“What would Jaron say?”
I found myself wondering this in class this week as the question was asked if we thought technology could advance from being the medium to being the teacher itself. What would Jaron Lanier, author of You are not a gadget, say about that?
I have been meaning to break apart my Prezi on Lanier’s book in individual blog posts since I last December. I guess since I’ve waited this long, it doesn’t matter that I’m starting closer to the end of Lanier’s book than the beginning. In the fourth section of the book called Making the Best of Bits, Lanier examines how we make sense of or process all the bits of information we encounter everyday and turn them into usable information and knowledge. I use the word “process” to lead into the theory of computationalism. Lanier offers three “less-than-satisfying” common descriptions of computationalism:
- “a significantly voluminous computation will take on the qualities we associate with people” (think Moore’s Law)
- “a computer program with specific design features [i.e., ‘strange loop‘]… is similar to a person”
- any information structure that can be perceived by some real human to also be a person is a person” (think Turing Test)
However, Lanier prefers what he calls realistic computationalism which he defines as “the idea that humans, considered as information systems, …are the result of billions of years of implicit, evolutionary study in the school of hard knocks.” From those experiences, we create evolutionary storytelling. Does technology have such a storied history?
Lanier introduces us to the work of computational neuroscientist Jim Bower who suggests that the way humans think is based in the sense of smell. “Smells are not patterns of energy, like images or sounds,” says Lanier. Smell comes from molecules (bits of information) that Lanier says “require input from other senses” in order to create meaning. “Context is everything.” Where will computers draw upon in their stored memory to put sight, hearing, and feeling together with a smell to create meaning?
And one last argument that Lanier makes about making meaning from bits relates to language and the work of neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. Similar to Bower, Ramachandran studied how the senses are interconnected to create meaning when they encounter unfamiliar words. Can technology master the nuances of language and put them together with other sensory intakes?
As I tried to pull Lanier’s far-flung ideas together in my presentation under the umbrella of implications for adult learning, I drew on my readings about a few other “isms” — cognitivism and constructivism — and for that I returned to a more traditional text by Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner:
The learner is more than a cognitive machine. The learner is a whole person made up of the mind and body and comes to a learning situation with a history, a biography that interacts in individual ways with the experience that generates the nature of the learning.”
Don’t these kinds of learners deserve a teacher who has just as much mind and body, history and biography to add color to the learning? Lanier proclaims that we are not a gadget, and if I may be so presumptuous to assert, I believe he would say our teachers should not be gadgets either.