Wednesday, December 20, 2006

From the Web to Walden: a Manifesto

It is often asserted that evolutionary change proceeds in the direction of greater complexity: the more complex the organism, the more highly evolved it is. It is possible, though debatable, that this holds true for biology. It is less clear whether it holds true in the domains of social structures, theories, or technology. Even in biological ecosystems, surely there have been extinctions that directly resulted from organisms evolving into greater complexity and specialization only to encounter life conditions that required simplicity and flexibility. Viruses are much simpler than humans, yet they are capable of species-level mutation at blindingly faster speeds. Who is more adaptive? Which species is “more evolved?”

In the evolution of both pedagogical methods and technologies, it seems clearer and clearer to me that the simple-minded belief that more complexity = higher levels of evolution cannot be supported. In fact, the lessons of research and observation both for teaching and learning and for the usability of new technologies demonstrate quite convincingly that real evolution often entails a reduction in complexity and a shift toward greater simplicity. It seems paradoxical, but consider the immense leap forward in technology afforded by the graphical user interface, which greatly simplified the demands on human cognitive resources required by complex command-line applications. (more...)


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