Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Shift Happens 2014

An old friend from the Franciscan Third Order sent me a link to this amazing video. It is well worth the five minutes it will take to watch it and, hopefully, the time it will prompt you to reflect on the points it raises:

Entitled Shift Happens, 2014, the film well documents, “[w]e are living in exponential times,” the pace of change in our lives is accelerating at an exponential rate. The video is breathtaking, overwhelming and well worth further consideration. I was struck by several points.

Why Should Everyone Go To College?

“Researchers predict that 65% of today’s school kids will hold jobs that don’t yet exist. We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been invented in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet….The US Department of Labor estimates that today’s learner will have 10-14 jobs by the age of 38.”
The current conventional “wisdom” regarding higher education in America would assert that everyone needs to go to college in order to get a decent job. Despite the fact this “wisdom” is being propagated by everyone from the President to the local media’s talking heads, this myth is pernicious and needs to be laid to rest as quickly as possible.

To begin with, not every teenager completing high school is actually capable of attaining a higher education. Sadly, it is not true that if they simply try their best they will succeed. The road to college graduation is littered with the carnage of those who simply couldn’t get there. This does not make them any less human or valuable to our world. It simply means their life callings will be to endeavors which capitalize on the skills they do have, not on those others think they should have.

Moreover, not every teenager capable of higher education wants to attend college. Some are simply not ready for the demands of higher education right out of high school. The myth we have told ourselves that college freshmen arrive as adults with fully developed rational capacities and the maturity to use them is simply not true in many, perhaps most, cases. At best, they are proto-adults capable of maturing into adulthood assuming they are willing to grow and that vital mentorship is available for that process.

There are also those who simply do not want to undergo the process of higher education with its many hoops to jump through and yearn to seek their fortunes outside its parameters. No one should attend college because they were manipulated into doing so. There is no small amount of sadism in forcing young people who are not capable of completing college or who simply don’t want to be there to endure four years of frustration and a long subsequent history of paying off student loans to pay for that torture. There is also no small amount of social irresponsibility in failing to insure that the equally valuable avenues for vocational success for those not called to higher education are available to them.

It’s a College, not a Factory

But the more pernicious aspect of this “wisdom” is the reduction of higher education to a vocational process designed to insure jobs almost exclusively in the technical arenas. In the first place, this thinking confuses training with education. The former is focused on attaining skills, the latter is focused on the development of the holder of such skills.

Education requires the development of the capacity to think critically and solve problems creatively. It requires developing the potential to express oneself clearly through verbal, written, image-driven and technical means. A true educational process will take students out of their comfort zones (and no, they don’t have the right to never be troubled), expand their awareness of their own lives and the world around them. An education worth its salt will prepare the student to be a life-long learner.

That last skill will prove indispensable if the creators of the video are correct that the shelf life of any skills learned in the first years of college will be of limited use by the time of graduation. Many potential students today are buying into sales pitches by undergraduate programs across the country desperately seeking new customers and their tuition dollars. They are being sold a bill of goods that college is a four year party – the best four years of your life! – during which they will somehow learn all they need to know to go make lots of money largely by osmosis. I know. I’ve taken the tours.

But this is a pernicious and potentially destructive lie. If a student is lucky, they will find a college that prompts them to ask questions of themselves, their classmates and their professors. The student will figure out very quickly that despite the sales job they got in their pre-college visit, seeing an undergraduate educational process as “the best four years of your life” is acceding to an incredibly low standard for a mediocre at best life. Indeed, they will recognize that a college education in its best and highest use is actually the springboard to the best years of their lives – the many years they have after graduation to use what they have learned.

They will also figure out that the campus cultures which suggest that shooting for the bottom line while demanding undeserved high grades is an exercise in self-deception. They will also quickly realize that the widespread and widely accepted practice of cheating on online assignments and plagiarizing the work of others for writing assignments is ultimately acceding to becoming a less-than-respectable human being.

The conventional “wisdom” by which corporate imperatives to insure a supply of minimally trained workers would reduce institutions of higher education to mere factories for minimal vocational skills may be about a lot of things but education is not among them. And the student who buys into that “wisdom,” the sales pitches of the money-hungry university and the cynical campus culture of bottom line performance has already conceded his or her opportunity to become an educated human being.

Worshipping the Work of Our Own Imaginations

Another section of the video focuses on technological development.  

“There are 5.9 billion searches on Google every day. This is 100 times more than in 2000. To whom were the searches addressed B.G. (Before Google)?”

It’s hard for post-Google people to imagine how the world survived without the instant gratification of its search engines. As an admittedly voracious user of Google, the presumption that everything I need to know is almost instantly available to me assuming I have a wifi connection is greatly comforting. But there is no small amount of vanity in such a belief.

The B.G. question reveals some of the self-blinded tendencies that informs the Technopoly that Neil Postman so well documented in his book by the same name. To begin with, much of the world’s information, perhaps the majority of it, is not yet digitalized. Google can only find that which has been made available to online searches. The presumption that anything worth knowing is already online is no doubt self-satisfying but beyond the smugness of such assertions is the reality that much worth knowing is not yet online and may never be.
This points to a related concern. The major value of internet research is its speed which is often seen as a proxy for efficiency. Sadly, it rarely is, particularly when it comes to learning. The quality of learning generally turns on the amount of undistracted time a student is willing to invest in the process of learning. All of us like to find answers quickly. But the quality of the answers we find depends on a number of things.

First of all, it depends upon our ability to frame queries. This, in turn, depends upon the capacities of our vocabularies and our abilities to think creatively and expansively. The larger the in-borne thesaurus an individual searcher holds, the more likely s/he will find ways to rephrase search terms to locate additional, often vital data. Sadly, some of the most recent results of student learning suggests that vocabularies are declining and that it is precisely the use of internet technologies and their deleterious impact on substantive reading that are feeding this decline.

“Skimming, Liu concluded, had become the new reading: the more we read online, the more likely we were to move quickly, without stopping to ponder any one thought.” - Maria Konnikova, “Being a Better Online Reader,” The New Yorker (July 16, 2014)

Second, the tendencies of those of us who access online sources is to speedily read what we find there, an extension of the faulty speed = efficiency premise. The result is a tendency to scan, sometimes even using word search, but rarely to actually read and consider the contents resulting in a corresponding decrease in comprehension of that which has been hastily read.

As heavy an internet user as I am I would be hard pressed to sing the praises of life Before Google. The World Book was a joy to read and I spent many happy hours as a child immersed in it. But it was slow, heavily edited and often incomplete and out of date. Google is a decided improvement.

Yet the joys of instant searching, of having “the world at your fingertips” as internet technologies often brag about themselves, have come at a cost to all of us who use them. It is important to recognize that as we rely ever more heavily on online sites to provide us with the intellectual equivalent of the sound bites we can readily procure through scanning that we are already shutting out all the information not online and only selectively accessing that which is present there. It is, ultimately, a major sacrifice indeed that we make to the technological idol we worship.

Billions and Billions of Data Bits

Finally, there are these comments that require careful consideration:

“The first commercial text message was sent in December 1992. Today the number of text messages sent every day is double the population of the planet. It is estimated that a week’s worth of the New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th CE. 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the past two years. The amount of new technical information is doubling every 2 years…For students starting a four year technical degree this means that half of what they learn their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study.“

“In 1900 human knowledge doubled every 100 years. In 1945 human knowledge doubled every 25 years. In 2014 human knowledge doubled every 14 months. By 2020 human knowledge will double every 12 hours.”

We need to be very careful not to confuse information,  much less data, with knowledge. On the knowledge hierarchy that most scholars of human learning have long recognized, the data which are ultimately the basis for the operation of computers is the lowest level of knowledge. It requires grouping data by content to change data into information. It requires the verification of information, checking of sources for authoritativeness, comparing various takes on that information in context to become knowledge.

But it requires critical assessment for that knowledge to become reliable. Even beyond that, wisdom requires testing over time to generate insights into the big picture and provide vision for our future as human beings.

An obsession with quantity often masks an impoverished value for quality. It is quite possible to know more but understand less. Indeed, one of the most frightening prospects of an information rich, technologically powerful society arising in a hyper-individualistic, atomized culture is the potential that this information and power can be used to pursue individual and tribal interests in ways that ultimately proves inimical to each other, our world and the living beings who inhabit it.

Despite what our consumerist culture tells us, more is not necessarily better. It is simply more.

The Billion Dollar Question

This provocative film ends with this question: So what does it all mean? Interestingly, of all the points made in the film, this is without a doubt the most critical.

We are a people still learning how to use our technological tools in a healthy manner. We are having to learn that our connections to the internet can both provide us helpful information and services as well as expose us to theft and defamation. We are having to learn that despite what the consumer advertising tells us, we cannot “talk all the time” and lead healthy lives. People who “talk all the time” quickly run out of things to say worth hearing and in the process spend no time listening. An obsessive use of technology to distract ourselves from our very lives ought to make us wonder about the quality of those lives in the first place.

We are having to relearn how to read and study, coming to grips with the reality that despite the hype and promises of its innumerable hucksters who see technological disruption as a consummate value, the computer simply cannot do the hard work for us. We are having to learn that the agreement to use internet technologies means to enter into vulnerability, a fragile electronic world subject to slowdowns, failures, potentially costly identity theft and debilitating viruses.

Finally, we are having to learn once again how to interact socially with others in healthy ways. We are having to learn that failure to be fully present with others because we are immersed in our personal technologies is not only rude, it is dangerous. We are having to learn the appropriate times, places and manners in which to use our technologies and how to evidence appropriate concern for others in that usage. Most of all, we have to learn the critical lesson of when we simply need to turn our technologies off.

It is a steep learning curve. But in answering the question “What does it all mean?” we are ultimately answering the deeper question of “What does it mean to be human?” And while we have the ability to avoid that question, as billions choose to do each day through the use of their techno toys to remain constantly distracted, the challenge of an ancient philosopher who lived long Before Google still thunders across the ages requiring a response from each of us: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  How do our own lives measure up in light of that consideration?

Of course, we always have the option to live as limited a life as we choose. The question is simply why we’d choose to do so.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)


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