The World Without the Internet – The influence of technology on education, economy and our thinking

by admin on 02/10/2014

To envisage our world and society without the global network which interconnects almost the entire planet is an act requiring a creative mind, for this imaginary scenario contradicts the ingrained stereotypes and paradigms to which we have been constantly reacting and accustoming since the 1990s. In fact, some of us, especially the younger generation born after 2000s, have only a vague notion of how the world could function without an instant access to any kind of information which has been digitalised. Indeed, it is information and the ability to digitalise – that is the method in which the analogue and continuous is transformed by the process of sampling and quantisation into discrete and mathematically formal “chunks” that our electronic pets can understand – which describes 1 the whole age, the Information Age. But such a paradigm shift is not uncommon, quite the contrary. Everytime science produces new technology, a new medium which connects and brings people a bit closer to one another, we tend to feel nostalgic and look back, perhaps try to “reestablish” lost conversations with ourparents and grandparents in order to inquiry on how the older generations could live happily without the latest technology. The Internet and new media which have emerged, however, seem to be of a greater significance than the traditional “old media” of print, radio and television. While the old media influenced only specific areas, Lev Manovich, a professor of computer science and prominent author on Digital Humanities, underscores that the Internet and New Media: “have had impact on all levels of human communication and include its acquisition, manipulation, storing and distribution.”2 Since to negate the entire human interaction and utilising of the Internet seems too grandiose to be contained within the
scope of one essay, we shall limit ourselves to two specific topics, the topics of education and society and how both of them have been influenced by the properties of the Internet. Had there not been such network, how would our discourse about the future of education look like? Would it have been possible to avoid several inevitable issues regarding the future unemployment if there were no network to give rise to automatisation and outsourcing?

These days we consider information, or in a more practical terms knowledge, a birth right to all people but before the dawn of digital age, knowledge was a very precious and expensive commodity. Since the Enlightenment we had witnessed that if one were to have seeked knowledge, the most obvious way to do so was to attend “the keepers” of the knowledge – universities or perhaps to visit one of the local libraries if people were lucky enough to live at places where at least one library was to be found. It is quite clear and not unreasonable to think that the access to power of knowledge was predominantly defined by the social class and economic situation wherein one lived. Has the Internet changed the situation? In no way do we want to claim that the access to the network costs no money but the law which Gordon Moore observed and posited back in 1965 says that: “the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months”.3 In practical terms, this law predicts not only the exponential growth of computational power but also the price of various range of electronics which lowers every 18 or 24 months in the same exponential manner.

Means for connecting to the Internet, be it desktop computers or mobile technology, are thus increasingly cheaper and more accessible. The Internet provides what would have been absolutely inconceivable only three decades ago. The Internet liberates us from the oppressive economical structures and enables virtually anyone to peek at the vastness of all human knowledge, from home, instantly and most importantly for free. Our success is not any longer determined by what we know but rather how we can apply the knowledge. As the visionary Ray Kurzweil explains, it is an inherent nature of technology, when an invention is introduced, that it automatically paves the way for the upcoming one. Millions of interconnected computers did help to revolutionise many a field of 4 human activity. We have been experiencing great quantum leaps in how we socialise and build relationships, how we consume (multimedia) content, etc. But our brain has never been designed, if designed, for the enormous amount of data which each of us is forced to perceive and analyse every day. On the other hand, when it comes to analysing and evaluating the “Big Data”5, computers connected to one another are simply much more efficient than our brains. Does it imply that computers, the Internet and Big Data will make our analogue brain irrelevant? Not quite but we should rethink for what we use our intelligence. It seems that our inventions not only shape our environment and what we do but also how we do it, in other words how we think. Conrad Wolfram, for instance, strongly believes that in the era of such immense computational power, it is nonsensical to teach students Mathematics in the way which indeed has been prevailing since the Age of Reason.6 Instead of memorising, rote learning and calculating the concrete problems, which computers will always handle much faster, we should shift our attention from the concrete to the conceptual. And we see two reasons why it is so crucial to do so. Firstly, we have said that what matters is to know how to apply knowledge, which cannot be done without deep understanding of the theory and concept behind the particular application. Therein lies a problem. The Internet has made us believe that we know everything at instant but this illusion, in which many of us live, is abruptly dismantled once we are to explain what the concept is really about. This problem is of highest importance for the educational area. That our education system is obsolete is not a novelty. Sir Ken Robinson has been passionately talking about that for more than a decade.7 But how should the education system react to students taking advantage of instant answers provided by Google, Wikipedia, etc.? One of the solutions is to abandon knowledge and factbased education and demand deeper and much valuable understanding of the concepts. No one else but the Ancient Greeks and Socrates in particular were one of the first proponents of such deep and genuine inquiring and studying. If we do not realise the significance of this, what will happen to us? Will we be able to survive the Darwinian war of the fittest? What does it take to prosper in the postinformation era, in the Conceptual Age?

The term Conceptual Age is a neologism coined by the author Daniel Pink in his influential book Whole New Mind. In the book, Pink expresses his prophecy that technology, namely 8 computers and the Internet, will have an impact on economy and jobs. Pink basically agrees with the thesis that in the Conceptual Age knowledge is still important but not enough to succeed. Pink goes further and explains that technology will continually replace all the jobs whose activity can be automated (done by computers) or outsourced overseas, in other words Pink emphasises that what really matters in the Conceptual Age is the ability to come up with new solutions, creativity and understanding of concepts rather than the actual execution of the work, which can always be done “somewhere else” owing to its own the linear, algorithmic and repetitive nature. Moreover, Pinks also lists the key concepts or traits which are fundamental in his Conceptual Age:

● Design
● Storytelling
● Symphony
● Empathy
● Play
● Meaning

Pink calls these traits “rightbrained” as a convenient, albeit scientifically imprecise metaphor borrowing
its meaning from the lateralization of the brain in order to explain that rightbrained
skills, which have been looked down upon by managers and economy in general, will be an important asset in the age of
automatisation and outsourcing.

We have seen that technology and the network whereby all the devices communicate with each other is much more than just exchanging personal photos via Facebook and other forms of social media. Its influence is much closer to the core of our daily lives. As the smallest biological organism such as amoeba is aware of the fact that cooperation is essential for survival and makes colonies in order to develop into higher forms of organism, it almost seems inevitable that the humankind invented and discovered the power of the Internet which has indeed also brought us together. Perhaps, the humankind was destined to create such a network which will in the end transform us to a new higher organism. The organism which stepped outside the dark ages of scarcity of knowledge. This change will not be painless, however. The Industrial revolution and Information Age did cause harm to working class and bluecollar workers. The Conceptual Age will yield similar results for office or whitecollar positions. But the human has never been intended to waste time on repetitive and weary tasks which in the near future will be carried out by inorganic assistants – robots. The human then will have time to attain the role of an emphatetic creator who seeks a meaningful and spiritual life. It is a paradox that inanimate technology will make us human again. At the beginning of this revolution stands the Internet. What would have happened to the world without it? Nothing and that is the point.

1 MANOVICH, Lev. Kapitoly z dějin a teorie médií: Principles of New Media.
2 ibid, p. 33.
3 INTEL.COM, Moore’s Law and Intel Innovation
4 KURZWEIL, Ray. The accelerating power of technology
5 Big Data is a new term for describing complex datasets which would be impossible to analyse without
automatisation 6 WOLFRAM, Conrad. Teaching kids real math with computers
7 ROBINSON, Ken. How schools kill creativity
8 PINK, Daniel H. A whole new mind: why rightbrainers will rule the future.
MANOVICH, Lev. Kapitoly z dějin a teorie médií: Principles of New Media. Vyd. 1. Praha: Akademie výtvarných umění v Praze, Vědeckovýzkumné pracoviště, 2010. Edice VVP AVU. ISBN 9788087108161.
PINK, Daniel H. A whole new mind: why rightbrainers will rule the future. 1st Riverhead Books pbk. ed. New York: Riverhead Books. ISBN 9781594481710.
INTEL.COM: Moore’s Law and Intel Innovation. [online]. [retrieved 20140210]. Available at: http://www.intel.com/content/www/us/en/history/museumgordonmoorelaw. html. TED.COM: Ray Kurzweil: The accelerating power of technology. [online]. [retrieved 20140209]. Available at: http://www.ted.com/talks/ray_kurzweil_on_how_technology_will_transform_us.html
TED.COM: Conrad Wolfram: Teaching kids real math with computers. [online]. [retrieved 20140209]. Available at: http://new.ted.com/talks/conrad_wolfram_teaching_kids_real_math_with_computers
TED.COM: Ken Robinson: How schools kill creativity. [online]. [retrieved 20140209]. Available at: http://new.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity

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