted in so much soul-killing drill and kill on the poor children of color, who they didn't know but who they sought to help. Perhaps it was just another process where the powerful turned many students into square pegs to be plugged into square holes. I suspect, however, it was a Hegelian process that occurred because "no position is more important, formidable, influential, or profitable than that of gatekeeper." Those elites didn't bother to consider whether schools serving poor students of color were complex, not just complicated, organisms.

That being said, if both our political and our technological leaders are being overwhelmed by our networked world, shouldn't we allow our schools to nurture the best of the innovation that Ramo celebrates, and help the younger generations develop their own Seventh Sense?