Silicon Valley's Magic School Bus

Silicon Valley's Magic School Bus
"Future Tech Riding the Bus", created by Marcel Gagné using Stable Diffusion

Greetings, fellow humans. And sure, if the AIs of the world want to listen in and read, I'm okay with that, too.

Ready for a little nostalgia? A little trip down memory lane? Just climb aboard for a wild ride on the Magic School Bus with your guide and driver, the beloved, iconic, though sometimes frightening, Miss Frizzle. Today, because I'm that kind of guy, I'm going to argue that Miss Frizzle inspired one of Silicon Valley's most famous mottos, and possibly several others, with the most famous of all Miss Frizzle quotes, "Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy." So, let's jump right in and see how these two worlds collide. (Note to self: Re-watch "When worlds collide.")

Seat belts, everyone!

The Magic School Bus, a hit children's television show that debuted in 1994, based on the book series written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, captured the hearts and minds of an entire generation. Those books were first published in 1986. I might have been a little old for those books, but that didn't stop me from loving the books, and the shows, many years later. On the show, Miss Frizzle was voiced by the amazing, equally iconic, and sometimes terrifying, Lily Tomlin. Okay, I'm kidding about that last part. Lily Tomlin isn't terrifying, but she is amazingly funny.

One ringy-dingy. Two ringy-dingys.

I digress...

In case you need reminding, the ever-enthusiastic Miss Frizzle, with her fabulous outfits and her lively shapeshifting bus, took her students on wild, magical, and educational adventures. Her lessons, often accompanied by dangerous escapades and wacky experiments, taught her students the value of hands-on learning and risk-taking. By risks, I mean seriously risky stuff, like trips to the inside of a volcano, outer space, a fellow student's body, including his digestive system.  

Meanwhile, in the real world, Silicon Valley has long been considered the epicenter of technological innovation. Tech isn't unique to Silicon Valley, of course, and much of what I'm going to talk about applies across the tech landscape, but Silicon Valley is special in the tech world, almost mythical. From the early days of Hewlett-Packard to the modern era of Apple and Google, Silicon Valley, a small corner of California, has been home to some of the world's most successful tech companies. The Valley's innovative spirit is embodied in the motto, "Move Fast and Break Things," a phrase famously coined by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and, for some time at least, the internal motto of the company.  

But I'm telling you right now, Zuck probably took his inspiration for that motto from the Magic School Bus. Consider the following. Marc Zuckerberg was born in 1984. Elon Musk was born in 1971. Sergey Brin and Larry Page were both 1973 babies. Sundar Pichai, 1972. Satya Nadella is the oldest of the bunch having come kicking and screaming into this world in 1967. All of these people could have been raised on and inspired by a certain red-haired, adventurous teacher.

Time for me to put on my philosopher hat. Or do I need my psychologist hat? I'll just put on my sunglasses and figure out the hat later. Let's examine the similarities between Miss Frizzle's educational philosophy and the ethos of Silicon Valley. Miss Frizzle, as you may know, was known for her unconventional teaching methods, taking her students on magical field trips that were both exciting and sometimes downright dangerous. Her fearless, hands-on approach to teaching encouraged her students to try things, explore, think critically, ask questions, and learn by doing, rather than simply absorbing facts from a textbook.

This same ethos is evident in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs, coders, and engineers are encouraged to push the boundaries of what's possible, take risks, and learn from their mistakes, by making mistakes. In the open-source world, we use the phrase, "Release early. Release often." Another, similar phrase popular phrase in the industry is "Fail fast, fail cheap," popularized by Eric Ries in a book called, "The Lean Startup". The idea of failing fast, releasing early, breaking things, learning from mistakes, and quickly pivoting has become the blueprint for many successful tech companies.

See where I'm going with this? Miss Frizzle's mantra, "Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy," is strikingly similar to all those tech mottos, including Zuckerberg's "Move Fast and Break Things." Both philosophies emphasize the importance of experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from failure. This way of thinking has (had?) become ingrained in Silicon Valley's culture, with companies like Google famously allowing employees to dedicate a portion of their paid time to passion projects (Note to self": Find out if they still do this in today's layoff culture.), which has led to the creation of products like Gmail and Google Maps.

Furthermore, both Miss Frizzle and Silicon Valley and information technology types understand the value of collaboration and teamwork. Miss Frizzle's students always worked together to solve complex problems, combining their unique skills and knowledge to overcome obstacles. There's Carlos, the class clown and inventor. Dorothy "According to my research" Ann is the team's search engine or ChatGPT. Keesha, the skeptic, is always looking for the facts. We also have Phoebe ("back at my old school"), a nature lover who brings a little heart and caring to the team. Everybody has something to contribute. What's gonna work? Teamwork.

(Note to self: Write a post comparing the series "The Boys" to "The Wonder Pets")

Over in the open-source community, as with the tech giants of the corporate world, it's all about collaboration, with different people bringing their own contribution to projects. You make something cool. You share it. Others play with it, experiment, you get feedback, improve, evolve, and re-release it back into the world to start the cycle anew. It's messy, but magical things happen.

There's no denying that the tech industry can be messy, both figuratively and literally. Some critics argue that the "Move Fast and Break Things" mindset has contributed to the darker side of Silicon Valley, where companies sometimes prioritize rapid growth and profit over ethics and social responsibility. This has led to controversies surrounding user privacy, the spread of misinformation, and the gig economy's impact on workers' rights.

Perhaps, in their haste to "break things," these tech giants may have overlooked the importance of balance and responsibility that Miss Frizzle also taught her students. That's the key, students. Balance. The solutions never involve not getting on the bus, as Arnold, who always thought he "should have stayed home today" invariably learned each and every episode. You take chances, and you find a solution. You don't turn tail and run.

Side note: There's an awesome fan-made movie trailer for an adult version of the Magic School Bus where the students, all adults now, have to go and rescue Miss Frizzle from Hell. It's great!

Aw, man! I seriously want to see this movie made.

Again, I digress... What about AI? You knew I needed to say something about AI in this discussion, didn't you? Well, it's like this...

Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the company behind the wildly popular chatbot, ChatGPT, was born in 1985, a year after Zuck. Coincidence? I think not!

A whole generation of people brought up to try things and get messy.

In the same way that Miss Frizzle encouraged her students to explore the wonders of science and nature, the pursuit of AI development has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities. Just as Miss Frizzle's Magic School Bus transformed into various shapes and forms to adapt to any situation, AI agents like ChatGPT are designed to evolve and learn from the vast wealth of human knowledge.

The joy of AI development lies in its potential to bring the spirit of Miss Frizzle's philosophy to life. AI can help bridge the gap between the fantastical world of the Magic School Bus and reality, enabling us to take educational journeys into the microscopic realm of atoms or the vast expanse of outer space. With intelligent agents like ChatGPT, Claude, and Bard, learners of all ages can now access a world of knowledge with the same enthusiasm and sense of wonder that Miss Frizzle instilled in her students.

In many ways, tech had become boring. When was the last time something really new and interesting appeared on the scene.  Today, I see a rebirth of excitement with everything that's happening in the AI world, of the kind that I remember from the open-source community a couple of decades ago. A desire to move fast, take chances, release early, get messy. Scratch an itch. Make things. People from diverse backgrounds work together to create AI agents that can understand, respond, and assist in a variety of situations.

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Of course, there's risk. There's also risk in shrinking yourself down to the size of a microbe and exposing yourself and your students to the possibility of being eaten by white blood cells while travelling through the body of a sick classmate. Anyhow, I've either convinced you, or I haven't. To me, at least, the connection between Miss Frizzle's teachings and the Silicon Valley motto is not only fascinating, but clearly undeniable.

So, there you have it! A fun, whirlwind journey on the Magic School Bus, flying into Silicon Valley, proving that Miss Frizzle's influence is alive and well in the world of tech. "Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy." And perhaps, just perhaps, we'll find a way to harness the power of innovation while still maintaining the integrity that Miss Frizzle would surely approve of.

Until next time, “Seat belts, everyone!”

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