Education versus Technology

I work at the technology-education interface. Most of my day is spent in thinking about how to use technology to expand access to education and to enhance our capabilities to educate. 

Sometimes, I look at the other side of the equation: How education may help spread the use of technology and enable more people to benefit from new technology.

An early convert to the Internet, I rarely thought about an education to confront technology. 

Until recently, that is.

But I am increasingly uneasy about what technology does. It's quite clear what Facebook can do, and often does: Shape our daily lives and make us dance to the tune of some shadowy master! WhatsApp can take over our every waking moment and drown us in hate-filled cacophony. Google can box us into echo chambers of our queries. Then there are others, like Oracle, who thrives on an empire built around our data. For me, it looks like a prison of mirrors, where our every little move is observed, repeated and studied eternally, from which there is no conceivable escape.

In reality, it's worse. Technology aims to do a lot more: Instead of following our demands, it shapes our desires; it doesn't just predict, it manipulates. We live from one technology-enabled nudge to another and live through cycles of emotion shaped by technology. The silicon valley and its followers elsewhere may have maintained the rhetoric of the early computing, but their business models allow none of the idealism of the hacker generation. It's wolf in wolf's garb - there is no way to mistake its intentions.

Visual Capitalist: The data ecosystemAt this point, as I see it, education may have a role beyond the facilitation of technology absorption. And, this is not just about teaching people 'crap detection' (which Howard Rheingold thinks is a key skill today) because it's not just the content that's a problem. As we know now, some of the platforms themselves are. It's no longer about spotting fake news but also to struggle against mind-control technologies of great sophistication, such as Facebook or being conscious of one's own digital footprint (see The Visual Capitalist's excellent presentation of the personal data ecosystem graphic above, or here).

We expect education to do a lot of things for us: To build our character, to make us free, to enable us to participate in society and become economically productive. Being able to make sense of the technologies of the day and to be able to use it productively were always part of education's brief. But education as a defensive mechanism is new. Going forward, an educated person will not be one who is just ready to use technology for productive purposes; an educated person will be one who can engage with technology as a fully conscious being and withstand its many traps and temptations. 

I shall argue that this needs conscious commitment in education - that of critical engagement with technology - and given that this would go deep into personal habits territory, this is not an easy game. Yet, this is one of the most crucial task ahead in education - an essential aspect of character-building in the 21st century - though 'critical consumption of technology' is yet to show up on anyone's soft skills list yet.

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