The machine in the middle.

1 11 2011

If there’s any lessons we can draw from Woody Allen’s Sleeper, it would probably be that there are simply some things that should not be left to technology. For some reason, it was this paragraph from Nick Carr that made me think of the orb scene:

I’ve noticed the arrival recently of a new genre of futuristic YouTube videos. They’re created by tech companies for marketing or brand-burnishing purposes. With the flawless production values that only a cash-engorged balance sheet can buy you, they portray a not-too-distant future populated by exceedingly well-groomed people who spend their hyperproductive days going from one screen to the next. (As seems always to be the case with utopias, the atmosphere is very post-sexual.) The productions are intended to present us with visions of technological Edens, but they end up doing the exact opposite: portraying a future world that feels cold, mechanical, and repellent. And the creepiness is only intensified by the similarities between the future they conjure up and the present that we live in.

Now, I might just as likely have picked any of the future scenes from 2001 from reading that quote, but the orb (and, of course, the orgasmatron) suggest to me a future where everything we do is mediated by machines, whether it really needs to be or not.

I would argue the same thing is true of technology in education. In fact, I would argue that this has always been true of technology in education. In the new paperback version of her latest book, Diane Ravitch has this amazing quote from the technology editor of Forbes from that dates from all the way back in 1984 (p. 284):

“What kind of transformation will computers generate in kids? It could well be a lot less than all the hype would indicate. Just as likely as producing far more intelligent kids is the possibility that it will create a group of kids fixated on screens–television, videogame, or computer. The notion of learning at your own speed is a hoary educational cliche beloved by the computer ed folks. In theory its sounds wonderful. In fact, it eliminates the community of the classroom, turns the student into a lone figure engaged in a yearlong dialog with a disembodied voice.

I went to a parent teacher conference this morning, and as much as I love my son’s second grade teacher for her strong classroom presence, the conference itself consisted primarily of her showing us printouts from all the mandatory computer programs that the school district is using. Education should be personal. Machines are cold by definition, even the really eye-popping ones.

But forget about the student’s point of view for a second, do you really want to teach that way? Do you want every interaction with your students mediated through a machine? Do you want your job to consist of moving your eyes from one screen to another all day? The coldness of machine-mediated interaction cuts both ways.


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