Human Learning: Navigating the Waters

Akin to fish in water, we swim in a sea of technology. And like said fish, we have become so habituated to this medium that we scarcely notice it. Or, to be more precise, perhaps we obsessively notice it but take its presence and composition for granted. Thus, the fish might acutely be aware that their own continuance depends on the replenishment of water around them, but they’re not calculating ratios of hydrogen to oxygen. Maybe the fish even view the water as mystical in some way, essential yet beyond their understanding.

Without stretching the analogy too far, some of the parallels are worth reflecting on for a moment. Modern life is saturated with (and dependent upon) technology at all scales, from interpersonal communications to international corporations. The production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of nearly everything in our orbits is enmeshed within a web of technology. Food, water, energy, healthcare, education, media, transportation, relationships, workplaces, and more, are thoroughly technology-driven. Likewise, identities, personas, professions, and aspirations are cultivated within this web.

Despite this ubiquity, how many of us actually can say that we understand the workings of these pervasive technologies? Think about trying to explain how a smartphone is constructed, how an algorithm works, how sensors convert data into decisional information. Do we know where the basic materials for our devices come from, or even what they are? Could we repair our own tech if it failed? Could we build new versions from the objects around us? Conversely, we might not know exactly how a book is made or a shovel forged, but it seems plausible to look at these items and fabricate a reasonable facsimile.

This capacity to comprehend the basic workings is part of the distinction between tools and technology. Writing on these issues around the emergence of modern tech, Herbert Marcuse viewed technology as a “social process” that exists beyond the “technical apparatus” of commerce and communication. In this sense, technology is a set of social arrangements and not merely a network of interconnected gadgets. As Marcuse discerned, “technology, as a mode of production, as the totality of instruments, devices and contrivances which characterize the machine age is thus at the same time a mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a manifestation of prevalent thought and behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination.” We can thus surmise that the more opaque the operations of our devices, the more susceptible their use is to becoming a function of social control.

How might we then shed more light on this? In the opening missive of this series, it was stated that the focus would be less on the political and sociological aspects of these matters, and more so on the personal impacts of technology on our lives. As such, there are three primary ways to get about this: discuss theories, analyze data, or present stories and observations. These aren’t mutually exclusive domains by any means, but the latter feels the most personal. And being personal means that the stories we present should be our own, even as they’ll be inherently infused with our unique perspectives and biases. This is acceptable if we acknowledge it and further becomes part of what makes stories compelling, yet it can impact their utility as social commentary.

Intriguingly, though, storytelling has become a mainstay of modern tech utilization. Podcasts fill up earbuds everywhere, online merchants highlight individual testimonials, user profiles are populated with personal anecdotes, and narratives are binged on regularly. We want to hear and share stories, which can help make the saturated totality of our information-laden lives somehow seem condensable. And in this we might find a ray of optimism for the future of human learning, through the preservation and amplification of the ancient and basic art of storytelling. So while the workings of the technologies themselves may remain opaque, their use portends other forms of openness.

Such ironies abound in a world where identities are forged both through and despite the devices in our midst. As digital exchanges steadily supplant analog ones, the values we infuse today will help set the template for how things unfold in the days ahead. While many of our interactions through technology appear horizontal (as with friends, colleagues, family members), others are more vertical in terms of how power tends to consolidate upward (as with financial transactions, privacy, marketing). In this light, while navigating the arc of ostensible progress, it makes sense to inquire more deeply not only about the inner workings of the apparatus but also as to the possibilities for cultivating wider forms of awareness. We can’t be fish out of water — so onward we swim.

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