Sunday, 14 August 2011

Dumbing down

Time travel

Forty years ago I was struck by a short story written by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The story is about a young boy's utter disappointment with having been spurned by the computerised assessment procedure which matches talents and jobs in a future society. Instead of having his brain instantaneously programmed for the job he aspires, interstellar pilot, he has been referred to a weird institute, a boarding school without any technical feature available to the students. After a couple of weeks he has an interview with the head master, who explains him that, instead of being glum, he should rejoice belonging to a happy few. Being programmed automatically with all necessary skills and knowledge for a career is meant for the mediocre majority of people who are completely satisfied being effortlessly provided with a livelihood. The boy's assessment produced evidence of a highly creative mind, capable of devising programmes the others are provided with. His brain must not be programmed, he has to go all the way, reading books, there is no short cut to new thought.

From the Earth to the Moon

Just as Jules Verne's “From the Earth to the Moon” presaged space exploration in the twentieth century, this twentieth century Asimov story predicts twenty-first century education. Of course neither Verne nor Asimov were spot-on with their description of tools and methods. Shooting people enclosed in a bullet to the moon was a bad idea, if only Verne had thought of a rocket propelled contraption, he might have expedited the endeavour. So far there is no technical tool to store information in a human brain directly, but Asimov's idea of immediate interaction of machinery and human brain seems less far-fetched than it was forty years ago.

Going elsewhere

A readily available example of how the human brain may deteriorate by offloading work to a machine is the implementation of navigation systems. Finding your way in the environment, especially in an unknown area, asks for mental mapping, while circumventing obstacles and keeping track of the right direction, and computation of distances and time. During the evolution of our species people with resourceful brains, who were proficient in finding out where to go, certainly prevailed, while others starved in places they could not escape. Until recently a travel to an unknown destination started with studying the map to find out a route where to ride your horse, or drive your car, for that matter, thereby building a mind map of the journey. Most Londoners will use some memorised map of the Underground when commuting, possibly completely different from the neatly printed graphic I have to consult as a tourist in that city on the day of arrival.

Taxi drivers given brain scans by scientists at University College London had a larger hippocampus compared with other people. This is a part of the brain associated with navigation in birds and animals.
Source:BBC News, 14 March, 2000

Now it is possible to drive to an unfamiliar address without having the slightest idea of the route. One only has to follow the arrow on a screen or voiced orders from the navigation system. No internalised map is needed, nor any idea about the sun giving a clue of the direction, or whatever. Just obey the orders of the machine. A couple of years ago a Dutch lady nosedived her car in a canal doing so.

How we got here

Such development of machine aided behaviour is bound to have effect on our brains in the long term. Functions of our brain have been transferred already. The need of memorising rules for spelling and grammar has lost importance when the machine takes care of correcting your texts. Training in mental calculation seems obsolete when your pda takes care of complicated arithmetic. Why bother about memorising the capital cities of Europe when such trivial data can be retrieved from the internet in an instant?

These processes have been going on for a long time. I surmise it is possible to describe culture since neolithic times as a process of offloading individual brains to trained specialists and tools. In this view even the invention of writing has had a huge impact on the storage of information in the brain. Once upon a time the history of a tribe would be conveyed by long stories, myths, songs, and rituals which were memorised verbatim. Undeniably the invention of writing has contributed to our survival as a species, and it clearly bolstered our struggle to master nature by science, to the detriment of our innate talent to memorise huge amounts of information literally.

In limbo

Apparently nothing can be gained without a loss. When it comes to education we may feel that we are in limbo, where the gains are not visible yet, while the losses are imminent. Testing memorised knowledge or skills requests denial of use of all machinery, which seems rather awkward. In The Netherlands some schools provide their first formers with a lap top only, no text books needed. The general attitude towards education mirrors the ubiquitous computerised information transfer: school must produce results without effort by the student, the onus is on the teacher and his curriculum, in which bite size chunks are spoon fed. This is our twenty-first century version of Azimov's helmet which programmes the brain within a second with all the information needed for a future life.

Here and now

All depends on the definition of “future life.” If education aims at participation in the economy, at the acquisition of skills and knowledge to make a living, then we must draw a dismal conclusion. There is no need at all for a high rate of literacy and numeracy among the population. In the nineteenth century a huge mass of capable book keepers, excellent in arithmetic, was the bedrock of economic progress. Now a computer calculates rents, interests, debts and profits. Employees must be able to push items under scanners, put things in machines, assemble machines following lists of how to do it, wrap products in nicely decorated paper, read patients' diagnoses from screens, that's about it. They will get paid for lowly jobs and must splurge on consumer goods, preferably electronic gadgets that keep them occupied with games, music and other entertainment. Of course we must train a limited number of gifted students to devise the products that are for sale, to provide medical services, or to work in the entertainment industry, as a singer or soccer player. It is best to test students at an early age to find their special talents, and to steer them in the right direction, so as to prevent unnecessary distraction. These students are trained at universities. Some of them, higly gifted students, may even need to read books, and communicate about these at triple A universities to produce exciting new content and to advance science. A couple of universities will do, Harvard, Princeton, Oxbridge, Shanghai, Mumbai, Cape Town and Rio.

Such education is heading for the ant heap. Each human being is a node in a world-wide super brain which has detached itself from the well-being of its components. Free will of a brain contained in a physical body is just a delusion of that individual brain, which must be placated with limited choices, for example whether to go to the pub or to the theatre, in order to preserve the illusion of personal identity.

This image of a future world is not other-worldly. To me it seems a fair description of the world we live in.

Ready for take off

We may also stick to our delusion of the free will. Then “future life” means fulfilling all our potentials, not just for some, but for all of us. We are to enjoy our life individually and to share this joy with our neighbours, friends and family, wherever we meet them in the global community, for real or on line.
This puts a wholly different complexion on school. We don't train our students for making a living, we educate them to create a meaningful life. We don't want a bunch of morons around us, do we?
So a high rate of literacy and numeracy across the population really matters. Our mutual efforts may possibly lead to a learning world government controlled by educated voters, thereby solving the problems of the planet. Someday we might travel to the stars to meet the others, out there.

Lost and gone

By the way, if you happen to know the title of this story by Azimov, I would be grateful to hear from you, the title disappeared from my memory, I read the story in an anthology which I lost, and without the title I lack the search word to find a book with the story at, all of which proofs my stance, unfortunately.