Digital Aristotle, Technological Determinism, and Visions

Not all visions of the future are accurate.

If you don’t currently follow cgpgrey on youtube, you should. He’s one of the best educational youtubers there is (see also Hank and John Green’s CrashCourse), and provides brilliantly simplified explanations of subjects that would otherwise remain arcane to most people, myself included. In a recent video (see below) crpgrey gets a little bit meta, and explains his predictions for the role of digital technology in the future of education. Given that the cgpgrey is a digital educator, it should not come as a surprise that his predictions are quite optimistic.

The video starts with a valid observation that the current model of education, in which one teacher explains the subject at hand to a room-full of students with diverse interests, attention spans, and educational needs, is deeply flawed. He uses this flaw to argue that the ideal form of education would be a model he calls “Aristotle for Everyone”, in which every student has a private tutor that can adapt the curriculum to their individual learning style.

Of course, Aristotle for Everyone is not a practical approach to reforming education, and not just because textual evidence suggests that Aristotle’s lectures were about as exciting as staring at a pile of dirt. It would be expensive, impractical, and largely ineffective to hire a private tutor for every student. This, argues cgpgrey, is where the internet comes in. The argument goes that the internet allows educational content to be made very cheaply, and that computers can use algorithms to tailor lessons for students’ individual learning styles.

I’m not going to address the practical merits of Digital Aristotle here. Instead, I’m going to take cgpgrey to task for statements like these:

  • “While it may seem primitive now, technology only gets better faster.”
  • “When Digital Aristotle arrives, it will be better, faster, and cheaper than human teachers ever could be.”
  • “What happens when Digital Aristotle truly knows students better than the teacher…Schools will be radically different, and there will be far fewer teachers working in them, doing far less”

Each of these statements is a textbook example of technological determinism-an outdated view of technology that generally says one of two things: that the development of new technologies is predictable, or that the introduction of particular technologies has predictable societal consequences. Each of these assertions is evident in cgpgrey’s video, and each of them is deeply problematic.

Firstly, it is nearly impossible to predict future technological developments with any degree of certainty. We might make reasonable assumptions that certain critical problems in existing technological systems will be solved, and we might be justified in presuming that the performance of existing technologies will improve incrementally. We are not, however, justified, in imagining that we know which radical innovations are forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, and reflect on the fact that the events of the movie supposedly happened eleven years ago.

Secondly, even if new technologies are developed and diffused, it is impossible to predict how they will be employed. People tend to make predictable errors in this area: they tend to assume that new technologies will be used in the context of present-day culture (I would like to name this “The Jetsons Effect”), they tend to exaggerate the implications of new technologies, and they they tend to imagine the societal embedding of new technologies to be a much easier process than it often turns out to be. This is only a small list of the ways socio-technical predictions go wrong, but let it suffice to say that new technology is not always adopted as planned (see the Segue for more on that), and even if it is adopted, it rarely has the impact that is predicted.

The bottom line here is that the generation and use of new technology is a mediated by society. Digital Aristotle therefore has some serious potential obstacles in his way. A student’s individual educational needs might, for example, turn out to be too complex to be accurately recognized by a computer algorithm. Or perhaps it is possible to develop such software, but the task is too difficult to accomplish with the resources available. Even if the requisite technology is developed, Digital Aristotle will still face stiff opposition from teachers’ unions, old-fashioned parents, students who learn to game the system in pursuit of easy work, principals and school boards unwilling to invest in the necessary computer infrastructure, and so on. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Digital Aristotle to become a reality, but it’s far from a sure thing.

This does not mean, however, that Digital Aristotle should be completely dismissed. I propose that Digital Aristotle is less a prediction, and more a vision. The concept of a vision is based on the fact that it takes a lot of resources to develop and market new technologies and technological systems. The boosters of a new technology will therefore try to build coalitions to support their projects. If more people are willing to lend their voice, their intellect, and their money to the success of a new technology, then it has a higher chance of actually succeeding. Visions of the future are therefore deployed to build this support. They tend to be moralized; either presenting a new technology as key to achieving a kind of utopia, or avoiding a dystopia. This is, to my mind, a fairly exciting conclusion. It means that technological futures, rather than simply being imposed on us by engineers and scientists, are tenuous constructs that require our support to be realized.

This implies that Digital Aristotle is not an accurate prediction about the future of education, but rather, a political play to get you to buy into a particular notion of idea of how technology should be used to improve education. If enough people like the idea of Digital Aristotle, then it will be easier to support the development of the relevant software, and overrule the objections of those with an interest in the status quo. Technology, like policy, should never be implemented without robust public debate, and elaborate narrative devices can enrich this debate. This process can be made more honest and useful if we strip away the technological determinism from our discussions, and see stories about the future not as prophesies, but as bids for our support. We get to choose the future we like the best.

Further Reading:

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Geels, Frank W., and Smit,  2000. “Failed Technology Futures: Pitfalls and Lessons from a historical survey“. Futures 32. pp. 867-885.

Smith, M.R. & L. Marx (eds)., 1994. Does Technology Drive History? the Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.