Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Nation of Vidiots (apologies to Jeffrey Sachs)

Last week, I wrote the following in a comment to this post on The Archdruid report:

"Is the push for computers really about improving education or opening new markets?"

So it's gratifying to see the media asking the same question:
Something sounded familiar last week when I heard U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski make a huge pitch for infusing digital technology into America's classrooms.

Every schoolchild should have a laptop, they said. Because in the near future, textbooks will be a thing of the past.

Where had I heard that before? So I did a bit of research, and found it. The quote I recalled was, "Books will soon be obsolete in the schools.... Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years."

The revolutionary technology being heralded in that statement wasn't the Internet or the laptop, but the motion picture. The year was 1913, and the speaker, Thomas Edison, was referring to the prospect of replacing book learning with instruction via the moving image.

He was talking through his hat then, every bit as much as Duncan and Genachowski are talking through theirs now.

Here's another similarity: The push for advanced technology in the schoolroom then and now was driven by commercial, not pedagogical, considerations. As an inventor of motion picture technology, Edison stood to profit from its widespread application. And the leading promoter of the replacement of paper textbooks by e-books and electronic devices today is Apple, which announced at a media event last month that it dreams of a world in which every pupil reads textbooks on an iPad or a Mac.
Hyping Classroom Technology Helps tech Firms, Not Students (L.A. Times).

Every "innovation" put forward by the government is just a way to funnel money to some preferred constituency.

The central point of the orginal post is one of the recurring themes of that blog: how we rely ever-more on technology as a crutch, while downplaying and stunting human abilities (there was more, but you can read the post if you have not already). I pointed out a widely read and cited article in The New York Times that illustrates what the kingpins of digital technology really think about computers in the classroom:

LOS ALTOS, Calif. — The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home.

Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix.

A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute (New York Times)

To which I made the following comment:

"In other words, Silicon Valley is peddling computers in every classroom as a miracle cure for the world's educational system, but when it comes to their own kids, computers are banned in favor of developing their own potential. Quite telling, isn't it?" From the first article:

At last week's dog-and-pony show, Duncan bemoaned how the U.S. is being outpaced in educational technology by countries such as South Korea and even Uruguay. ("We have to move from being a laggard to a leader" was his sound bite.)

Does Duncan ever read his own agency's material? In 2009, the Education Department released a study of whether math and reading software helped student achievement in first, fourth, and sixth grades, based on testing in hundreds of classrooms. The study found that the difference in test scores between the software-using classes and the control group was "not statistically different from zero." In sixth-grade math, students who used software got lower test scores — and the effect got significantly worse in the second year of use.
I pointed out that this was similar to the cult of getting computers into the hands of poor people as a solution to the world's problems, most prominently hyped by columnist Thomas Friedman:
In a country where 75 percent of the people live on less than $2 a day, that’s a big question. It is why, one year ago, India’s Human Resources Development Ministry put out a very specific proposal that Kalra and his technology institute decided to take up, when no one else would: Could someone design and make a stripped-down iPad-like, Internet-enabled, wirelessly connected tablet that the poorest Indian family, saving about $2.50 a month for a year, could afford if the government subsidized the rest? Specifically, could they make a simple tablet usable for distance learning, teaching English and math or just tracking commodity prices for under $50, including the manufacturer’s profit?
John Michael Greer's comment was telling:

"Remember that the cult of progress is a missionary religion, and the delusion of giving iPads to the global poor makes more sense -- it's exactly the same logic as giving Bibles to people who are starving to death."

Later I posted another article from the Times that gave a skeptical view of technology, this time about our reliance on GPS:
IT’S a question that probably every driver with a Garmin navigation device on her dashboard has asked herself at least once: What did we ever do before GPS? How did people find their way around, especially in places they’d never been before?

Like most questions asked in our tech-dependent era, these underestimate the power of the human mind. It is surprisingly good at developing “mental maps” of an area, a skill new research shows can grow stronger with use. The question is, with disuse — say, by relying on a GPS device — can we lose the skill, too?


If maps help us, what is the problem with GPS? A lot: in my opinion, it is likely that the more we rely on technology to find our way, the less we build up our cognitive maps. Unlike a city map, a GPS device normally provides bare-bones route information, without the spatial context of the whole area. We see the way from A to Z, but we don’t see the landmarks along the way. Developing a cognitive map from this reduced information is a bit like trying to get an entire musical piece from a few notes.

Our brains act economically: they try to decrease the amount of information to be stored (e.g., by relating new thoughts to already known content) and avoid storing unnecessary information. That may be the unconscious appeal of a GPS, but it means we’re not pushing our brains to work harder.

And a GPS device may even contradict your mental map by telling you to go left (e.g., for a faster highway) while your target is actually to the right. All of this leads us to use our mental maps even less.
Is GPS All In Our Heads? (New York Times)

A central them of the comments is how much more capable and competent the average person was before we became reliant on technology, and how this flies in the face of how we're "progressing" as a species. Of course, being a Peak Oil blog, the central point is that such technology is ultimately derived from fossil fuels, which are in decline. I'm guessing that a major future theme will be developing our own potential, sometimes called reskilling. One point often made is about the art of memory: many cultures had no written word because they didn't need it, their traditions were oral - professional memorizers could hold entire epics in the mind word-for-word. The Homeric Epics and The Beowulf were originally sung by bards from memory before they were written down, today many people have the entire Bible, Koran or other sacred book committed to heart. A popular book was written last year about this art called Moonwalking with Einstein:
A mere millennium ago, being able to remember and recite a text verbatim was not a game or a party trick. It was an art. More than that, it was part of being cultured: a person without memory was a person without ethics or humanity. Today, memorization is limited to Shakespeare monologues and Robert Frost poems in high school. Phone numbers and friends’ birthdays are “remembered” by cellphones and computers. Indeed, much of our daily memory has been offloaded onto external devices. The advantage to this is clear: information is portable and searchable, and not taking up valuable space in our noggins. Until you lose your iPhone.
Now I don't think computers and iPads are going to go away tomorrow. But I do think that the last thing that the powers-that-be want are self-reliant people. One of the reasons the Industrial Revolution was so dedicated to driving farmers off the land (the Enclosure Movement, the Highland Clearances) was that such people were too independent because they could take care of themselves. Thus, they were a threat to the political order. When you realize that, you wonder if the push to digital technology has even more of a political dimension than first thought.

So in conclusion, I highly recommend instead of wasting you life away in front of the tube (of course, the people who are doing that are probably not reading this), get to work learning skills, any skills. Whether it's the Art of Memory or Trachtenburg Math, or learning to butcher meat, there are more opportunities than ever before, whether you end up using them or not. The more self-reliant you become, the better your self esteem too.

BONUS: Today's students have more access to information than any generation in the history of the world. Here is the end result:

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