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The Machines Have Already Won

You often see stories about how computers in general, the internet in particular, and social media in particularer make people stupid by ruining their memories or attention spans or whatever. What’s stupid is these stories. Are you addicted to the internet? Unplug. Don’t give me that. Unplug.* There’s software available for free on the internet, which you obviously know how to use, that will help you unplug if you need it. If you spend more time paying attention to things, your attention span will increase by definition. If you do more things worth remembering, you will remember more things. These technologies might be changing people, but not in the ways most people think. One of ways they change people is by giving people stories that work as excuses for doing what people want to be doing anyway, like being lazy and goofing off. They change people in the same way that Pringles and nicotine change people, but everybody already knows how to reverse those changes – they’re not permanent. These technologies don’t change people in terms of what they can do with their time, and I don’t mean time between coffee and lunch, but time between now and death.

Machines can be such drama queens.

Machines trying and failing to change people is also a favourite topic of sci fi movies like Terminator and the Matrix. In both of those movies machines take over the world, but a crack team of plucky humans shows them what wetware is really worth. Even though these survivors’ civilization is ruined, they still have the will to fight and preserve their humanity. The moral of the story is kind of like a suburbanite Braveheart’s battle cry: “You can take our strip malls, but you’ll never take our freedom.” It’s really touching. And wrong.

The machines in these movies do change people profoundly. The change is in how people think about themselves and each other. When people think about themselves before the machines take over, it’s about how to improve their image or what mental illness they might have to justify taking which pill; when they think about each other, it’s as bosses or customers or dangerous foreigners or stupid celebrities or whatever. After the machines take over, people see themselves as parts of something really important, like the future of humanity, and they see each other as teammates in that struggle. That’s touching. More obviously, it changes what they do and can do on a day-to-day basis. Because they’re starving, they eat rats and amino acid concentrates and are thankful for it. Because they’re part of something more important, they don’t care about labels on jeans or whether di Caprio has bagged more supermodels than Timberlake. They go from advertising zombies to sewer rats, but that still feels like an improvement. Because their world has changed, they change how they see themselves and do different things because the people they have become must do different things. Nobody wants to see a movie where the characters don’t change, so the Braveheart business is totally off: the characters change a lot, and that’s what’s touching.

Even if machines like Iphones aren’t changing the structure of our brains (and how would they in such a short time?), they are changing us just like the terminators and the matrix did: by changing how we see ourselves. Except they’re making us more like them, not more like what we want to be.

No wait. It gets better, by which I mean worse.

What the hell does that mean? Let me tell you a story. Little know fact about Guy Fox: my main gig is living as a crotchety old hermit with a donkey, a few sheep and goats, and a still up in the Carpathians, hiding from modernity and throwing plastic bags full of ruminant dung at anyone who comes to close to my shack – be warned. It’s a great gig, but it doesn’t cover the broadband connection, so I occasionally teach Feng Shui for the Home Fishbowl, Freestyle Rapping in Ancient Aramaic and Acrobatic Knitting down at the local Transylvanian community college to pay for the little necessities I can’t live without or make, like toothpick umbrellas and good, waxed playing cards.

The bigwigs at the college recently got access to a new gadget they want us, the faculty, to try out. The new tech consists of an app that the students can download onto their tablets, smartphones, or laptops, and it’s supposed to work like the ask the audience part of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The students install the app, and then we instructors can build multiple choice or yes/no questions into the lessons, and the students can then give instant answers, and we all get to see the results projected onto the screen in real time. It should work something like this:


1. If chi flows in the door and out the window, does that refer to the door and window of the fishbowl or the little plastic castle?

a) fishbowl

b) castle

c) window vs. door on a fishbowl? Wait what?

d) any attempt to channel chi on this transitory plane of existence can only amplify the suffering of the yearning soul.

And then the answers roll in and then something like this pops up on the screen:



This is a terrible, asinine idea, and I tried to explain why at the staff meeting where they introduced this nonsense to us. How do you prove to a bunch of flatulent, disinterested college administrators that their newest toy is stupid? Protip: irony won’t work. To show them that this was superfluous, I asked everyone in the room to raise their hands if they wanted to try it. About 2/3 of the hands go up, I get a bag of goat poo ready and continue: “Now raise your hand if you think this is a stupid idea.” Only our 112 year old professor of harpsichord symphonics raised his hand, but he’s deaf anyway. Finally: “And now raise your hand if you want to see it in action first.” The last 1/3 of the hands go up. Now I just raised my stretched my arms out like I had just invented the lightbulb and said “ta da!”. They didn’t get it, although I’m sure you have. My point, clearly, was that we already have the technology to sound out the distribution of opinion in a room. It doesn’t need recharging and it never gets lost, because it’s attached to your —-ing arm. If you want to get really fancy and high tech – or just secret – you can copy the tricked out ancient Greek system of coloured freaking balls.

They didn’t want to believe that this system is superfluous and wasteful, so I didn’t bother to push the point. But it gets worse. Much worse. It’s not just superfluous, it’s also evil. Let’s take it from the top.

The first and obvious reason this is terrible is the way that it excludes some students and puts all of them under pressure to consume. What about the poor kids who don’t have the gadgets? They don’t count? Your participation in this phony classroom democracy depends on your ability to keep up with the Joneses? No thanks. There was also a very clever and slightly creepy tweet I read a few months ago (sorry, can’t remember who) along the lines of “Sometimes I think all the QR codes pasted everywhere are just there to make you think you need to buy a smartphone.” And that’s an interesting, if slightly scary, idea. What seems like a useful function is actually an advertisement for the product with that function. It’s just like malls having child care rooms to encourage their parents to hang around more and buy more stuff. So what business does our humble little continuing ed faculty have acting like a bunch of smartphone pushers? If you don’t have one, you’re not a complete member of our little group, and if that’s not clear enough, here’s a totally useless exercise that you can’t participate in unless you have the gadget.

Neither did Da Vinci. No grow up and make yourself useful.

But it gets even worse still. Remember how the machines in the sci fi movies changed the characters by making them think differently about themselves and each other? Well, what kind of image do you have to have of your students – or are they clients, or customers? – in order for this format to make sense?

One of the oldest clichés in the education biz is that you’re not supposed to teach students what to think but how to think, and it means that the point is to teach people to figure stuff out on their own, how to find answers, not just telling them what the answers are. This voting system will do exactly the opposite. Instead of posing a question, taking it apart, and finding some kind of sensible answer – or even just the problems with the question – this system presents people with a menu of possible answers. It closes the world by closing the range of possible futures. Imagine an instructor asks a simple question that you can google in a second: Who won World War II? And you’re faced with a) the Axis or b) the Allies. The awesomest and only correct answer isn’t even available, and of course it is c) nobody. So this technology doesn’t just assume everyone is a consumer of electronics and compel the luddites to join the club, it also assumes that all the questions are posed properly, that the instructor even knows the right answer, that recognizing the right answer is more important than learning how to find it, and worst of all, that there is a fixed range of answers and everyone should have to choose from that list.

Hmm, for next week’s lecture: “Why should you buy my ebook and app?: A) because I’ll fail you if you don’t or B) because you won’t pass unless you do.”

The whole idea behind this technology is that it will make students active learners, but instead, it turns them into passive zombies taking in whatever images appear on the screen. The image that it has of people is one of pure consumers. It should be possible to make your own answers, but this system makes you choose from among this season’s catalogue. I hope you can afford a decent model. And the people running the institution already have this image of their students. Learning how to knit while executing a double-backflip on the trampoline and reciting Proust because that’s how you choose to define yourself in the world is inadmissible. You can be an A, a B, a C, or a D. Why? Because that’s all the technology allows, and the people in power prefer dealing with the technology to dealing with you.

Think about this for a few minutes, and plenty of other examples will jump out at you. Why does the US have only two parties? Well, part of the reason is that they need to communicate via TV, which is really expensive so everybody needs to pool their money or they won’t stand a chance. And this doesn’t change people, but it changes how they see the world so that a third party seems totally weird – like a three-wheeled car or something. Angry people in poor countries are a problem, but once you have a drone that can kill them without attracting too much attention, those problems magically become targets. The person, in terms of physiology, is just the same as it was before and just the same as any of us, but the technology gives you a magical line to divide the saved from the damned. And in both cases, the people with the power are already convinced that this is the best way to do things. They have already decided that, if faced with the choice between what people could be and what the machines need them to be, they’ll go with the machines.

“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.” – Model T-1.1 (aka Dostoyevsky)

The war is over. The machines have already won.

*More on why this is hard but helpful in a future post. I got ideas for as long as you got eyeballs.


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6 Responses

  1. Chandra2013-02-22 @ 05:06

    Good stuff. I was considering getting rid of my eyeballs, but if I need them to see your ideas, I guess I’ll keep them.

  2. I love humans.

  3. This is really good, but I think your insight about how the school doesn’t want to deal with kids and rather deal with machines, has covered up an insignificant but interesting question. Why this shift to technology, truly? The first reading would be that schools now have a need to show for their ‘progress’, they have to show to people that they’re not just earning money as the education bubble does the work, from the administrative aspect of the school, this need to advance comes up with ideas like these. This might be also why your appeal to them didn’t work, you’re not seeing their point, even though your own point is really insightful.

  4. Thanks.

    Why this shift to technology, truly?

    That question is not all that insignificant, and you can look at it at two levels. At the micro/school/individual level, the problem is largely a fear of falling behind. Many are concerned that the bottom will drop out of their business model before their stint in tenure, which they thought would last forever, ends. This specific technology allows them to seem like they’re changing and keeping up without actually having to think about what kind of change would be appropriate and effecting it and sucking at first and improving slowly. As an added bonus, they’ll also be able to say they tried everything (i.e. one useless thing) when it does fail and they’re pleading for more cash.
    Another micro reason is, perversely, to spend money. A lot of public institutions and private institutions with public money can’t roll over their budgets from year to year, so any money you don’t spend this year is not available next year; it’s just gone. This has two worrisome effects from the administrators’ perspective. First, if there’s anything they might want in the future, they’ll have to fight for extra money for it in the future, which they could save themselves with a current budget surplus. Second, if the budget gets cut, the cut is measured only relative to what they spent ex post, not what they budgeted for ex ante. So if they have a 4% surplus and don’t spend it, a future budget cut of 1% of the spent amount only looks like 1%, not like 5% off the budgeted amount. A 1% budget cut is not enough to motivate people, but you can get profs and students riled about 5%. Spending money improves the rhetoric they can use in budget negotiations. And that’s tax money that cleaning ladies and garbage men earn. Yes, this happens.
    The macro reason can also have a lot to do with supply. This can work through the good ol’ boy network, where a distantly partnered institution developed the tech (as in our case) and gets help promoting it throughout the network to help the impression of their ‘impact’ (e.g. they can later say “XX% of schools in the region are now using Vote-tronic!”, and those schools might get a discount). It can also work at a purely aspirational/consumption zombie level. Why does anybody have a tablet or a Segway? These are utterly useless gadgets. But if people like professors and administrators can be suckered into buying useless crap from the Sharper Image in their free time, what’s gonna immunize them at work? If somebody, anybody, can convince them that this is what modern, forward-thinking people do, and they want to think of themselves as modern and forward-thinking, then they’re gonna wanna do it. Never forget that universities are full of people who spend so much time reading books that they never actually pause to think (and a few thoughtful people too, but most of the thoughtful ones have already moved to shacks up in the hills).

  5. Bookworm2013-02-25 @ 20:06

    Spot on, all the way down the line. As a retired community college IT staff member and computer faculty member, I was always dismayed at how often technology was used when it was unnecessary, almost as if it was just to show they could do it. It’s so much easier to get the staff to install the gadgets and software than to do the lecture prep yourself.

    And your answer to the comment about the reason for the shift is correct, too. Much better to spend the remaining budget money on frivolous things so your budget won’t be cut next year, even though that money is needed elsewhere. If you don’t, when you need more next year or the year after, you won’t be able to get it. Been there, done that, both ways!

  6. Never forget that universities are full of people who spend so much time reading books that they never actually pause to think (and a few thoughtful people too, but most of the thoughtful ones have already moved to shacks up in the hills).


    Little know fact about Guy Fox: my main gig is living as a crotchety old hermit with a donkey, a few sheep and goats, and a still up in the Carpathians.

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