Terminal Man

Photo Credit: Evan, Flickr

In a recent article by the BBC, Are Computers Making Our Lives Too Easy?, author Tom Chatfield raises some important questions as he interviews Nicholas Carr – questions that are not new, but are as important to contemplate as ever. When the question is raised, “Will computers remove the need for people?”, Carr responds with the following:

“What happens then is that you not only lose the distinctive strengths of human intelligence – the ability of human beings to actually question what they are doing in a way that computers can’t – but you push forward with these systems in a thoughtless way, assuming that speed of decision-making is the most important thing. And then you find you can’t go back from that, even if you discover that this is horribly flawed; once you completely rebuild a sphere of activity around computers, it often becomes impossible to back up and to re-insert a human being in that process.”

As en educator, I find that his response here strikes a very strong chord. Warning: rhetorical questions coming. Just how much have we let education policy push forward new technologies and systems in thoughtless ways? Just how much have we put big data on a pedestal? And, now that we’ve invested so heavily in these systems, are we struggling to find ways to retain the humanity in our “new and improved” education systems? Flipped, Khan, data, online, LMS, accountability, personalization, college-ready,…

Computers are not our salvation. Technology is not our salvation. Big data will not save us. It is US. It is the human spirit, the human connection, caring, empathy, wisdom, creativity,… Yes, we certainly can use computers and other new technologies to leverage all of these, and we should. We must. Yet, it is a scary thought to think that even if you discover that the systems you have built are horribly flawed, it becomes impossible to back up and to re-insert much needed humanity.

The influence of big business over education policy and trends is well expressed in Carr’s statement,

…as soon as any entity gains any short-term advantage, there becomes an almost overwhelming pressure to push the technology everywhere possible, because nobody wants to be at a disadvantage.

When education becomes a for-profit enterprise with clearly defined winners and losers, we find ourselves compromising in ways that harm our most valuable products… our students. Our children.

Carr concludes with this statement, which exhorts us all to not let the technology and the pursuit of efficiency dictate our lives.

I hope that, as individuals and as a society, we maintain a certain awareness of what is going on, and a certain curiosity about it, so that we can make decisions that are in our best long-term interest rather than always defaulting to convenience and speed and precision and efficiency.

I believe we should ask of our computers that they enrich our experience of life; that they open up new opportunities to us instead of turning us into passive watchers of screens. And in the end I do think that our latest technologies, if we demand more of them, can do what technologies and tools have done through human history, which is to make the world a more interesting place for us, and to make us better people. Ultimately, that is something that is up to us.

So, when you encounter decisions and policies that run counter to this, speak up. Speak loudly. Speak in solidarity. We need to be united in a vision that uses computers to enrich our experiences of life – experiences that bring value to our humanness… that make us better people.

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