Brave New (Writing) World: Technological Literacy

MacThe thing that’s always worried me about the creation of artificial intelligence is where the AIs will get their initial knowledge. I’m afraid they’ll learn about the world through the eyes of people who have very narrow vision.

It’s not the possibility of a Terminator-style future that worries me: I don’t expect heartless killing machines. I’m just afraid that some things I value are going to be left out.

Truth is, we don’t even have to take technology as far as artificial intelligence to run into this worry. We confront it every day of our high tech lives. Ever go into a store and been unable to buy something because it’s not in the computer, even though you found it on the shelf? In some stores, the data about the merchandise is more important than selling it to customers. There’s something wrong with that.

I’m not arguing for the Luddite approach; in fact, just the opposite: I’m in favor of all of us — not just the geeky types who love to write code — gaining a better understanding of our digital world. But one of the reasons to learn more about how your computer (or iPhone or other digital gadget) works is to make sure you — and not the gadgets — are running your life.

That is, we need to strike a balance. Jaron Lanier said this more eloquently than I in an essay in the New York Times Magazine a couple of weeks ago:

If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.

I like reading Lanier’s take on technology, because he has designed high tech systems and he understands what computers can and cannot do. And he thinks about these things deeply. Here’s something else he said in that article:

The artifacts of our past accomplishments can become so engrossing in digital form that it can be harder to notice all we don’t know and all we haven’t done. While technology has generally been the engine that propels us into unknowable changes, it might now lull us into hypnotic complacency.

He suggests using computers in the classroom to “design virtual spaceships” rather than to measure so damn much data about student performance. That’s using the tool for our own ends, instead of being at the mercy of it.

In the same issue of the magazine, another interesting thinker of the digital age, Kevin Kelly, provided some ideas on what technological literacy looks like. Here’s the item in his list that got to me:

Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.

On the one hand, I want to resist that. I just want a tool that works like I want it to work; I don’t want to spend time learning how to use it over and over again. On the other hand, in the study of Aikido, we talk a lot about beginner mind — that is, the open mind that approaches a problem without assuming that it already knows the solution. Approaching technology with beginner mind is starting to sound like a good idea to me.

Of course, you need to spend some time developing expertise before you can reach true beginner’s mind. Unless you have some idea of how technology works, you’re going to treat it as magic and assume you can’t control it.

Which brings me to one more article in that Times Magazine issue: a piece on how some journalism schools and journalists are advocating that future reporters learn to write code so that they can manipulate computers to get their information for them. That’s a new twist on investigative reporting.

I think there’s a lesson in there for all of us. Amazing gadgets hit the market every day, things that are really changing how we live. You can learn how to use them, learn how to make them do what you want to do, apply your imagination to them and go off in some direction no one ever intended.

Or you can just push the button and hope it works.

(I feel obliged to point out that the intended audience for this particular blog post is, uh, me.)

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Breaking WavesMy story “Emergency” is part of Breaking Waves, an anthology benefitting the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund. I also have two essays in the lastest Book View Cafe anthology, Brewing Fine Fiction.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are available on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s. The free, chapter-by-chapter version of Changeling starts here. And check out my stories in the Book View Cafe anthologies The Shadow Conspiracy, Rocket Boy and the Geek Girls, and Dragon Lords and Warrior Women.

You can also read my latest story — “Or We Will All Hang Separately” — on Futurismic.

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Brave New (Writing) World: Technological Literacy — 6 Comments

  1. Sometimes the store’s computer problems work in your favor. Once, oppressed by back-to-back weddings, I bought -two- sets of Le Creuset enameled cast-iron cookware as gifts. As you know, Bob, this is a munificent gift, but the price came up on the cash register fantastically low. I noted this must be an error, but the clerk maintained that The Computer Was Never Wrong. So I agreed with her, paid up, and hurried away clutching my bargains.

  2. Wait, there’s a journalism school that advocates hacking as a skill set? How forward thinking of them!

    And Brenda: I got one of my favoritest garments a good $50 below its tagged price because the computer insisted that that was the correct price. I understand that the rank and file has no authority to fix these things; it certainly worked to my advantage.

  3. The J-schools advocating hacking include NYU and Columbia. Things might be looking up for journalism.

    And while it’s nice to get a bargain because someone entered the computer price wrong, the reverse also happens. In my case, I found the perfect length of short hose for my tiny front yard garden in DC, but they wouldn’t sell it to me because it wasn’t in the system. That was Hechingers, which soon thereafter went out of business. Any retail store should have someone available to make judgment calls on things that aren’t in the system properly.

  4. Interesting thoughts, as always Nancy! I also worry about where AI will get it’s first imprints. Two possibilities are the folks in power (i/e/ politicians) which is a frightening thought, or folks in one narrow branch of the academy, which is an equally frightening thought.

  5. Two scary options, Diane. Right now, though, I’m getting highly annoyed at Microsoft’s nanny state technology, which encourages me to use their automated updates even though I can’t tell what they do. I’m also finding it difficult to set up my computer to work the way I want it to, partly because I don’t know enough and partly because the people who designed it think they know better than I do how it should work. All this troubles me, and the only solution I can think of is more tech education for all of us. Especially me!