Chad Dorsey, Concord Consortium President

Perspective: The History and Future of Technology Paradigms

Three decades ago, the Concord Consortium began amid a wave of true technological innovation. As the public was still coming to grips with the very concept of a computer, the Web launched another new era—networked computing—that would change education and society forever. Over the ensuing thirty years, technologies have repeatedly converged, reshaping teaching, learning, and daily life. In their book The Infinite Retina, Irene Cronin and Robert Scoble frame the path to our current computing age as a progression of paradigms. This view provides a useful lens for parsing technology’s past, and for identifying the trends that will define its future.

Progressing in paradigms. Personal computing formed the first and most fundamental paradigm. An age of enthusiastic garage hacking birthed the Apple I and II and their humbly accessible design. It also vaulted spreadsheets from concept sketch to business-world revolution and saw Dell’s scaling innovations occupy home and office desktops around the world, seemingly overnight.

As these computers began to connect, Robert Tinker sensed a shift afoot.“The advent of community networking could revolutionize education,” he wrote in the Concord Consortium’s initial charter.“We imagine that kids anywhere could get on the network and explore interactive learning environments throughout the world that would convey important math, science, and technology concepts.” These words would prove visionary.

Synergy in combination. Examining the rise of technology paradigms also allows us to see the synergies that span across them.The now-ubiquitous paradigm of mobile computing, arising hot on the heels of the personal computing era, provides
a useful example.As mobile devices grew to occupy all corners of our lives and embraced the power of networking, they also opened opportunities for generating data from the world around us. From GPS data to personal health data and more, the data deluge that emerged from this synergy marked another important paradigm shift.

Similarly, the scaled growth of personal computing, combined with exponential advances in computing power, allowed computational modeling to transform both science and society. Synergies themselves can also combine to multiplicative effect: the expansive growth of computational models has generated a wholly new, massive source of data.

Interfaces as a throughline. One of the most important common threads across paradigms is subtle, but pervasive: each monumental advance has been possible only because of consistent advances in interface design.The earliest room-sized computers held huge potential, but it took the direct personal interaction from keyboards and peripherals to enable rich experimentation. Personal computers’ inventive hacking days harbored tremendous innovation, but scaled only once graphical interfaces and direct mouse interactions opened the door for their intuitive use. Similarly, the true potential of mobile devices remained unrealized until the iPhone touchscreen provided a blank slate for interaction design.

This progression is a story of unrelenting evolution toward increasingly seamless, naturalistic interaction. Keyboards changed our punch cards into words. GUI folders and trash cans mirrored real-world objects.The mouse helped us recognize our ability to point to a location on the screen, then the iPhone let us point and drag directly. Interfaces have always moved toward approximating our physical world. Interactions leverage our real-world actions in ever-increasing measure.

Two technologies, one breathtaking new era. Today, two major technologies are poised to burst onto the societal scene, revolutionizing work, home, and education yet again. As we face this largely uncharted new world, past patterns offer useful insight. Looking carefully, we can see that each innovation arises from synergies among preceding paradigms, and that the consistent evolution of interface and interaction patterns fuels each revolution.

The first innovation, of course, is artificial intelligence.While AI itself is not new—most of today’s stunning advancements have incubated in one form or another since the 1960s—important synergies and interface advances have converged to bring about a clear phase transition. Early AI prototypes showed glimmers of possibility—from protein folding solutions to the stunning victory of a computer in the game of Go—but a new synergy among advanced computational models, mountains of available data, and massive advances in computing power has ushered in the true tipping point. And, as always, interface design proved pivotal in bringing AI onto the societal radar screen, as chatbots married the power of large language models with the familiar rhythms of human conversation. By moving closer to naturalistic interaction, AI became relatable, its power and ramifications recognizable across all manner of industry.

The second transformative technology of the coming era has yet to be fully realized, but arguably stands to bring even greater changes to our daily lives. Spatial computing, defined by Cronin and Scoble simply as “computing you move through,” has been visible via incremental improvements in VR and AR for decades. However, Apple’s recently introduced Vision Pro headset may offer the first real glimpse of spatial computing’s potential for transformation.

Once again, paradigms converge. In spatial computing, networking and ubiquitous mobile technologies blend to form something wholly new. Foursquare and Pokémon GO demonstrated how mobile computing and location-aware networking might combine.Augmented reality apps and earlyVR headsets brought immersive environments to our living rooms. But spatial computing’s true significance transcends these basic examples. With mobile computing, we expect to have computing power continuously with us. With spatial computing, we will expect computing power continuously around us.

The ability to “pin” screens anywhere in our world, from the office to the oven or along our morning walk, will fundamentally transform the way we view computing’s role in our lives. Just as the Apple II evolved to the iPhone, now-clunky “ski goggles” will progress to seamless devices in invisible forms such as contact lenses, or to technologies we have yet to imagine. Spatial computing interface advances will be central to this transition. Ultimately, technology will layer onto our world, blending transparently into all aspects of life and leveraging our natural abilities to touch and grab real objects into intuitive direct manipulation of virtual objects. Computing will become more tangible, accessible, and powerful than ever before.

Implications for learning. Transformations in teaching and learning have accompanied each technology paradigm. As Bob Tinker forecast, networked computing allowed for advances in online learning and professional development and opened the door to collaborative data-related projects connecting students around the world. Synergy between mobile devices and computing power launched an entire probeware industry. Computational models paved the way for students to experiment with and understand otherwise inaccessible phenomena.The data revolution has shaped and highlighted the importance of creating powerful data exploration tools and learning experiences. From our very beginning, the Concord Consortium has been a pioneer in each of these para- digms. (Read more about Concord Consortium’s three decades of innovation.)

The coming era harbors an equally broad range of possibilities.With AI, learners may combine and evaluate unimagined molecular structures. Or they may explore physics and engineering concepts within free-range virtual worlds they instantly craft from photographs of their classroom, lab, or local neighborhood. With spatial computing, learners may move through data, visualize the foundational mathematics underneath a model or simulation, or create a new world with physical laws fully different from our own.At the Concord Consortium we are excited to explore these possibilities, and many more.

Chad Dorsey ( is President and CEO of the Concord Consortium.