Against Technological Shortcuts, or Why How We Learn Matters As Much As What We Learn

I remember having a discussion with students a couple of years ago about the desirability of instantly acquired knowledge or expertise. It was a purely hypothetical discussion, and I don’t quite remember how we got around to it. Somehow, though, we found ourselves discussing a Matrix-like or Google-chip-type scenario in which it would be possible to instantly download the contents of a book or martial art skills into the brain. The latter, of course, begs all sorts of questions about the relationship between the mind and the body (and so the does the former for that matter), but let’s set those questions aside for the moment. My argument at the time, and the one I’d like to briefly articulate here, was that even if we were able to acquire knowledge through such a transaction, we should not really want to.

It’s not an easy argument to make. As you can imagine many students were rather keen on the notion of foregoing hours of study and, just to be clear, the appeal is not altogether lost on me as I glance at the mounting tower of books that looms nearby, Babel-like. And the appeal is not just a function of the demands of an academic setting either. I am the sort of person that is more than a little pained by the thought of all that I will never read given the unyielding limitations of a human life. Moreover, who wouldn’t want to possess all of the knowledge that could be so easily attained? (Interestingly, it is tacitly assumed in hypothetical discussions of this sort that retention is no longer a problem.)

This discussion came to mind recently because it struck me that the proposition in question — the desirability of achieving the end while foregoing the means — takes on a certain plausibility within technological society. In fact, it may be the very heart of the promise held out by technology. Efficiency, ease, speed — this is what technology offers. Get what you’ve always wanted, only get it with less hassle and get it faster. The ends are relatively fixed, but technology reconfigures the means by which we achieve them.

This is the story of automation, for example; a machine steps in to do for us what we previously had to do for ourselves. Consider this recent post from Kevin Kelly in which he outlined “The 7 Stages of Robot Replacement” as follows:

A robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do.

OK, it can do a lot, but it can’t do everything I do.

OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

OK, it operates without failure, but I need to train it for new tasks.

Whew, that was a job that no human was meant to do, but what about me?

My new job is more fun and pays more now that robots/computers are doing my old job.

I am so glad a robot cannot possibly do what I do.

Kelly, as always, is admirably optimistic. But this seems to me to beg certain questions: What exactly is the end game here? Where does this trajectory culminate? Are there no good reasons to oppose the outsourcing of human involvement in the means side of our projects and actions?

Let me go back to the matter of reading and knowledge, in part because this is the context in which I originally formulated my scattered thoughts on this question. There is a certain unspoken assumption that makes the possibility of instantly acquiring knowledge plausible and seemingly unproblematic: that knowledge is merely aggregated data and its mode of acquisition does nothing to alter its status. But what if this were a rather blinkered view of knowledge? And what if the acquisition of knowledge, however understood, was itself only a means to other more important ends?

If the work of learning is ultimately subordinate to becoming a certain kind of person, then it matters very much how we go about learning. In some sense, it may matter more than what we learn. This is because  the manner in which we go about acquiring knowledge constitutes a kind of practice that over the long haul shapes our character and disposition in non-trivial ways. Acquiring knowledge through apprenticeship, for example, shapes people in a certain way, acquiring knowledge through extensive print reading in another, and through web based learning in still another. The practice which constitutes our learning, if we are to learn by it, will instill certain habits, virtues, and, potentially, vices — it will shape the kind of person we are becoming.

As an aside, this consideration bears significantly upon the digital humanities project. (You can read a recent piece about the digital humanities here.) The knowledge achieved by the computer-mediated work of digital humanists will be acquired through practices that diverge from the work of print based scholars, just as the practices associated with their work diverged from those associated with medieval scholastics. New practices will yield new sensibilities, new habits, new dispositions. The digital humanities can produce impressive and well-executed works that genuinely advance our understanding of the humanistic disciplines, so this is not exactly a critique so much as an observation.

This is one reason, then, why the means through which knowledge is acquired matters: it can shape the sort of person you become in the long run. Another has to do with the pleasure that attends the process. Of course, if one has not learned to take pleasure from reading or, to take another example, the physical training associated with athletic excellence, then this point will ring rather hollow. Let me just note that if I could immediately acquire the knowledge of a 1,000 books, I will know that I had missed out on a considerable amount of enjoyment along the way. The sort of enjoyment that leads us to pause as we approach the end of a book we will be rather sad to close.

All of this is also closely related to the undesirability of a frictionless life. When I seek to remove all work, all trouble, all resistance that stands between me and some object of desire, my attainment of that object will be simultaneously rendered meaningless. But finally, it may be mostly about virtue. What do I desire when I am lured by the promise of instant knowledge. It seems to me that since it is not the pleasure that attains to the work and accomplishment of its acquisition, then it is just the power or prestige that it may bring. The elimination of the work associated with gaining knowledge or skill, then, may not be a function of sloth but rather of pride.

And as with knowledge, so with countless other facets of human experience. Technology promises to reconfigure the means so as to get us the end we desire. If, however, part of what we desire, perhaps without knowing it, is intimately wrapped up with the means of attainment, then it will always be a broken promise.

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7 thoughts on “Against Technological Shortcuts, or Why How We Learn Matters As Much As What We Learn

  1. This discussion reminds me of one modern phenomenon that is happening: the shift of government funding from human arts universities to technological schools that create employees for current employer needs. Thinking may, in these institutions, become more “how to” rather than — why? What value does it have beyond securing jobs? How will what I do affect the world? and so on. Perhaps even, are there better ways to approach this problem? Not having studied in a technical school, I can’t say with authority that the learning is of a different nature, but certainly the content is. Things like music, literature, philosophy, and much of world history are simply not part of the curriculum. This suggests to me that we are treating human beings a little like robots — so they will do the things our economy “needs” and not think much deeper than that.

    • Right, and many students are perfectly frank about this. They are in school to get a piece of paper or some skills that will lead to a decent job, no more (well, besides the drinking, etc.). The irony then is that education reduced to the pragmatic business of preparing good workers for the economy seems not to be altogether succeeding even by that measure (you are less likely to be unemployed if you have a college degree, but the margin is shrinking).

  2. Thanks for the post, Mike. It is an interesting topic to consider. Another problem with the Matrix-esque “download” style of information concerns the debate between knowledge’s subjective and objective nature. While one may download a dictionary-like list of meanings, applying those meanings to things takes on a certain subjectivity. Thus, if they’re being downloaded, they have their own set of presuppositions, but they’re not “yours” in the traditional sense b/c you’ve simply acquired them without the having gone through the mental exercise of wrestling with or dialoguing with them. I hope that makes sense. I’m supposed to be proctoring a test, so I’m a little distracted.

    • That is a very, very good point. Thanks for adding that important consideration.

      By the way, your’s was the 900th comment logged on the site. Congratulations, but unfortunately there is no prize.

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