06 November 2009

Science Fiction

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I was listening to a keynote speaker earlier this week who was telling us just how flat the world would be someday. He had some glitzy pictures of technology gizmos---like a bluetooth headset that you could wear on your finger as a ring when it wasn't been used. He espoused tools and connectivity. He told us all about the impact of this on the classroom, where in some Hegel-ian vision, the sum total of human knowledge would be available to each and every child.

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I think this was supposed to be very inspiring to the gathering of educational technology leaders sitting in the room. Me? All I could think about was Forbidden Planet. If you haven't seen this 1956 gem of a movie, it's Shakespeare's Tempest set in outer space. (Aside: The Tempest is my favourite of his works. I like the metaphor of Caliban as student and Prospero as teacher. But that's another post.) I won't summarize the film here, as IMDb can do that much better than I, but if you've seen the film, you may remember the context of the image at the left. Walter Pidgeon (seated) has a machine attached to his head which allows him to increase his IQ. Leslie Nielsen is pointing at the 3D holographic image of Anne Francis that Pidgeon has been able to create using his mind. Cool, right? Maybe not. See, the machine had been built by an extinct civilization (the Krel)---a machine used to train the young of that species. A machine that contained the sum total of Krel knowledge. This allowed the Krel to do some wonderful things, but it also led to their own self-destruction (and eventually the destruction of Pidgeon and the planet itself).

In spite of the story, I'm not fatalistic about putting learning tools and information in the hands of students. However, this connection did give me pause to wonder if we've really thought about all of the possible consequences of a flat world.

Jurassic Park by davehunt82 CC-BY-NC-ND
This train of thought led me to another sci-fi connection:
Jurassic Park is another tale of the negative effects of "too much" knowledge. Within both the movie and the novel (which is far more interesting than the film), the character of Malcolm plays Satan's Little Helper in terms of asking the others to consider the consequences of what is being done. He points out to the developer, John Hammond, that "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Is it possible that when it comes to creating flat classrooms and embracing the idea of globalization that we are so blinded by possibilities that we aren't taking the time to really think things through? Have we considered the responsibilities that come with the power of knowledge?

Toward the end of the keynote the speaker trotted out a chestnut I've heard elsewhere: We're preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, where they'll use technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems we don't even know exist. This isn't a particularly deep observation---it's stating the obvious. I wanted to shout out that this is what education has always done. Don't you think that our own teachers were in the same position when we were in school? We are always going to be in the position of preparing students for an unknown future.

However, the speaker admonished us to be futurist and "begin with the end in mind" where technology is concerned. Other than a science fiction world, this is not possible. The platitude in the above paragraph tells us that we can't know what kind of world our students will inherit. Fiction tales from our past remind us that people don't always understand the consequences of the present on the future. The best we can do is help the next generation separate fact from fiction as they add to our progress.


Unknown said...

I think of the hype of the Astrodome each time I see a tech guru talk. Technology will never be a magic bullet.

The Science Goddess said...

Indeed. But it seems to be a very human thing to believe that there is a magic answer to most every problem...and if we look hard enough, we will find it. I wonder what we might accomplish if we focused our energies on doing (rather than simply hoping)?

Hugh O'Donnell said...

The Krel never warned Walter's character about the id monster. That image made a big impression on this little kid in the theater.

What's the id avatar in today's race to integrate technology with "21st Century Learning"?

Maybe I'm looking for unanticipated consequences.

Anyway, just askin'.

doyle said...

We can know some things about the future:

Food will still come from the ground, the sun, the air.

Humans will still breathe, eat, piss, shit, and fuck (feel free to edit, but the power in those words ultimately lies in our inability to get around our ties to life) pretty much the same way he have for millennia.

Fortune tellers will always be around a species that has language and memory--and futurists are just professional charlastans.

The future, like history, is told by the currently powerful. The crows are still talking, and if you listen, you can hear them, even if people like Scott Mcleod cannot.

The Science Goddess said...

Hugh---That's my question, too. What is the "Id Avatar" in this race to the flat world? I don't know that there has to be one...I just wonder if we've even thought about all of the possibilities and consequences.

Doyle---I only censor personal attacks and vendors pimping products. Other than that, all free thoughts and words are welcome here.

I find it interesting that those who are most disconnected from the educational process (i.e. don't work with teachers/students) are the ones making all of the prognostications about what our classroom lives will be like. I have no doubt that new tools will emerge, but other than that, life and learning will carry on much as they always have.

Roger Sweeny said...

Is information really getting "flatter"? Sure you can access words and pictures but without knowing how the words and pictures fit together, you can't access understanding. Understanding requires a lot of vocabulary and background knowledge.

Say you run across a reference to "the permittivity of free space" and you look up "permittivity" in Wikipedia. The article makes perfect sense to someone with the background of a physics major but I dare anyone else reading this to look at it and figure out what it means.

The Science Goddess said...

I think access to information is becoming "flatter," but not necessarily understanding.

I am running across this quite a bit in circles outside the classroom, too. I saw a disturbing amount of presentations last week about school data warehousing without a single one talking about how to ask the right questions or how to make sense of the information. And sadly, most of the adults in the room thought this was just fine.

jsb16 said...

A few weeks ago, I heard the DuFours talking about the difference between data and information. A lot of people talking about how flat the world is becoming seem to think that access to data via the internet is the same as being able to turn that data into useful information. Especially people with something they claim is a magic bullet (or potion) to solve all our education problems. Fortunately or unfortunately, all of the problems in education, from the achievement gap to 21st century skills, have to be solved by letting caring teachers connect to individual students. Everything else is window-dressing.