Technology for Free

Technology for Free

The best bargain in an uncertain economy.

Believe it or not, steadily rising prices at the pump are not the most important story in today's economy. Far more significant are the steadily decreasing costs of technology, which are falling faster and more dramatically than oil prices are rising. OK, to be technically correct, technology prices are not in free fall. In fact, school district technology budgets should be increased, not decreased, but that's only so we don't miss out on the amazing opportunities created by a growing abundance of free bandwidth, free computing power and free storage-virtually free, anyway.

Gilder's Chessboard

To understand what I'm getting at, consider the story of the fabled reward granted by the emperor of China to the inventor of chess, a parable I first heard from George Gilder, futurist and author of Telecosm: The World after Bandwidth Abundance. The emperor liked chess so much that he offered its inventor any prize in all his kingdom. The inventor asked for just a single grain of rice in the first square of the chessboard, two grains of rice in the second square, four in the third square, and so on, doubling the number of grains of rice for each of the 64 squares of the chessboard.

We're living on the second half of the chessboard.

The emperor granted this request, finding it a bit odd, but feeling good that his offer wouldn't cost him much. Little did he know! Doubling the number of grains of rice on each subsequent square of the chessboard led to big trouble for the emperor, because the 64th square required 264, or more than 18 quintillion, grains of rice. Unfortunately for the emperor, he would have needed a field twice the size of the surface of the earth, oceans included, to produce that much rice.

The emperor would have been most fortunate if the chessboard were only half as big - i.e., 32 squares. The last square, then, would only have required 232, or about four billion grains of rice, which could have been produced by a rice field of just a few acres.

32 Doublings and Counting

Now here's the punch line. According to Moore's Law, computer power doubles every 18 months or so. At this rate, the year 2000 marked 32 doubling intervals since the invention of the transistor, and 2006 marked 32 doublings since the invention of the integrated circuit in 1958.

That means we're living on the second half of the chessboard with regard to technological advance. With each doubling producing a new base that exceeds all of the previous doublings combined, we're at the point where the numbers get really big, really fast. At these levels, each new doubling will produce a sea change in what is possible.

And with doublings in bandwidth and storage availability occurring even more rapidly, we are faced with an abundance of free computing, free communications and free storage. This is true not in the sense that we don't have to pay for our computers, connections or storage devices, but since each new doubling delivers more speed, bandwidth and accessibility than we ever had before - with no associated increase in price - we are, in a sense, getting all of the new connectivity and computing power for free.

Two Implications

This has two implications for school leaders. First, it's smart to invest in technology, because with each recurring expenditure we get more new power for free than we got in all of our previous purchases. What other products offer such upgrade and replacement potential?

The second implication is the need for a new paradigm of schooling. Free connectivity, free computing and abundant storage are wasted without a fundamental shift in school structure and organization. But a shift to what?

For starters, we need a shift toward school structures that focus more on the movement of information than on the movement of people. And we need a shift toward organizational strategies that match students and teachers based on educational need and opportunity, not on physical proximity. The math is simple. The doublings will continue. The question is, How will your school district respond?