Technology as the solution to everything represents, in my mind, a simplistic, money-driven, and over-valued world view in the same way that placing computers in every classroom creates the illusion of genuine progress and learnedness.
My first real exposure to the world of hi-tech occurred in 2005 when I spent time working with the founders of a start-up that specialized in the rendering of real-time 3-D environments. Their technology was so dazzling that experienced observers thought they were being tricked or deceived during our demonstrations. To their credit the mostly very young programmers and algorithm writers were very idealistic. Most of them came from a “gaming” background, but had little respect for their previous work product. They were determined to limit application of their software to “virtuous” endeavors, which included the creation of 3-D learning environments.
On one occasion we met with representatives of a Northern California school district, which was experiencing a significant drop off in student enrollment. For every student lost the district lost thousands of dollars of government funding, which amounted to millions of lost dollars annually. Many of those students were being home-schooled and the district thought that by creating a rich, online, learning environment they might be able to recapture these disenchanted students and simultaneously reclaim their government funding. Our technology was a perfect fit for the mission, and we brain-stormed ideas for creating what amounted to a sophisticated, interactive, online school. One presumption I held, was that no matter how realistic and functional that online experience might be, it would pale in comparison to actually attending school and interacting with teachers and fellow students. Our virtual school was, at best, a compromised version of reality, whereas “real school” was, well, real. The young scientists disagreed. They in fact expressed a preference for the virtual learning environment. And that’s when I got it about techno-types. Reality isn’t their thing. Physical interaction isn’t their thing. Sociability isn’t their thing. The ability to isolate and avoid real-world settings actually appeals to them. The social realm, in many ways, is a distraction and a burden to them.
I bring this up because of a recent article in the New York Times (Drop Out, Dive In, Start Up) about PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and his Thiel Fellowship Program. In a nutshell, Mr. Thiel “bankrolls people under the age of 20 who want to find the next big thing.” The next big thing being (for the most part) some sort of technological gadget, which can, I assume, eventually be pitched to some venture capitalist (like himself), and after that to Wall Street types who will then organize a highly lucrative and fee producing IPO - America’s 21st century version of a wet dream. There is, however, a catch. The young entrepreneurs must forgo college (during the term of the Fellowship), which seems to be as much of the point as creating the products themselves. College, for this collection of techno-achievers, is basically dismissed as a waste of time. Indeed, a parent of one of the Fellows stated “I can’t think of a worse environment than school….I detest American so-called education.” It’s always easy for elites (intellectual and financial) to disdain generally useful institutions like schools and government which are rendered non-essential to them by virtue of their unusual and elevated status. Why worry about public schools or universities when your little genius can always be home-schooled or attain a private school scholarship? Why invest in police and public parks when you live in a gated community or guarded high-rise, and belong to a country club?
For a while now, I’ve been harboring a contrarian attitude towards our focus on all-tech all the time. Technology as the solution to everything represents, in my mind, a simplistic, money-driven, and over-valued world view in the same way that placing computers in every classroom creates the illusion of genuine progress and learnedness. Our society lacks something, but that something is not a deficiency in technology. That’s why I’m not so sure that what America really needs is the cultivation of a cadre of cosseted, socially isolated, narrowly focused techno-geeks rendering “solutions” for a better America. If Mr. Thiel was truly a “free thinker” (as described by the Times) he might recognize that there are pressing needs in America that might be better served by awarding $100,000 grants to free-thinking people under the age of 20 with the desire to ponder and shape policies and ideas that might create a more socially just, economically balanced, happiness-generating, and internationally attuned society. The gadgets of Silicon Valley don’t do that. They do produce riches, increasingly for a relative few (I suggest reading the following article at DEMOS.com), and they do produce mass marketable products of dubious necessity and social effect. But too frequently they are solutions to little, if not nothing, that really matters.
This point of view was crystallized for me during the war in Iraq. On a daily basis I would read newspaper accounts of the war to my elderly mother-in-law Gogo whose eyesight was then beginning to fail. And those accounts, in 2006, were relentlessly morbid – mass killings, IED attacks, Mosque bombings, troop ambushes, atrocities. On and on it went, countless, and never-ending. Then one day, sometime in the middle of this protracted and unnecessary carnage, I came across an article about some sort of technological gizmo, the type of thing that Mr. Thiel might even have financed, that would enable American forces to detect from high and afar their enemies on the ground. For some reason, that article and its gleefully techno-oriented theme ticked me off. The one thing that America possessed in Iraq in spades was an almost imponderable degree of technological superiority - a reflection, no doubt, of our country’s greatness, as defined by people like Mr. Thiel.
Yet there we were the “exceptional” nation of genius engaged in a borrowed trillion dollar war of choice foisted upon us by an unstudied President who barely comprehended the distinction between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias. How did that happen? How imperfect were the lynchpin institutions of our society - business, media, government, - that we found ourselves bogged down in a politically engineered war hatched by a morally compromised government, and supported by an aloof and distant citizenry ever so content to allow an “all volunteer” Army to do their fighting? It wasn’t technology, inherently void of principle, perspective, and values that we lacked, but wisdom. Wisdom of the sort perhaps attained by attending college, immersing oneself in that social realm, and studying the “soft” qualitative disciplines of history, art, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology. In other words, the very setting and the very studies that Mr. Thiel and his “Fellows” find so unappealing.
What is our national purpose? We have extensive and new math standards. We are determined to compete with engineers from all over the world in the creation of alluring products. We are laden with gadgets, yet we are bereft. Unschooled in the very world and reality alluded to by that same parent who further stated “turn your kids loose on the world, introduce them to the rigors of reality most important of which is earning your own way.” Iraq was literally teeming with engineers and technologists from corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton, all of them very adept at earning their way in the world. A world they disrespected, misunderstood, and had little problem destroying. But hey, that’s just a free-thinking thought.