blinded by the light

I'd like to share a paper I wrote in the Spring of 2008. It was written for a class that focused on how technology is introduced into society (slowly, through trend-setters, to the huddled masses, and finally to the "unfortunate stragglers"). I was taught by a self-proclaimed techno-junkie who seemed to hail all things new and shiny as great. So that may explain the obvious slant on my thesis: Technology has two sides. If I am leaning too far here, I apologize. I was trying my hardest to point out the other side to my techno-obsessed professor. That may explain the focus on education as well.

I also hope this can be a welcome addition to the discussion on hyperconnectivity.

When something is new, and the authorities laud it as remarkable, hip, or convenient, its manufactured shimmer is often blinding. It becomes easy to overlook certain harmful qualities if it fits into a trend, or, even more so, when it is technology. Society, generally speaking, views technology from one side. It is seen as a saving grace; a convenient solution to a problem that may itself be manufactured -- even imagined. And once culture adapts to these conveniences, the technology has its hold -- one that will cause pain if severed.

Imagine the Emperor in his new clothes. Certainly they were new and trendy -- the Emperor’s trusted advisers told him so. And just like society today, he trusted those advisers and went out in public in his “new clothes.” He was so blinded by the convenience and newness of the new trend in fashion that he never realized that he was walking around naked. Society today often falls into the very same trap.

We are told again and again (usually through the devices of a previous technology) how a new technology will make our lives so much easier, safer, longer, and better. But we fail to see that often times we are walking around naked.

I do not mean to imply that every technology falls into this allegory, but I do mean to say that every technology has two sides. When we see convenience, safety, and health, we could easily flip the coin and see murder, disruption, and death -- a death to our way of life, and a disruption of the way we communicate. But most of all, there is a disruption in the way we learn.

After a March 15, 2008 screening of Godfrey Reggio’s 1988 film Powaqqatsi, Reggio spoke about this disruption. His film portrays the working world, often in the third world, through a series of moving images set to music – no dialogue or plot line. His aim was to point to the fact that this world is dying.

“We are a part of the blue planet,” Reggio said. “Our technology removes us further and further from the real world. When we use technology to the extent that we do, we are no longer in this world, we are in a cyber world, and it cannot sustain itself. It is feeding off the labors of the working world at a pace that has brought us to a crossroads. But we continue to test its sustainability.”

After hearing Reggio speak about technology this way, I was reminded of the attitudes of the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution. As I began to wonder just how far back this way of thinking went, I started reading Neil Postman’s Technopoly. Postman begins his book with a striking allusion to Plato’s Phaedrus. In Phaedrus, the god Theuth visits King Thamus of Egypt. Theuth departs the wisdom of mathematics as well as the written word to Thamus with the hope that he will share this knowledge with the masses. While he is grateful for the knowledge, he is hesitant to give it to the people because he is afraid of imparting false wisdom. Thamus believed that the technology of written word would give the people an ability that would allow them to gain wisdom simply by reading about something and not fully understanding it -- false wisdom.

“What you have is a receipt for recollection, not for memory,” Plato writes of Thamus’ response to Theuth’s imparted knowledge. “And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.”

So, this attitude toward technology goes at least as far back as Plato, and possibly Ancient Egypt. But then I realized that surely some had this same attitude when man discovered fire. Surely there were some who were hesitant to harness the power of the flame. Surely some saw the danger it held and refused to take and pass along the knowledge of fire’s creation. Perhaps they tried to destroy fire in some way -- the world’s original Luddite. Of this, I am not sure, but I believe this hesitation toward technology goes back to the beginning of man’s existence in this world. With our distinct ability to create and invent, comes the ability to destroy, dismiss, and disregard. This important ability seems to be lost on many, as we trudge forward into a territory where technology is quickly taking over the role of education.

The change in the way we educate ourselves and our children is one of the most striking ways that technology changes the landscape of culture. From the beginning of our lives, we are educated. We learn through our environment, from our parents, friends, and schools, and the world around us. Each of these inlets of education will change with new technologies. It is hard to even imagine the change that came from the written word, or the change when school systems were invented, or grading systems. And let’s not forget the recent mammoth change that came with the introduction of personal computers to education.

Not only is it changing the way in which we learn, it is changing who is able to learn. Cynthia West says in her book Techno-Human Mesh that, “Although economic class, gender, race, and age are intertwined, economic class and race are strong factors that influence the access to information resources that, along with computer skills, are becoming increasingly critical to finding a job, contacting colleagues, taking courses, researching products or finding public information. The economics of class explains the separation between the information ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’”

So technology creates a rift, or digital divide, through which some see an advantage and others a disadvantage. This rift, however, matters not when the education that the advantaged receive is flawed. Postman writes in the preface of his book The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, “It has a late beginning and an early end and in between it pauses for summer vacations and holidays, and generously excuses us when we are ill. To the young, schooling seems relentless, but we know it is not. What is relentless is our education, which, for good or ill, gives us no rest. That is why poverty is a great educator. Having no boundaries and refusing to be ignored, it mostly teaches hopelessness. But not always. Politics is also a great educator. Mostly it teaches, I am afraid, cynicism. But not always. Television is a great educator as well. Mostly it teaches consumerism. But not always.”

The invention of new technologies has not only brought new ways of learning into the classroom and the home, but it has shifted the very center of education. Where it used to be centered on religion, it is now centered on science and numbers. Postman writes in Technopoly that we have experts in our culture. And with changes in technology and shifts in the focus, new experts have arisen. “Some of our priest-experts are called psychiatrists, some psychologists, some sociologists, some statisticians. The god they serve does not speak of righteousness or goodness or mercy or grace. Their god speaks of efficiency, precision, objectivity."

These great shifts in focus come about because of new ways of learning. When the computer was introduced into the classroom, children were suddenly expected to be able to adjust their learning skills to the teaching skills of a computer. Theodore Roszak writes in his book The Cult of Information that some kids understand computers -- some kids. He says it is the same way that some kids understand piano or some understand a paintbrush. It is a skill that not everyone has. This creates another rift within those who have access to them. There is now the advantaged, computer literate side, and a disadvantaged side whose members have a harder time “clicking” with computers.

But perhaps the most remarkable transformation has come inside the doors of higher education, where computers have entered quickly to become the most important new technology. Students are required to use them to complete any number of assignments, depending on the course of study. It is now possible for students to complete their entire course work from the comfort of their bedroom -- turning in all assignments via email to their instructor.

Roszak writes, “I will admit that, to a degree, one’s criteria of educational greatness may involve matters of personal taste. Some people relish the image of schools where ranks of solitary students in private cubicles sit in motionless attendance upon computer terminals, their repertory of activities scaled down to a fixed stare and the repetitive stroking of a keyboard.” He contrasts this with his own taste: “My own taste runs to another image: that of teachers and students in one another's face-to-face company, perhaps pondering a book, a work of art, even a crude scrawl on the blackboard. At the very least, that image reminds us of how marvelously simple, even primitive, education is. It is the unmediated encounter of two minds, one needing to learn, the other wanting to teach.”

While these social critics give example after example in history of how technology has affected negative change, Postman and Roszak continually note how they understand the positive affects as well. They each take the time to mention that they are using a computer to type the manuscript for their book, and they are using digital researching methods to gather information they will use to formulate their arguments. It is very important to be reminded of these positive affects -- ease of learning a wide variety of information quickly, learning about disease and health problems to help find cures and preventions, and becoming educated on things that are not immediately around you, such as another culture. Technology has two sides.

One side may be harmful and counter-productive, but the other side is just the opposite. While fire gives light and heat and allows for fully cooked food, it also burns and destroys habitats and lives. Television brought storytelling and hard-hitting news into the home, but it also brought advertising and commercialism into the home as well. While many are inspired by the stories that television produces, those same people become conditioned to the entertainment that a 30 second commercial brings, making it harder and harder to sit through a Shakespearean play or an opera. These things were once sought out entertainment but have become more and more boring and old-fashioned.

It is also important to remember that the very definition of culture points toward change. Education cannot remain a stagnant institution with certain ways of teaching that never change. Otherwise, children would leave the school and enter a world they know nothing about. The answer is adaptation -- not simply conformity, but adaptation. Education must use the strengths in technology to teach the children while highlighting the perils of its weaknesses as well. Education must look back on itself and learn which ways work and which don’t -- which technologies can be harmful when treated improperly or with too little respect. Children need to learn the addictive qualities of television and the Internet before they are free to use them at will for educational purposes. It must always be hands-on.

Without teachers physically present in the classroom, humanity is easily lost. When that happens, education becomes self-serving and robotic. Education’s purpose must be to preserve humanity, not destroy it. When technology is given full permission to take over it will destroy the things we hold dear. But if we remember that technology was created for us to use to our benefit, then it can be harnessed and used to produce well-rounded children who understand the pitfalls of a world where technology is given too much responsibility.

The responsibility of education is not to convince children that they should wear a certain pair of “new clothes” that will ultimately leave them embarrassed and naked. The responsibility of education is to teach children that the shimmer and shine of every new technology may just be blinding everyone to the fact that it is harmful.


Audrey said...

"...some kids understand piano or some understand a paintbrush. It is a skill that not everyone has. This creates another rift within those who have access to them. There is now the advantaged, computer literate side, and a disadvantaged side whose members have a harder time “clicking” with computers."
I like that quote. I never thought of it that way. It's strange to see 3 year olds use a computer, but we start to think, well, that's just how it is now. But I never thought about a child who just doesn't get computers, or doesn't want to. That's got to be hard, especially when you are born with a computer in front of you.
The paper was so good, though. Very well written, as usual, and very insightful. I like the fire analogy too. I think almost anything can be harmful if not used well, properly, or too much. Food, drugs, sex, fire, computers, exercise, weight loss, your brain. Just shows our weaknesses.
It is true, also, that it seems easier for kids to be disadvantaged, because having a computer is practically essential now.
Do you think on the flip side that technology could be helping kids that might otherwise not get to go to school, you know? Hmmm.

benjamin said...

Of course. That is the other side.

I think my point here, and in my other ramblings on the subject, is that it is okay to think twice about technology. Too many people blindly accept technology as essential. This often breeds misuse and abuse. I just want everyone, including myself, to really consider when and where and how technology is and is not appropriate.