Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

The Diamond Age: An Edtech Reading

I recently reread Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. It’s a work of science fiction that depicts a future infused with nanotechnology, set in Shanghai and the surrounding areas. It offers some great material for a discussion on the role of technology in education and the limits of computers. Its themes are also relevant to edtech, which is pretty impressive for something published in 1995.

As a quick summary, Lord Finkle-McGraw asks engineer John Hackworth to create a computerized book (the Primer) to supplement his granddaughter Elizabeth’s schooling. Hackworth attempts to create a second copy for his own daughter illicitly, but is mugged and the book falls into the hands of the young street urchin Nell. The Primer guides Nell through leaving her abusive domestic situation and educates her using a customized fantasy story. Though the Primer is capable of reacting to voice commands and displaying a wealth of information, its narration is performed by a human actress Miranda whom Nell does not know. Hackworth, charged with intellectual property theft, makes a plea bargain to provide the source code of the Primer so copies may be distributed to tens of thousands of young abandoned Chinese girls. In the process of modifying the Primer to use a computerized voice, Hackworth is finally able to secure a copy for his daughter Fiona, before disappearing to serve his ten-year sentence.

That’s the first act. To do a proper analysis, I’m going to have to drop a few more spoilers from the most memorable parts of the book, so be warned.

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The Pedestrian

“To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way, hands in pockets, through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do.” So begins Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story, The PedestrianI recommend you print it out, read it, and then grab six colors of highlighter and spend 20 minutes annotating it like you supposedly learned how to in high school. Or that’s what I did, anyway, and it worked well for me. Read it on your screen, at the very least.

I remembered the story’s plot from elementary school, and it percolated out of my subconscious today, no doubt prompted by the day’s barrage of tweets against Twitter. But I found that it offered a much more mature and poetic reading, while remaining remarkably relevant more than sixty years after it was written.

There are a number of recurring images. Light and darkness, nature, stone, and metal, death, dry riverbeds, insects, cold, smells. They don’t form a nice set of binaries but instead a web of intricate relationships. Yes, nature images are positive and reflect Mead’s independence, and they’re contrasted with the stone houses and streets. But the car’s metallic images are more lifeless still. Bradbury combines the images; tombs tie together death and stone. Light subdivides into electric and moonlight, and both are used positively and negatively. Then there’s the line, “the light held him fixed, like a museum specimen, needle thrust through his chest.” It combines light, insects, metal, and death into one powerfully visceral image.

But alas I’m rusty writing poetry essays, or perhaps I’m using that as an excuse not to write one. The simple reading of the story, the one I remember from grade school, is that in the future a man walking alone is so unusual it arouses police suspicion. There was something about television, ah yes: “The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multicolored lights touching their faces, but never really touching them.” And the man is arrested for not taking part.

Actually, he’s institutionalized for “regressive tendencies”. Not participating in technology, in Bradbury’s 2053, is a sign of insanity. The autonomous police car itself is technology manifest, with its “phonograph voice,” its “radio throat,” its computation “dropping card by punch-slotted card under electric eyes”. These technologies were sophisticated in 1951, but today the effect is to make the car seem antiquated and incompetent. Then there’s the car’s back seat, “which was a little cell, a little black jail with bars. It smelled of riveted steel. It smelled of harsh antiseptic; it smelled too clean and hard and metallic. There was nothing soft there.”  (Can’t you just hear Bradbury’s voice narrating that?) It’s a world where technology has taken over, and forced humanity into tombs and prisons.

But back to the idea of not watching TV seen as signifying insanity – that’s ridiculous science fiction, right? Wrong. Psychologists have started to see people who are not on Facebook as suspicious. They’ve even pointed out that certain psychopaths had minimal online presences, trivializing a rather complex condition. By 2053, we may well live in a world scarily similar to that of Bradbury’s imagining, where everyone is glued to a screen in an extrovert’s playground. Mead, a bachelor, is not lonely in solitude, but his innocuous behavior is seen as deviant.

But there’s one other level here (at least). As Mead passes each house with occupants tuned into to the television, he asks mockingly, “where are the cowboys rushing, and do I see the United States Cavalry over the next hill to the rescue?” He isn’t one for exciting adventures. Instead, he likes to “imagine himself upon the center of a plain, a wintry, windless Arizona desert with no house in a thousand miles, and only dry river beds, the streets, for company.” Television and the internet hype and distort and exaggerate whatever passes through them. These media engage in brinksmanship to find the most shocking or compelling story. Mead’s walks are a return to the plain, the ordinary, the simple that is not simplistic — the pedestrian.

Writing in 1973, Umberto Ecco describes “hyperreality,” where “the ‘completely real’ becomes identified with the ‘completely fake’. Absolute unreality is offered as a real presence.” The spectrum of realness is bent back on itself into a strange loop, circumscribing and barricading  and caging the pedestrian, which had been free to wander aimlessly.

Ours is the age of manufactured excitement, with the 24-hour news cycle, reality television, and social media. The ordinary, the long-form, is boring. Instead, we smash everything into tiny pieces and let the data scientists reassemble pictures of what they claim to be human beings. Lost is that ineffable essence of humanity that comes from context. The sound of a friend’s laughter, the pat on the back, these transient and ordinary experiences are no longer good enough in a world where computers define humanity.