Each new week brings with it the publication of yet another book telling us how technological developments will damage, or are already damaging, humankind. We are becoming more stupid and less sociable; we are abandoning literature and we are eroding our attention span; we are sabotaging our privacy and we are relinquishing our right to democratic politics; we are ceding our lives to the corporate imperative and we are wreaking havoc on the hallowed ground that is the university; we are corrupting our children and young people with unlimited access to pornography and we are surrendering those same children and young people to the abuse of paedophiles and people-traffickers; basically, we are all going to hell in a handcart; the list grows unabated.
But each new week also brings with it the publication of yet another book telling us how technological developments will serve up a marvelous future of unmitigated joy and unconstrained blessings for humanity. We will revolutionize and personalize education and we will offer that education to the whole of humankind; we will unchain workers from their desks and we will rejuvenate family life; we will expand massively the store of human knowledge and we will give the whole world access to that knowledge; we will shift power inexorably from the state to the individual and we will connect everyone to everyone else in ways that will enhance our lives, our loves and our prosperity; basically, our future is bathed in a warm, golden sunlight; the list grows unabated.
The truth, of course, lies somewhere between the two extremes, and it is therefore important that we steer a rational and dispassionate path through the jungle of competing viewpoints so that we can sift the reasonable from the hyperbolic, whether pessimistic or optimistic. While there is always some point in trying to work out the advantages and the drawbacks of the Internet Age, it is almost always a matter for subjective judgement to determine which side any particular feature falls on.
Unfortunately, there are too many commentators who have realised that there is an audience for hyperbole, on both sides of the argument, and the result is a glut of books that are, I believe, just drenched in bad faith. Whether they argue that technology will deliver mankind or destroy mankind, their outpourings are compromised by their need to play forcefully to one audience or another. Such books are therefore useful only to the extent that we can replay and test arguments from either side as we tread a reasoned path between the extremes.
The only things we can say with any certainty about the developments in digital and networking technologies are, first, that they are undoubtedly disrupting how we do things across a broad range of activities, whether social, political or economic, and secondly, that the changes are inexorable. Given these minimal certainties, the best we can do for most of the changes happening around us is to celebrate and encourage the good and do our best to ameliorate and neutralise the bad. To help us do this, we need rational and thoughtful debate about the nature of the changes, not hyperbole and bad faith.
And, of course, ultimately, that distinction between changes that are good and changes that are bad is one for each of us to make on the basis of our own critical thinking and our own prejudice. The more thoughtful contributors to the various debates will help the former; those of bad faith currently enjoying their moments in the publishing sun are undoubtedly feeding the latter.
Interestingly, however, around the world, our systems and institutions of formal education have arguably been amongst the most resistant of all the major areas of human activity to digital disruption. Sure, most schools in most parts of the world are using digital devices and networks in various interesting ways. But real changes in educational practice as a result of technology can be seen only in tiny pockets here and there. Wholesale change is not yet the order of the day in the world’s schools, colleges and universities.
But this will change, and I am working on a post that will offer some thoughts around where and how those changes are most likely to happen.