Welcome to the machine

Dr Michael Johnston
Insights Newsletter
10 June, 2022

Our education system is becoming a bit like a gym in which people use robots to pump iron for them.

The trend began in the 1980s when hand-held calculators became cheap. According to a certain school of thought, there was no longer any point in teaching children arithmetic when calculators could do it for them. After all, calculator proponents argued, learning times tables, column addition and long division is boring. Not teaching arithmetic would leave more time to be creative.

In the late 1990s, as the internet blossomed, similar thinkers began to question the point of teaching knowledge. They wondered why students need to know anything themselves when they can always get their facts from the internet. If we stopped teaching knowledge, they mused, students would have more time to learn critical thinking.

In this era of ever-advancing information technology, we might wonder what the next step will be. Surely text-to-voice software makes reading redundant. And now that the quality of voice-to-text software is so high, perhaps we could stop teaching children to write as well. Then they could spend more school time working on their wellbeing.

The trend towards outsourcing life to machines is not confined to the education system. During the COVID pandemic, people got used to working from home and interacting with their colleagues on Zoom.

In a few short years, high-quality virtual reality headsets will be cheap enough for just about everyone to afford.  Then we might start to wonder why we’d travel to see the Colosseum, the Great Wall of China or the Daintree rainforest when we could enjoy these spectacles from our living rooms, with none of the hassle or expense of international travel.

In 1909, ninety years before home internet became commonplace, English novelist E.M. Forster published a short story called The Machine Stops. The story is set in a future in which human beings live in small underground apartments. They rarely meet in person, instead communicating via screens. All of their bodily and cultural needs are catered for by a vast machine. No doubt you can tell how the story ends from its title.

When it comes to prophetic science fiction, The Machine Stops tops even Jules Verne.

If skills like reading and arithmetic are not learned, creativity is stunted and well-being is compromised. Without knowledge, critical thinking is empty. If young people cease to learn disciplines like history and science, cultural and technological innovation will gradually grind to a halt. Or maybe we’ll just outsource those things to machines as well.

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