Disruptive Technology, Polchinski and String Theory

Dear Commons Community,

I have just finished reading The Shape of Innerspace by Shing-Tung Yau and Steve Nadis.  The focus of this book is string theory and the limitations of classical geometry.  The authors quote Joseph  Polchinski, a professor of physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara and one of the world’s foremost authorities on string theory.  The authors make the point that one of the serious problems with studying string theory is that there does not exist a “geometry” with enough capability to accurately calculate the multiple dimensions (ten) and curvatures of objects that string theory requires.  When asked about the need for a new geometry, Polchinski replied:  “Usually when we learn something new, the old things that took us there are not thrown out but are instead reinterpreted and enlarged.1

I refer to this piece because at the last meeting of CUNY Academic Technology Committee, we discussed at length the new Gates Foundation grant program that seeks to fund a new generation of instructional technology in higher education.  The phrase “disruptive technology” was used as the type of applications that would be appropriate.  Frequently in instructional technology, the words transform, revolutionize and disrupt have been used to spur technological change.  I have always preferred the word “evolution” when discussing technologcial change and education.  I think that Polchinski’s comment likewise is appropriate for us and that we should support the concept that instructional technology is something new but there are also a lot of positive things in higher education that have gotten us to where we are.   While we welcome technology, we should also seek to reinterpret and enlarge what we have and not necessarily disrupt it.


  1. Yau, S.T. & Nadis, S.  (2010).  The shape of innerspace.  New York:  Basic Books.  p. 310.

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