In 2012, the scientific community was shocked to see six Italian scientists arrested and placed on trial for the manslaughter of 309 people. How did they manage to kill 309 people? Easy: They failed to predict an earthquake.
As insane as it sounds, two years later these scientists are still stuck in an appeal process, and they are still facing a potential six years in prison. Now long off everyoneâ€™s radar, the questions this prosecution poses to Western civilization have faded from our memory.
At stake and at issue are the underlying ideologies of what our machines and the data they generate actually mean to us as human beings. Unfortunately, these ideologies remain in the background of our educational and technological decision-making. The lives and the minds of our students are rapidly becoming intertwined with their technologies and the haste we feel in harnessing this cultural phenomenon is driven by a competitive economic desire to â€œstay aheadâ€ of the technological curve.
With the exception of perhaps a few hold-over â€œLuddites,â€ no one I know is against the use of technology in the classroom. On the flip side, however, I must say that in all my conversations about classroom technology, I have neverâ€”not even onceâ€”heard a citizen or educator discuss what the use of that technology actually means to a human being.
There are plenty of discussions about what technology â€œdoesâ€ for us. We improve our understanding of chemistry and physics through technology. We calculate mathematics at amazing speeds. We apply radical changes to manufacturing, streamline engineering processes, and become the recipients of scarcely imagined medical advancements. I am writing on a machine even now!
Technology allows us to compile data, too. Tons of data. Data on our shopping habits. Data on our voting preferences. Data on our mortality rates. Data on poverty. Data on our students IQ. Data on the effectiveness of teaching strategies and even teachers themselves. Lightning fast data, a glut of every dissected information is available to us with a few strokes on the keyboard.
Thatâ€™s what technology does and itâ€™s outstanding! Practically no one would ever deny it.
But what does technology and the many gifts it brings actually mean to us? One of the unwritten messages it communicates is that human beings are at their best when we most resemble the working of a machine, or when we have surrendered ourselves as surrogates to the technology at hand.
The late Neil Postman, who I greatly admire, put it this way over 20 years ago: â€œWe have devalued the singular human capacity to see things as a whole in all their emotional and moral dimensions, replacing this with a faith in the powers of technical calculation.â€
If there were any doubt that Postmanâ€™s words were truly prophetic, we need only look at the six Italian scientists on trial because of a calculation (or miscalculation) taken by the public as “Divine Script.” We need look no further than our own educational system in America, in which hard data is the norm for decision making and for crafting singular, â€œall-answerâ€ educational strategies. Any of us who have ever had more than one child understands utterly and completely that each of our children process and problem solve very differently.
Technology and hard data have backed us into a â€œone size fits allâ€ corner in education just as readily as it locked away six scientists for failing to predict an earthquake. It seems worth asking if our technological expectations might potentially be misplaced.
All this comes about when we accept the idea that the computer, the data it generates, and the speed at which it generates data provide the best solutions to societyâ€™s greatest struggles. It happens when we come to believe that information will cure our ills.
And yet, as Postman reminds usâ€”â€œIf a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it most likely will not come from a lack of information. Where children are dying of starvation, it does not occur because people lack information. If families break up, or children are mistreated, it does not happen because of a lack of informationâ€¦. Vast quantities of information have little to do with these problems.â€
â€œTechnological immodesty is an acute danger,â€ Postman concludes. The danger is pulling the human being out of the process. A calculator wonâ€™t make me a good mathematician any more than a word processor can make me a good writer. Our technologies have severe limitations.
I look forward to attending the town hall at Oak Ridge High School on Tuesday, September 30, this week. As a concerned citizen and a taxpayer, I especially look forward to a conversation that focuses less on what technology does for my own two students in Oak Ridge Schools, and more on what technology means to them as human beings. What steps are being taken to ensure that the humanity of my children is valued over the data points they represent? That the flashes behind their eyes, deep in their brains are of greater value than the flashes on a screen? And where will they learn that no machine can ever serve as a substitute for the totally human ability to contextualize information in an emotional and moral framework?
I look forward to sitting and listening. I encourage our community to do the sameâ€¦a smattering of data points in newsprint the day after could very well be a technological surrogate for the real human presence that our childrenâ€™s education requires.