Upon reading one of the articles considering technology and schooling in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, we couldn’t help but recall Ivan Illich’s observations about the shift from an epoch of tools to systems, and about his views on the emerging “global classroom.”
Former Wired editor Kevin Kelly writes about how, while homeschooling his son this past year, he made sure to teach his boy how to think about technology. “[A]s technology floods the rest of our lives,” Kelly writes, “one of the chief habits a student needs to acquire is technological literacy - and we made sure it was part of our curriculum.”
This technological literacy, Kelly writes, is different from traditional, book-related literacy. By technological literacy, Kelly means ”proficiency with the larger system of our invented world. It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured realm. … we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general, as if it were a second nature.”
The alphabet and the book, Illich argued, are tools in the traditional sense of the word: They are instruments that one can use to solve a specific problem or perform a specific task. The user of these tools remains in control and maintains a separateness, or “distality,” from the tool in question. One picks up a book, reads it, and puts it down. Only in a metaphysical sense does the reader remain inside a book he or she read an hour or a year ago. Kelly, however, seeks to master technology itself, which he understands as practically another form of nature - an all-encompassing order from which there is no stepping away. People don't use systems, they get incorporated, or subsumed, into systems. Kelly, it appears, welcomes technology as the sea in which we all must swim, a milieu, or realm, from which we cannot escape. Indeed, he admits there’s no way of gaining “expertise with every invention” - with any of the subsystems that make up this systematized technological realm: “that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful.”
Not useful? How so? This technology, he writes, “will change faster than we can teach it.” In other words, our knowledge about this all-encompassing system, this technological cocoon, will inevitably be scarce. There will be no way to master it, or even to grasp a good part of it, because it constantly and endlessly will morph and extend itself in new directions. (Once upon a time, "the computer" referred to mainframes, each one an island unto itself; today, "the computer" usually refers a node on that vast, ever-expanding system called the Internet.)
As part of his article, Kelly proposes a list of lessons to be learned in technological literacy. These two statements caught our eye: “Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.” And, “Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.”
What these statements imply is that you’ll always be in need of education. You’ll never be at ease with these tools, or the system, or its component inventions, because they will constantly change and obsolete themselves. And therefore, you will always find that the know-how needed to operate or work with this system as scarce - available only to those with the proper credentials or those will to pay the right price. Which is quite the opposite of the world of convivial tools that Illich envisioned back in 1973. His idea was of a world in which tools were not subject to constant obsolescence and whose users therefore did not require constant re-training. In Kelly’s world - which, like it or not, is pretty much the world we’re all coming to accept as normal - training and education will be a given, a never-ending necessity that we had better just get used to paying for, one way or another. (Training will be another form of what Illich calls shadow work - labor that's required to perform a certain job or task but that doesn't directly contribute to that task.)
Indeed, concluding on a note of pride, Kelly describes his son as having “learned the most critical thing:
how to keep learning. A month ago he entered high school eager to be taught - not facts, or even skills, but a lifelong process that would keep pace with technology’s rapid, ceaseless teaching.”
As we read this sentence, Kelly will be gladl to watch his son submit to a life of constant scarcity. Instead of getting on with living life, Kelly Jr. will, in effect, never get out of school, for there will always be another user-interface, another set of commands, another programming language to learn, simply because yesterday’s interface is no longer available or viable.
In fact, what Kelly's boy will be learning, it seems to us, is how he can best meld himself into "the system." Which isn't to say, of course, that any of us has much say in the matter.