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Labun Jordan: Limits of Imagination

05/15/12 5:55PM By Helen Labun Jordan
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(Host) It's an old saying that we're limited only by our imaginations... and maybe it isn't exactly accurate. But as she works to help Vermont communities discover the benefits on-line networking, commentator Helen Labun Jordan has started to look at that possibility from a new perspective.

(Labun Jordan) I once believed that if I drew a picture of my backyard turning into a carnival and then imagined real hard, it would come true. Or if I made a potion of rainwater, pine needles, and poisonous honeysuckle berries and imagined it controlling the weather, the sun would shine. I didn't believe these things for very long. But the grown ups on shows like Reading Rainbow had assured me that I was limited only by my imagination, so I figured it was worth a try. I'm sorry to report that they were wrong.

Still, it's hard to simply give up on the Reading Rainbow vision of the power of imagination. And it turns out that the limits of imagination and the limits of reality are in fact quite complicated for my generation; no sooner do we learn to respect reality than a new facet of the digital revolution begins to change it. Personal computers, the Internet, mobile devices, all followed one after another, removing or transforming reality's previous limitations overnight.

Distance disappeared - we can communicate anywhere in the world in real time. All of our voices have been amplified - we each have an opportunity to reach millions of people at the cost of an Internet subscription. This means that an average person can spread a clever idea across the globe, or bring an ambitious project to enough small investors to make it happen five dollars at a time. Tools that were once expensive have become cheap - letting almost anyone edit their own movie or compute advanced mathematics... or make a new app for something no one has ever thought of before. We expect things that aren't possible today to become possible tomorrow.

Granted, we haven't all invented apps, made movies or moved masses. The truth is that even if imagination were our only limit, it's still a limit. But we're trying to get beyond this limit too . . . and to do so we're returning to some of the same tools we used as imaginative kids.

We play games. There are games designed to help imagine a response to the end of oil, or to pair human players with computers to see what creative thinking can result from combining our insight with their data processing. Games that inspire us to imagine new things are being built right here in Vermont, at the Emergent Media Center.

We tell stories. And I'm not just talking Facebook posts. Vermont-born artist Jonathan Harris crafts his best known works from the Web, weaving story snippets into sagas and data into portraits of our age.

And naturally as we tell stories, we also hear stories. Every day brings new online talks by the world's most ingenious thinkers and online learning through educational centers, including those in Vermont.

So, while it may be true that there are limitations - and our imagination is one of them - we're also discovering just how far imagination might take us, then pushing that limit out a little bit further.
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