“Thoughts of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite”

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away – Henry David Thoreau

Now, the title of this piece comes from the 19th century workers movement that opposed the beginnings of the industrial revolution and is the first of what I think will be a three-part post. The on-line Free Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that a Luddite was

one of a group of early 19th century English workmen destroying laborsaving devices as a protest; broadly: one who is opposed to especially technological change.”

Wikipedia tells us that Luddites were

19th-century English textile artisans who violently protested against the machinery introduced during the Industrial Revolution that made it possible to replace them with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.”

I am, by no means, opposed to the use of technology in the classroom or elsewhere. However, I am really not interested in many of things “out there” that define technology in today’s world. I do not own a “smart” phone. Quite honestly, at this point, I cannot afford a new phone nor do I feel the need for it. I can probably do the same things with my net book that I could do with a “smart” phone, even if the net book is a little more cumbersome. The question would be “why would I want to?”

I don’t tweet, I don’t text, and the music that I prefer to listen too is often not in a format that would work on a MP3 player or its equivalent. I have a Facebook account but I don’t update my time line (in fact, I don’t even have it set up) nor do I tell people what I like or dislike.

I have never owned a graphing calculator; in fact, I have never really owned a calculator. I learned early on how to use the graphing capabilities of a spreadsheet so I don’t necessarily need a calculator to do my graphing for me. And when calculators first came out, I couldn’t afford one and when they became cheap enough to buy, students would leave them in the laboratory and I would just use one that someone left in the lab. Besides, I learned how to use a slide rule back in the early 60s and I still have three slide rules sitting on my desk in case I find the need to do some calculations. And if the computer is up, the calculator that is part of the accessories file, when in the scientific mode, does all the calculations that I need.

I do have a blog (as evident by this post) and I use word-processing technology to prepare the blog. I use the search capabilities of my browser and Google to find information but I also have to use my own thinking skills and analytical techniques to determine the validity of the information that I find. And that is why I am a Neo-Luddite. I think that we have become so enamored by the technology and what it does, we have let it dominant our lives, to the point where we no are beginning to lose our ability to think and be creative.

I fear that the manner in which we are using technology is slowly creating the less-skilled labor class that the 19th century Luddites feared would take away their jobs. Perhaps I am more in line with the thinking of the Ba’ku as expressed by Sojef in a comment to Picard early in the movie “Star Trek: Insurrection”,

We believe when you create a machine to do the work of a man, you take something away from the man.”

In her piece, “Same Boat, Different Stream”, Rebekah Simon-Peter wrote

Students are producing! They are making apps, posting movies on YouTube, publishing their thoughts on Facebook, and showing their work on Instagram. They research just for the fun of it! They text and tweet in a way that would make ee cummings proud. Young people are wired, networked and engaged.

I won’t argue that there are some out there who are being creative and doing wonderful things with the technology. After all, all one has to do is watch the Mars Rovers, especially “Curiosity”, and know that there are individuals with the ability to think a problem through and create a solution that allows us to travel to another planet and explore it (of course, I would much rather that we were setting foot on that planet but that is for another time).

Whereas technology can help, it also has a tendency to magnify mistakes as well. Remember the old saying that if you don’t know how to solve the problem, all a computer (or calculator) can do is get you the wrong answer quicker.

Students today are quite adept at finding information on the web but they are often times incapable of determining the validity the information that they find. Case in point – In my assignment on academic and scientific integrity, I ask if certain individuals are guilty of perpetrating fraud, committing a hoax, or just doing plain “bad” science. On more than one occasion, students have reported that a Nobel Prize winner was guilty of scientific fraud without realizing the consequences of that conclusion. Their own conclusion was based on information that was on the Internet but was incomplete. Other times, their conclusions contradict their initial statements. They can find the information without any difficulty; understanding it and applying it cannot be done with technology and I don’t think we as a society completely understand this.

My point is that I fear that our reliance on technology as the end ignores the fact that technology is a tool that should open up possibilities for us. I wonder where the next generation of these thinkers will come from. I fear that our reliance on technology has almost become a dependence and we are using technology in hopes of making up for a short-fall in creativity, innovation, and just plain thinking skills.

Our schools trumpet the use of computers in the classrooms and we see more and more schools going to on-line education, not only at the college level but even now at the high school level. But when you look at what is being done in those situations, you see very little creativity, very little original though, and lots and lots of the same old thing. Textbook publishers today are merely transposing the problems from the back of the book to a computer database. They are still the same problems and quite possibly with the same errors. When I see what textbook publishers have done with on-line materials, I am reminded of what they did back in the 1960s and we shifted from problems with English units to problems with metric units. If you look at a text written in the 1950s and an edition of the same text written in the 1960s, the problems are the same with the only change being that instead of inches, the units are now centimeters and so forth.

What is needed at this time is a certain degree of futurism in the classroom and elsewhere. There needs to be a discussion and thought put into what can we do with what we have and what we might have. There is a certain degree of risk involved because the very act of thinking about the future may change what occurs and the future is notorious for never being as we thought it might be (anyone driving/flying an Aerocar these days?).

Right now, I see a world in which people can solve problems but only problems that already have solutions. New problems require new solutions and often times those solutions are not in a book. Case in point – Dimitri Mendeleev was able to predict the existence of several elements and their properties because he had something upon which to base his predictions. But he could not predict the existence or properties of the noble gases (helium, neon, argon, krypton, xenon, or radon) because he did not have the same comparable evidence that he had for the other predicted elements. So his Periodic Table does not have the last column that we see on most modern Periodic Tables. Had he had just a little bit more information, he might have added that missing column and predicted the elements. Or, if he had waited two more years before producting the table, the discovery of helium would have provided the additional information that he needed.

We are in the same boat. We have a society that can solve problems if they are like problems we have dealt with in the past. But to solve a problem that we have never faced requires abilities that we are not focusing on.

We have to begin thinking far beyond the walls of the classroom and far beyond the pages of a calendar. We have to place an emphasis on higher-order learning skills. In her piece, “Same Boat, Different Stream”, Rebekah Simon-Peter made note of a suggestion by Shawn Jensen,

He suggested that educators include a digital native’s real life skills in the classroom. For instance, ask students to construct a FB timeline of Abraham Lincoln. What might he have posted before giving the Gettysburg address. After? How might others have responded?

What are the skills that we need for tomorrow? Will technology provide the skills that we need?

We need to be able to work cooperatively, we need to be able to see beyond the walls of our present existence, we need to be able to communicate, we need to be able to see in new ways. The technologies that we have today cannot do that but they can help us to achieve those goals.

We must also realize that there is an ever-increasing technology gap. We are quickly developing a social class of people who simply cannot do any of the jobs available in the modern world? What will happen to those individuals who, in the past, would have been the salt of the earth ditch diggers, janitors, and so forth as those jobs will become more and more scarce over the next few decades. Is there a way to train them to function? Will we create a permanent welfare class that consists of people who want to work hard and produce, but don’t have the necessary ability?

Are we open to new ideas? Or will we take old ideas and just recycle them? Speaking as a Neo-Luddite, I would hope that we seek new ideas for the technologies that we have and not merely recycle old ones. I want to explore this in the next part of this series, “Observations of a 21st Century Neo-Luddite” which I hope to post in the next day or so.