Sunday, July 10, 2011

Digital Learning: The Key To Knowing

With annoying regularity, articles like Lanier's Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? surface, replete with short-sightedness and much tsk-tsking, to the point where we can see the author chewing their lips and wagging fingers while muttering about newfangled machines and kids these days. Never mind that such articles rarely address We, Of The Non-Institutional Learning. In the limited vision of these articles, all learning must be dissected and transmitted by the teacher to the student, in a classroom, but of course.

Always too, there's much lamenting about how so few of us actually understand the technology we are using (meaning, I suppose, that we didn't design, build or otherwise produce said technology) so therefore, the reasoning goes, technology is immediately rendered heartless and cold, while being imbued with magical qualities. This reasoning leads me to think that either I and my family, (my friends, my acquaintances, the shopkeepers...) must be existing in some woefully ignorant and skill-less alternative universe, or, conversely, (and I think I might have something here) most of us don't know how most things work, let alone know how to build them. Unless of course, I'm wrong and indeed, everyone outside my social circle knows how their home's plumbing works or how to make an edible loaf of bread from milled flour or regularly build expansion bridges.

The reasoning in Lanier's article goes on to say that having these technologies figured out for us by an oddball few, destroys the mind, heart and soul, of we, the technology user, because we didn't come by the information ourselves.

This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it?

Funny he mentions missing the point. Before the likes of Pandora or any other algorithmic-based music program, my options for curating a very personal music library were limited. It's a little like needing to know how to spell a word and looking it up in the dictionary, without knowing how to spell the word. That's a problem. If I've never been exposed to a variety of music because I'm limited by what the DJ (or more accurately, the media giant like Clear Channel) plays, how do I know what exists? Oh, I suppose, I could purchase every item of music available to me and sort through all of it in the hopes of distilling what I liked. At this point, of course, I risk becoming the singularly focused oddball Lanier accuses Silicon Valley types of being, but hey, at least music isn't chosen for me. Lanier misses the point completely here. Never before was it so easy and rewarding and life-enhancing to build a music library. Never before have people been able to access music they had no idea existed! With Pandora, for instance, one song, one artist, becomes the key that unlocks limitless other music for me.

Ah, but also according to Lanier, I (and in his example, students) come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. He argues that there is only this relay-effect, but no actual critical thinking is happening on the student's part. (This is particularly perplexing to me, since I read Lanier's article, published on-line, aloud in the car to my family as I read from my smartphone via a link someone shared via Twitter, which then led to an hour long dissection of his points by my two teens). And here, we revisit my analogy about dictionaries and mystery words, when he says:

The artifacts of our past accomplishments can become so engrossing in digital form that it can be harder to notice all we don’t know and all we haven’t done. While technology has generally been the engine that propels us into unknowable changes, it might now lull us into hypnotic complacency.

He says it can be harder to notice all we don't know and all we haven't done. Yes, it's very difficult to look up words we don't know how to spell, or indeed, find music we don't know. Using technology to learn doesn't make us passive digital relays. Instead, we're using technology to explore things that before was previously unknown to us (and in most cases, we did it without knowing the word we were looking for). If Lanier would spend a week on Tumblr, for instance, and witness the intelligent sharing information and social activism that exists there; if he watched more movies made by young people featuring special-effect-edited sequences enhanced by the music of Carl Orff, he just might be convinced that those spaceships he'd like to see built, are, and in many cases, especially, I argue, among the self-directed learners, have already taken off and landed many times. And perhaps, like Douglas Thomas, author of A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination For A World Of Constant Change, says,

We’re stuck in a mode where we’re using old systems of understanding learning to try to understand these new forms, and part of the disjoint means that we’re missing some really important and valuable data.

Of course, perhaps Lanier can't be blamed for not seeing the word he doesn't know how to spell.


  1. Perhaps Mr. Lanier holds the view that he does because he is thinking specifically about the "digital classroom" and its artificial culture, where, it seems to me, new behaviours in the world at large are now clashing in a big big way with a long held tradition of defying everything neuroscience tells us about how human beings learn.

    As a child of the 1950s with no axe to grind or vested interest to protect and who remembers how difficult if not impossible it was as a child to find out about the world I lived in *for myself*, I can only say that I love the experience of having unobstructed access to so much knowledge and so many new ideas that I can't stop myself from learning at the speed of thought. Thank you, Tim Berners-Lee, thank you Steve Jobs, thank you the three guys who invented YouTube, thank you Jimmy Wales, thank you all the people who have turned my lifestyle upside down in such a way that learning what I want to learn has never been so delightful.

  2. His article sounds like it's just plain offensive, and he comes across as very narrow-minded; but then, many [mainstream] folks have a difficult time seeing learning on the broader spectrum and perhaps that narrow-mindedness is not so uncommon.


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