In a recent editorial in The New York Times, Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality, worries that technology may prevent students from learning how to think.
My problem is not so much with Lanier’s conclusion -- that creative teachers are more important than creative technology -- but with the path he uses to get there.
At the heart of Lanier’s argument is the claim that technology (and its designers) fundamentally change us and that we, the users, have no say in the matter. This unwavering belief in technological determinism has made him a favorite “go-to” person when the media needs an “anti-techie techie,” but it doesn’t make him a particularly good student of history or technology.
Lanier claims that education in the digital age will be determined by what information can be represented in computers. If that information is poorly represented, the human condition will end up poorer for it. This point of view fails to consider that every communications medium is constrained in terms of representation. To put it a different way, imagine the conversations medieval musicians had about the advent of sheet music -- “Music on paper?! This entire scribing thing may be OK for words, but spots of ink can’t capture the nuance and grandeur of a performance! How will it handle improvisation? Future musicians will be restricted to mechanically playing what’s on paper!” Clearly the intervening centuries have demonstrated otherwise.
Lanier’s naïve concerns about how computers limit representation tie directly to his disdain for the “mash-up” project where students “assemble papers… from online snippets instead of thinking and composing on a blank piece of screen.” Lanier worries that this type of project will transform students into uncritical intermediaries of information. For him, the only “true” creativity comes from the author who creates “from scratch.” It’s an unrealistic position. All of human development is built upon “mashing up” the ideas of others (as Isaac Newton put it, “standing on the shoulders of giants”). We never work from a blank screen. There are no original stories -- only original ways of telling them.
The ability to bring different materials together to reveal something new is a critical creative skill. Ironically, one need look no further than Lanier's own field of computer science for proof of this. Programmers regularly trade (and occasionally “borrow” without asking) each other’s code and then build upon and extend that foundation. This is, of course, the backbone of the open-source movement -- something else that Lanier is critical of.
All of this points to a fundamental mistake in Lanier’s conception of technology: that control exists only in the hands of the designer and in the technology itself. He writes: “The crucial choice of which intergenerational information is to be treated as computational grist is usually not made by educators or curriculum developers but by young engineers.” Lanier fails to account for the agency of users; that technology is shaped as much by its day-to-day use as it is by the people who made it in the first place.
History is full of examples of people using technology in ways that its creators never dreamed of. For example, in the early 1900s, farmers would regularly “mod” their cars into mobile engines by removing a back wheel and using the axle to power farm equipment. Likewise, at the same time Steve Jobs announced in 2008 that “people don’t read anymore,” countless people were using their iPhones to read e-books and news on their daily commute.
In the end, instead of seriously engaging with the question of how to build within a dynamic system, Lanier takes the easy way out and spends his time constructing strawmen that don’t hold up under serious consideration.
Unfortunately, I fear his argument will be used as an excuse by some to avoid the question of how to integrate technology into teaching. Worse, it may lead others to think that all the responsibility for making the system work is on designers as opposed to teachers and students working in collaboration with designers.
I don’t believe that technology is a panacea for issues in education. But I do believe that creatively engaging with it is one important component of improving things. And if that’s going to be a productive engagement, we can’t afford to let naïve arguments like Lanier’s frame the relationship.
— Matthew Bernius, a cultural anthropologist and publishing technologist, is Researcher-at-Large for the Open Publishing Lab at RIT.