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Learning Design Team

Learning Design Team

Promoting a better student experience through design and technology

Back to the Future of Technology

France in XXI Century. A 21st century school as imagined in the early 20th century showing books being fed into a machine connected by wires to students' heads.

I came across this image the other day through a tweet by Marina Amaral. Marina is a Brazilian artist who specialises in the accurate colourisation of historical photographs and her twitter posts are full of interesting, sometimes bizarre, sometimes hilarious images and the stories behind them. The image above is one of a series that recently appeared on a fascinating site called The Public Domain Review, a not-for-profit online journal that explores interesting art, literature and ideas that have now fallen into the public domain. This is quite a treasure trove of open licensed resources and well worth adding to your bookmarks if you haven’t already.

First produced as card inserts in cigar boxes and later as postcards, the images, collectively entitled “En L’An 2000” (“In the Year 2000”), are part of a collection of illustrations by various French artists, created at around the turn of the twentieth century, that depict imagined technological advances of the next century. I found the images captivating for their humour (intentional or otherwise) and detail, and they are full of the inescapable human tendency to see the future through the lense of contemporary technology and style (think monochrome CRT screens and big hair in 1970s sci-fi). The whole collection of images is available at Wikimedia Commons. Some of the imagined scenes are more peculiar than others, but given the predicted rise in sea levels due to man-made global warming, we may as well get used to the idea of catching a “Whale–bus” or, less attractively, “fishing for sea-gulls”.

As a Learning Technologist, I thought it would be interesting to check on progress towards the ‘direct download to brain’ approach to education imagined by the artist above. It also seems likely I might end up being the person turning the handle of the machinery in this scenario. While not currently on the development roadmap for our virtual learning environments, it turns out that implanting memory (as in the movie Total Recall) isn’t quite as far-fetched as you might think.

Scientists at MIT made the first breakthrough in artificially encoding memories into the brains of mice in 2012 using a technique called optogenetics. The process involved firing lasers at neurons that had been genetically modified to be light sensitive. By precisely stimulating a group of neurons where a memory was known to be encoded, the researchers were able to cause the mice to associate a safe place with a fear response. More recently, researchers have shown that an entirely new experience can be artificially encoded in mice using similar techniques – for example, a mouse can be made to recall an odour it has never experienced before and associate it with an electric shock.

So why not envisage a future where our degree programmes are packaged up as the memory of a successfully completed 4 year degree? Steve Ramirez, who co-authored the breakthrough research at MIT, has said it is only a matter of time before artificial memory manipulation in humans is possible, although it is likely to be targeted at therapies for neurological illnesses or mental health issues initially.

Perhaps more realistic is this 1910 prediction of the now all-too familiar experience of video conferencing. Here we are definitely ahead of the artist’s imagination but there may well be those who would prefer the elegance and comfort of Correspondance Cinéma-Phono-Télégraphique to another mundane Zoom call.

Video conferencing as imagined in the early 20th century.


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