On Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747

I am continuously amazed by critics who outlaw learning curves, especially when it comes to new and innovative projects. These critics expect instantaneous perfection from the outset even when new technologies are involved. So when a new project doesn’t meet their satisfaction (based on their own, often arbitrary measurement of success), they publicly castigate the groups behind the projects for their “failures”.

What would the world look like if these critics were in charge? There would be little to no innovation, progress or breakthrough’s. Isaac Newton would never have spoken the words “If I have seen so far it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.” There would be no giants, no perspective, and no accumulation of knowledge.

Take the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, who invented and built the world’s first successful airplane by developing controls that made fixed-wing powered flight possible. They too had their critics. Some of them in “the European aviation community had converted the press to an anti-Wright brothers stance. European newspapers, especially in France, were openly derisive, calling them bluffers.” The Wright brothers certainly failed on numerous occasions. But they kept tinkering and experimenting. It was their failures that eventually made them successful. As the Chinese proverb goes, “Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up.”

The Wright brothers did not create the 747 because they had to start from scratch. They first had to figure out the basic principles of flight. Today’s critics of new technology-for-social impact projects are basically blaming NGOs in the developing world for not creating 747s.

Finally, it is problematic that many critics of technology-for-social impact projects have little to no scholarly or professional background in monitoring and evaluation (M&E). These critics think that because they are technology or development experts they know how to evaluate projects—one of the most common mistakes made by self-styled evaluators as noted at the start of The Fletcher School’s introductory course on M&E.

The field of M&E is a science, not an amateur sport. M&E is an independent, specialized field of expertise in it’s own right, one that requires months (if not several semesters) of dedicated study and training.

Patrick Philippe Meier

9 responses to “On Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747

  1. This post, your frustration, brings to mind the struggle of the innovator and one of my favorite quotes by Helen Keller: “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” Nice thought isn’t it.

    Practically speaking however, it’s much easier to be a critic than an innovator because it requires no new thinking, little to no energy expenditure, and virtually no personal risk. So to be the first in a new space that challenges old ideas is inherently lonely and frequently rough- new positions are difficult to bolster and easy to attack… especially when you’re working in an area where the prevailing social norm is not to embrace the new.

    I think that if you have both fierce critics and proponents of what you’re doing then you’re probably doing it right. Ignore your critics regardless of their pedigree and status, stay open, stay focused on the mission and the kinds of people that can turn this into a ‘747’ will self-select into your network.

    Like you said failure is not falling down, failure is refusing to get back up.

    -Sean

  2. thank you sean conner

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