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Living in a time of rapidly increasing change can be intimidating, Tobias Buckell admits.

Moore’s Law holds—still accurately, Buckell says—that the speed of computing chips doubles every 18 months, while storage capacity for hard drives doubles every 12 months, according to Kryder’s Law. An iPhone, he notes, has more computing power than NASA did when it sent men to the moon, and an Xbox has the same power as a military-level supercomputer did when he was a college student at Bluffton in the late 1990s.

But today’s Bluffton students will be a force in the world, he told many of them Aug. 28, if they learn the skill of learning—including how to grow from failure—using the tools that technological change provides and in a campus environment conducive to creativity.

BuckellBuckell, a New York Times best-selling science fiction author, launched Bluffton’s 2012-13 civic engagement theme, "Virtual Living: Technology’s Impact on Culture and Learning," at the university’s annual opening convocation. And the 2000 Bluffton graduate said he thinks that imagining the future as he does can help people deal with the rapid change surrounding them.

He added, however, that "nothing helps you roll with it more than the ability to reason, and read, and think critically." Because of the pace of change, it’s not important to memorize facts, even about a profession, he said, pointing out that if inventors he talks to "have anything to do with it, your chosen profession may well not exist in 10 years."

But the ability to navigate information freely and absorb it rapidly, as well as to reason and think critically, equips a person to adapt, said Buckell, a native of the Caribbean island of Grenada. "If you understand how to learn, then it does not matter how rapidly the world around you changes."

Also encouraging his listeners to embrace, rather than fear, failure, he used the example of an experiment in which teams of four people are challenged to build the tallest structure they can with 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, one yard each of tape and string, and one marshmallow.

Aside from engineers, the group that "surprisingly does better than many of the others"—who have included lawyers, business school graduates and middle managers—has been kindergarteners, he said.

That’s because, unlike adults who first plan and organize their group in an effort not to fail, "kids just start building spaghetti and tape structures right away together," the Bluffton resident continued. "They watch them buckle and fall, and then build another. The kids usually build four or five different freestanding structures in the allotted time, some of them wild and wobbly, but they work."

"Kids are some of the fastest, happiest, most creative learners because they are in frequent failure mode," he said. That changes as people get older, "but by trying to avoid failure so often, we deprive ourselves of learning and growth," added Buckell. His published work includes six novels and roughly 50 short stories but, along the way, he has also received 700 rejections for publication, he noted.

"Failure is an option," he maintained. "It’s healthy. Try something that risks failure, and you’ll be stunned at what you learn."

Bluffton is a good place to make that effort, "with a roof over your head and friends to help," Buckell said, comparing the campus community to the environment that Steve Jobs created at Pixar, the computer animation film studio.

Jobs designed the Pixar building with a central atrium where the meeting rooms, post office boxes, cafeteria and bathrooms were located. "This made people randomly and constantly bump into each other throughout the day," which annoyed them but also, through the resulting impromptu discussions, bred creativity, Buckell explained.

"Interestingly enough, to me, you’ve actually all made the choice to utilize that same design tool," he told the students. "All told, there are just over 1,000 students here, packed into a smaller area so that you can live, eat and learn together. It’s a place where you can have those random encounters that increase our creativity at large."

"I hope that you will come to appreciate what a fascinating piece of technology this campus can be," said Buckell, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Bluffton and was the recipient of its Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2009.

"Most of all, I encourage you to learn how to learn because it will armor you against any crazy, scary, wild, technological futures a science fiction writer like me could dream up."

A full-time author and freelancer since 2006, Buckell works for various blogs as well, as a writer and editor. His 2012 book, "Arctic Rising," was this year’s common summer reading for first-year Bluffton students. They, along with transfer students—totaling about 280 in all—were also introduced and welcomed to campus during the convocation ceremony.


Bluffton public relations, 8/29/12