How Tumblr and GitHub could be the future of education

By Felix Salmon
January 21, 2014

I’m at DLD, in Munich, where on Monday I moderated an enjoyable discussion with Georg Petschnigg, the co-founder of FiftyThree, and David Karp, the founder of Tumblr. FiftyThree is the company which makes Paper, Apple’s iPad App of the Year in 2012, and also Pencil, the beautifully-weighted stylus which makes Paper even more of a pleasure to use. Tumblr is deeply embedded into Paper; it’s more or less the default way in which people using Paper share their creations.

Petschnigg and Karp get on just as well together as Paper and Tumblr, so this was never going to be one of those panels where the idea is to spark lively debate. Instead, we talked about a topic right in the DLD sweet spot: the intersection of technology and creativity.

It’s a topic I’d been thinking about anyway, in large part because I spent a few hours on the plane to Munich reading The Second Machine Age, the new book from MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson. Brynjolfsson is a fan of the work of education researcher Sugata Mitra, whose research was featured heavily in Joshua Davis’s wonderful recent Wired cover story — the one which used the story of a single great teacher in the unprepossessing city of Matamoros, Mexico, to illustrate an important point about self-directed learning.

The lesson being taught by Mitra is not a new one: it dates back at least as far as Maria Montessori, whose Pedagogical Anthropology first came out more than a century ago. But Brynjolfsson, along with his co-author Andrew McAfee (himself the graduate of a Montessori school), makes the case that Montessori-style education, with an emphasis on creativity rather than rote learning, will be especially powerful and necessary in the coming decades.

Brynjolfsson cites work by the complexity scholar Brian Arthur and the economist Paul Romer, both of whom argue that the primary driver of economic growth is what Brynjolfsson likes to call “ideation”: the creative combination and recombination of ideas into something powerful and new. As Arthur puts it: “to invent something is to find it in what previously exists”.

Meanwhile, Petschnigg makes a compelling case that if you look at just about any creative industry — anywhere that ideation happens, from advertising to architecture — ideas generally germinate in exactly the same way: with creative individuals scribbling on a piece of paper. Petschnigg’s apps are, at their best, a way of turbocharging those scribbles — a way of allowing inspiration to flow, with the fewest possible bottlenecks, directly into the powerful networked computer known as an iPad. Then, when those ideas are shared on Tumblr, they can start mating with other ideas. This process, too, is almost effortless, thanks to Tumblr’s “reblog” button.

Don’t even bother trying to calculate the resulting increase in the number of potential combinations of ideas: it’s almost infinite. One of the reasons that Tumblr was valued at $1.1 billion when it was bought by Yahoo is that it naturally spawns millions of creative communities, most of which simply never existed before. The majority of the value created by those communities will not flow back to Yahoo, of course, but that’s fine: so long as Tumblr continues to be the foremost place where creative individuals congregate to share their ideas and creations, it will remain an extremely valuable property.

Tumblr does not appear in Brynjolfsson’s book; neither, more surprisingly, does its equivalent in the world of coders, GitHub. Yet there is undoubtedly trillions of dollars of potential economic value on GitHub right now, and every day coders unlock some of that value by combining its existing resources in innovative ways.

The power and value of combinatorial platforms can be seen elsewhere, too: just look at LinkedIn (market capitalization: $25 billion), which attempts to do for people what Tumblr does for creative output and what GitHub does for code. After all, companies like FiftyThree and Tumblr aren’t built by individuals working alone: they’re built by teams, working in a collaborative manner. Petschnigg teaches at NYU, and told me the story of one student he ended up hiring: not necessarily the most brilliant, but rather the one who could be counted on to be able to persuade just about anybody else in the class to join his team.

Brynjolfsson’s thesis, and I think he’s right about this, is that we’re only just beginning to glimpse the possibilities of a world powered by an unprecedented level degree of connectivity between people, ideas, and code. In such a world, educators will have to radically change the way they work. While schools once produced computers (the word originally referred to people, rather than machines), they will now have to produce creative individuals skilled in ideation, pattern recognition, and opportunistic team-building. Those things aren’t easily measured by standardized tests. But the children who are taught them are surely the ones who will build the future. One possible way to start: ask every child in the class to sign up for Tumblr and GitHub.

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