John Seely Brown, in his keynote address at the KMWorld conference in November 2017 and a presentation at the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Library Innovation in August 2015, said that we now live in the Exponential Age. The Exponential Age follows on from the Industrial Age, the Digital Age, and Networked Age.
The Exponential Age is characterized by a rapid set of punctuated jumps, resulting in an exponential curve that we can expect to see for the next 20 to 40 years. Yesterday’s best practices are becoming rapidly outmoded. Yesterday’s cutting edge is today’s dustbin. Our stocks of knowledge are moving to flows of knowledge.
The half-life of skills in the Exponential Age is reduced to about 5 years. Think about the Exponential Age in terms of whitewater kayaking. It’s fundamentally different from previous modes of transport, epitomized by sailboats and, earlier, by steamships. Whitewater kayaking requires constant pivoting. When your kayak rolls over, that’s not the time to start thinking about what to do. That 5-year half-life creates tremendous opportunities for libraries to fill gaps.
The big shift is recognizing how tacit knowledge flows in new types of networks, such as video, social media, augmented reality, and virtual reality. Our vison of libraries is in a state of flux, yet certain priorities remain stable—the library as a community hub; the library making the most of digital technologies and creative media; and the library’s role in mentoring, connecting, guiding, and curating.
Information professionals need to escape from their competency traps that actually work against change and radical learnings. They impede our ability to see new patterns. What is required in the Exponential Age is scalable unlearning, the ability to forget our old tacit knowledge and beliefs so they can be replaced with newer, more correct, knowledge and skills. Older tacit knowledge can be surprisingly hard to recognize and fosters belief in things that no longer apply.
Unlearning is hard. It means getting out of your comfort zone. One example comes from entrepreneur Jack Hidary. He takes time every year to learn something completely outside his area of expertise. His protocol is to spend one day listening to talks at a conference. The second day he doesn’t attend the talks but sits outside by the coffee and listens to what conference attendees say to each other. Not until the third day does he enter conversations, think about what he’s heard, and determine what is actionable and worth pursuing.
In the 20th century, innovation happened on the edge and then pushed its way into the core. In the 21st century, that is reversed. Innovation still happens on the edge, but the edge pulls the core to the edge. Agile teams attack problems with awesome tools and create massive numbers of experiments.
Consider reverse mentorships and bidirectional learning as another reversal. Listen to those younger than you, whom you might think of as “kids.” Listen with humility and from the edge. Let them mentor you. One example is a new cohort just out of law school who formed an internal Twitter-type group to solve problems at their firm. The group members became mentors to senior partners.
Expand your focus beyond “cool” technologies. Instead, ask what is made possible by these technologies that empower the edge.
Cloud computing has infinite scalability that can enable new business models. Big Data lets you interpret weak signals. Blockchain technology enables smart contracts with no overhead.
Reimagining libraries and learning for the Exponential Age calls for more than just scalable learning and unlearning; it calls for a new ontology, a new way of being. This means blending Homo sapiens (man/woman who knows), Homo faber (man/woman who makes), and Homo ludens (man/woman who plays). Imagination is the binding agent among the three types. We need a new kind of symbiotic relationship between us and computation.
The emphasis on playing is critically important. Effective play involves probing and pushing boundaries. It’s not just about recreation, it’s about playing with ideas and challenges to reach a breakthrough moment. Epiphanies occur when, through play, pieces suddenly fall into place, leading to a reframing of our worldview. Playing involves deep tinkering and interrogating context.
For libraries, this is a step beyond the maker movement. It involves building contexts as much as content. The ability to read context influences what we deem to be authoritative. The illiteracy surrounding fake news shows that we don’t know how to interrogate context, how to be a detective. Additionally, we need to expand the traditional notion of literacy to understanding the visual, musical, and procedural notions of the term.
The unique power of human imagination comes, in part, from its ability to integrate opposing viewpoints. To reimagine libraries and learning, start by imagining the world under different terms, with different roles. Create so much excitement on the edge that the core is naturally pulled to the edge. Don’t go for perfect, and don’t ask permission.
The Exponential Age allows products to rapidly evolve and update continuously rather than be replaced. Unlearning allows for experimentation and discovery of new capacities and interests. It paves the way for alternate pathways forward. Information professionals need new lenses through which to view the exponential curve that defines our next 20 to 40 years.