Human Learning

This is the first in an ongoing series of reflections on how technology is rapidly changing our lives. The focus, however, won’t primarily be on the societal, political, or economic aspects, but more so on the ways our personal lives and communities are impacted. This series will not entail a lamentation or screed against technology (which would likely be drowned out or coopted in any event); instead, it’s an attempt to highlight the myriad ways that people are living with and into this era. While “machine learning” seems to be all the rage, it’s important to recall that we mere humans are still learning too.

For this initial piece, we’ll focus on two primary areas of concern, and set forth a roadmap for what’s ahead. Future articles will explore themes such as distraction, automation, parenting, education, work, media, and more. The aim is to critically engage the role that technology plays in the most basic domains of our lives, from our (inter)personal relationships and sense of wellbeing, to our workplaces and modes of communication. Some of this may seem apparent, at least on the surface – with people walking while staring down at their devices, or robots staffing assembly lines and places of commerce – whereas much of it is obscured by the pace of change and the unique capacity to be highly adaptive in our social mores.

But let’s not parse words. The bottom line is that for most of us, embracing the emerging technologies in our midst is born of convenience and titillation, and is infused with a sense of wanting to be in on the latest memes and modalities being circulated. The promise of today’s consumer tech is one of mobility and access, autonomy and sharing, liking and being liked, and boundless possibilities. At a larger scale, technology is posited to cure disease, solve intractable problems, and unburden us. Plus, it’s way cool!

All of which makes it hard to resist. (Luckily, even resistance can also find a place within the network.) Realistically, if something doesn’t fit within the confines of our devices, it’s almost as if it didn’t really happen at all. Sure, experiences and memories matter, but they’re fleeting and unreliable. The internet, however, is incontrovertible and remembers things forever – which is the first key point of this week’s reflection: the lives we lead beyond the digital domain still resonate in important ways. What gets recorded in the hive mind is but an echo of who we really are, and no science has cracked that code yet.

As a parent, it’s challenging to navigate an uncertain world that seems increasingly impersonal in many ways. My three children are all pre-teen and under, meaning that they have no tangible frame of reference for a world without the dominance of screens and devices. The rhythms of an on-demand society with real-time monitoring and things happening at the touch of a button are pervasive, often with impacts on our psyches and personas that go largely unexplored – with young people especially susceptible. And this brings me to point number two: the snow really was deeper when we were kids!

Actually, with climate change kicking things up everywhere, that’s probably not even true. But the basic point still holds, namely that the texture of life was different “back in the day” (and not really that long ago, when you think about it). We’ve all seen and heard the unkind cracks about millennials with their “participation trophies” and supposedly diminished social skills, but these caricatures actually miss the mark. As a college professor, I interact daily with young people who are technologically immersed, yes, but who also have an incredible capacity to see the world as interconnected, and human potential as limitless. And I’m not sure those empathic and open-ended tendencies were prevalent before this era.

Which leads us to the central conundrum, as well as the core purpose of this series. Simplistic notions of being “for or against” certain technologies (or even technology as a whole) are superfluous by now. Instead, the aim is to focus on retaining – and perhaps even reclaiming – that which makes us human. The concept of “human learning” is both a noun and a verb, a thing and a process alike. My hope is that by sharing these experiences and observations, we can compare notes and together make the grade.

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