The Tyrannous NOW
The Tyrannous NOW
“Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.”
T.S. Elliot Burnt
History is accelerating. Look where you will; in
many places there’ll be change. It won’t be linear or easily predictable. And
we are fragile.
At any point in time we have to try and orientate ourselves.
Where did we come from, where are we now, and where are we going?
And... what should we fear? (Often, our direction in life as
individuals, or as a society, is defined as much by what we’re running away
from as by what we’re running to).
These questions are as basic to our ability to make sense of
the world as knowing up from down. You cannot get out of bed without some kind
of answers, even if, for the moment, the destination is breakfast, and the fear
is no hot water.
Change is tricky for teachers, especially in regards to
- Technology is changing the fundamental
parameters of basic human dimensions such as privacy, community, identity. (NOT
that genetic human psychology is changing. Privacy has meant a lot of different
things throughout history. This is just another shift.)
- Teachers are supposed to help students understand
and navigate this changed world effectively, wisely.
- Ironically, younger people, our students, under
our care, are influenced in the most raw, unfiltered fashion by new technology,
without the picking, choosing, resisting, embracing that adults are more likely
to apply. We have guiding role we ought not to neglect.
The speed of change is so great that we are preparing
students for life in a world that does not even exist yet. We don’t know the
parameters of the world they’ll encounter as adults.
I have some thoughts about all this stuff. They’re
vignettes, I’m afraid. Here they are. Let me start with a report
by some latter-day Nostradamii (plural for 'prophet'?) from 1996. 12 long years ago...
(If you're tired... race down to "The View 12 Years From Now", because I'm going to look at the 1996 report in detail).
The View from 12
I find this so bizarre - a 328-page report published in 1996
from the Australian National Board of Employment, Training and Education
entitled “The Implications of Technology for Language Teaching”. At that time the Internet for the masses was
young and access was at dial-up speeds. The report had an impossible task at an
The report itself says “In 1996, commercial interest in the
Internet increased significantly. Where this will lead to is as yet unknown”
As I read I was keen to see how accurate the report was. If a dedicated team of professors, academics and experts can’t
accurately make sense of the future, then how can little ol’ me?
My students were in their first year of life back in 1996. Ancient history to me, but my students wouldn't remember it, and yet this report attempts to grapple with their very future.
The report gets some things right...
“even television could soon be accessed by a pocket sized
device able to link to local networks and the Internet”
Yup, I watch web TV on my mobile.
...especially when it deals with general principles rather
than future specifics...
continue to remain largely untouched by the transforming effects of technology,
but if it does, how relevant will it be to life outside of educational
An appropriate question for 2008 as for 1996.
...the report cites a study...
“there was a discrepancy between respondents’ interest in using technology in language
teaching and actual use, which was
still mainly restricted to distributive technologies.”
That sure hasn’t changed. The
Beyond Borders website I run has an attrition rate of about 90% to 95% of
teachers who register to participate but never follow through and actually
participate. I understand entirely. There’s a willingness but teachers are
exhausted of time and mental energy.
...the report topologises “Writing Tools”, “Tools for
Communication” and “Tools for Collaborative Work: those used for shared
Relevant, but broad categories. Of course, no
mention of the wiki!
The report is at its best when describing what was already
possible in 1996. These are bread and butter tools that existed in 1996 and
generally exist now: word processing, audio and video, email (slowly dying),
admin tools, etc. DVDs are on their way, including re-recordable ones, but no
mention of the USB drive or iPod.
references to technologies now defunct:
“[teachers using Macs
a HyperCard lesson that links a stack to segments on a CDROM and/or videodisk
or that integrates into the stack a segment of motion video;”
The report entirely
misses the read/write Internet that is spontaneously created, edited,
categorised, interpreted, mashed up, and re-layered by the masses:
tools] still require a high level of technical knowledge”
And although it
seems to pick up on some dynamics that dominate the Internet today...
provides a means for people with expertise to sell to bypass traditional
structures and negotiate directly with those seeking that expertise"
discusses web content-creation in business, rather than social terms. It cites
an astonishing proposal by a certain Robert Weber (1996) that I will quote at
“In a realistic
scenario ... the content creator places an article in HTML format in a
‘container’. He/she specifies usage rules (e.g. how much someone must pay when
he/she reads the article), stipulates conditions (e.g. the user may not print
the article), and specifies distribution rules (e.g. the publisher may or may
not add a markup). The publisher then specifies usage rules, may combine the
article with other value (e.g. a photograph) specifies distribution rules, and
places the modified ‘container’ on his/her Website. The user looks at a
publisher’s Website, selects the illustrated article, downloads the
article, and an application checks the user’s budget or credit card to see that
sufficient funds are available to purchase the item. The user opens and views
the item and pays via credit card, deposit account, or some other vehicle.
Usage and required payments are included in a secure database and reported periodically
to a financial clearinghouse. The financial clearinghouse disaggregates the
transaction and sends money due to the creator(s) and publisher.”
Or even worse:
“Alternatively, software may be available that will create a
hidden digital equivalent of a ‘watermark’ attached to a file, enabling
material providers to identify all users. ‘Anything that you do with a piece of
content’ will be traceable (Chronicle of Higher Education 22 March 1996,
Now, Digital Rights Management in general and the Sony
debacle come close to fulfilling this prophecy! But this is the old regime,
dying. The report could not have got it more wrong; in 2008 a defining characteristic
of the Internet its lack of control mechanisms. John Gilmore says “The Net
interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” The horse has well and truly bolted.
The report mentions the idea of volunteer teachers producing
comprehensive educational materials through a highly organised process. There
is a hint here of what is now happening, but no concept of what form it would
take (chaotic, grassroots, freely created and freely given away).
The report points out the problem with cataloguing and
searching the Internet, oblivious to both the coming powers of Google, and the
semantic web, and the fundamental distinction between content and classification.
I only saw this video very recently and it left me breathless:
The report did not, and could not, have predicted the Web
2.0 revolution; an unstoppable Internet dominated and authored by the proles!
The report DOES predict key technologies that have not eventuated.
Swathes of the report go into great
detail considering intelligent speech interaction with a computer. Speech
recognition was useless in 1996, utterly non-functional. Now, speech
recognition works extremely well, but is not intelligent. You can’t have an intelligible
conversation with a computer. The litmus test for this is called the “Turing
Test”. Read about it here, and then try chatting to a robot here. There is a video about Second Life bots being used to teach English here.
Technology is not about humans interacting with computers,
but humans with humans. The ‘machine’ is simply a tool for enhancing human to
The report is also rather distracted by virtual reality.
Remember when that was the new dream? Ah the days of Star Trek TNG and the
holodeck! Of course, Second Life is very popular, but it is not virtual
The utterly unpredictable.
The report is its most audacious, daring, and plain wrong
when it poetically presents a future scenario for 2001. Imagine this, 7 years
“Scenario 2001—Half a Day in a Life”
“Julie works from home as a counsellor. Some of her work is
done using communications technology and some through meetings with her
clients, depending on their preferences or needs.“
“On this Wednesday, Julie has just completed a lunch meeting
with a client that extended into mid afternoon. As she approaches the front
door of her house her image is scanned by a small video camera in the door. At
the same time, data is transferred between her watch band and a device in the
door that forms part of the household management system. At this point the
security component of that system has verified her identity and could open the
door for her, but Julie still likes to exercise personal control and has
instructed the system accordingly. ‘Open up Agatha’, she commands her home
system, which responds to her voice and opens the door, shutting it after her.
Why ‘Agatha’? Julie had an Aunt of that name who was always fussing after her,
but whom she liked. Agatha is really the entire set of home networked devices
with different functions distributed across the system. Agatha links to the
global Net when Julie’s requests need information or computational power beyond
that which the home units can provide.“
“Several of the items Julie wears function as networked
computers, linked to each other and to other devices in the house. They are
also able to act as interfaces to other computers throughout the city, giving
Julie access to networked services wherever she goes. At least one of her
personal items has a speech recognition capacity, linking to other systems to
perform natural language understanding and translation tasks. In Julie’s house there
are thin display screens in most of the rooms, varying in size from around that
of an A4 page to full wall width. Julie has what might once have been called
‘screen savers’ on these screens. Some appear as paintings, one displays moving
images of scenery from remote locations, acting as a form of video ‘window’. A
current weather satellite image of the state appears on a screen in the kitchen
and in a bedroom, a screen blends in with a wood panelled wall. The omnipresent
Agatha provides audio output from each screen appropriate to screen size,
location and the output it is instructed to display.”
Right, well it is a point of some pride to me that I have
very little faith in bureaucracy and in top-down solutions and control
mechanisms. So, I was gob-smacked that so much careful reflection and thought
and time and money had gone into this huge tome, and yet to my knowledge the
tome made no impact on language teaching in Australia.
The aim of the
report was modest:
that it will stimulate debate pointing the way to the answers to the hard
Who are the key stakeholders in the discourse
about language teaching and technology? The students and the teachers, and parents. Who out
of these are going to read a largely speculative 350 page report? THREE HUNDRED
AND FIFTY PAGES!?!?! Teachers already WANT to use technology, but are lacking
the time and mental energy. A 350-page report is hardly the way forward.
The report includes some primary research of Secondary and
Tertiary educators, although they had few responses because, again, the
teachers were too busy.
Anyway, the educators reported little use of technology for
THAT MUCH has changed little. The technological tools used
for navigating daily life are NOT the same tools that are generally used in the
To conclude: as a general principle, 350 page reports predicting 5 years into the future are a waste of time and money.
The View of 12 Years
Could I have done a better job than the 1996 report? No way!
I wouldn’t have accepted the job, because I have very little confidence in
anyone to predict the future.
I recently listened to the radio show The Conversation Hour with Richard Fidler. Sandy Teagle, Michael McCallum and Paul Higgins,
so-called ‘Futurists’ were the guests. They’re called “Futurists” but one of
the things they said was that you can’t predict the future very well at all:
“the ability to forecast is marginally better than
chimpanzees throwing darts at ideas”
He takes this from a study by Philip Tetlock, who speaks on
this topic for 50 minutes here:
So, I have no predictions for 12 years from now.
Story Mentality (Fear
And yet the future is everything. Where are we going? What
are we going to achieve and why is it a good thing? Why preferable to all the
other things we could achieve instead, such as a nice sleep-in?
I’ll never forget when SOMEONE, I don’t remember who, said
to me that everyone has basic anxieties, basic preoccupations:
- Who am I?
- Where did I come from?
- Where am I going? Why?
These questions and the answers we give them orientate us in
time. They connect the past to the present to the future. They are like a
compass. You can’t help having answers to these questions.
I want to add a fourth one:
- What must we avoid/fear?
Perhaps this is because fear is a great motivator? It brings
out the best in us? Shakes us from our complacency, forces us to be creative,
to change, to adapt? Yet I am cynical about the objects of our fear.
In my memory, these are the public objects of fear I have
grown up with and now live with:
- In the 1980s, nuclear war.
- In the early 1990s, I don’t remember what we
- Mid to late 1990s, the Y2K bug.
- 2000s Terrorism.
- Late 2000s, into 2010s, finally, after
percolating in the background for ages, global warming / unsustainable living.
I think that out of these, a nuclear war, and the damage to
our environment are the most rational, likely fears, and terrorism and the Y2K
bug the least rational.
What you fear tells you a lot about how you tell the story
of your life, the story of who you are.
Fear can misfire.
I question the fear of change.
History is Speeding Up
Population and technology, and the transformation of world
society, is changing at an exponential rate. In my 30 years I have seen phenomenal
change. The 15 years of history between me and my students is a long 15 years!
Mobile phones, the Internet, and microwave ovens...
A 1996 report had buckley’s chance of predicting 5 years
into the future.
The Human Race is
Smart. Very Smart.
We’ve all been educated about the geniuses of history. These
individuals were born with the right genetic strengths, and in the right
circumstances, and were brought up in the right way, and made the right
choices, so that they had a profoundly positive effect on the world around
them. They were ingenious, resourceful, and brought entirely new perspectives
to bear on and solve old problems. They improved the world, averted
catastrophe, united societies, demonstrated what was possible. The great
individuals of history have charted the boundaries of human excellence.
What I keep thinking is – we MUST have INNUMERABLE great
geniuses of history living amongst us now. We have
more people than ever, and we’re more educated than ever. Look at this video:
If our problems, such as the impending destruction of our
very environment, are bigger than ever, then we also have more of the best
people on the job to step up, lead, take charge, broadcast ideas, effectuate
The Internet provides a mechanism for human genius to be
identified and broadcast wide.
Compare this to the world before cars and before the
telephone. How quickly could ideas spread? How much impact could they have? How
quickly could that impact occur?
Ok, so of course I’m talking out of my bum here, but I can’t
stop thinking: we must be better placed than EVER to face the problems of today.
It’s All a Matter of Scale,
Everything I’m saying in this bitsy blog comes back to
perspective. Perspective on where we are, and where we’re going.
For instance, wealth. Go to http://www.globalrichlist.com/ and
type in your income. Yes, that’s right, you’re richer than at least 90% of the
world. It is an absurdity for people in Australia such as myself to have any
thought of being ‘poor’. If I earn $5,000 Australian a year I am still richer
than 85% of the world’s population.
I have mentioned this reality to quite a few friends now.
Almost universally, they have reacted with a very strong, determined
counter-argument as to why this is not a valid comparison.
They say “The costs of living in Australia are
incomparable to poorer countries. I’m paying a fortune for food, rent/mortgage,
insurance, education, clothes, petrol. Poorer people in poorer countries simply
do not have these expenses.”
Which is, of course, sheer blindness. Of course costs of
living are much more expensive in a country like Australia – that’s
what wealth is. Wealth is sealed roads, a local hospital and schools,
insurance, running water, a unit or house to live in, and choice, variety and
quality of food and clothes and entertainment.
But my compatriots are so used to thinking of themselves as
struggling financially that this becomes their framework for their perspective.
I tell myself routinely that I am one of the richest people
to have ever lived. This is a true perspective.
For instance, space/scale. Is the world huge? A tennis ball
is huge to a little bug. A little bug is infinitely huge compared to an atom.
An atom is infinitely huge compared to a quark. Our planet is enormous to us,
yet on galactic scales planets are infinitesimally small, and of course
galaxies are just like dust in the wind in the wide universe. And at every
level of scale the world looks entirely different. If you life your finger to
scratch your nose, incredibly fast and complicated things are occurring. Your
finger is a stellar vessel, going on an almost infinitely long voyage to your
nose, using the combined resources of millions of cells and chemical reacts and
We normally have no room for other perspectives of scale,
but they’re there. Look at this compilation:
We look at air as light and insubstantial. Yet planes stay
up when they fly through it.
So are you sure human beings are not slow, lumbering giants,
moving as slow as suns?
Or that we’re not mayflies, buzzing at a million miles an
hour, and burning brightly, and burning out in an instant?
We’re both and neither. In any case, our normal perspectives
are exceedingly arbitrary, tuned into one very particular frame in a universe
of many, many frames.
I think over-confidence in your own perspective is an
extremely dangerous thing.
The Internet allows the exchange of perspectives.
For some years I’ve worried that economics seems to be dissolving
community. Old over-arching structures for defining and bonding together human
community, such as religion or simply geographic locality, have lost strength,
and financial transactions remain as the universal connector between humans. It
doesn’t MATTER who you are if you have a dozen eggs and I want them, and you
want $5 and I have $5. Let’s swap.
The power of money has allowed staggering sophistication in
human achievement and cooperation, along with much injustice. I have grown up
during a time of ultra wealthiness and overconsumption in Australia. I consume
far too much. Consumption does not make one happy. The book Authentic
Happiness by Dr Martin Seligman cites numerous worldwide studies that show
correlation between wellbeing and a materialistic attitude. Wealth, in itself,
does not correlate either way with wellbeing (unless you’re in the poorest 20%
of the world’s population, in which case you’re miserable and that’s that). Wealth
However, belonging to
community, to family, to something bigger than yourself, correlates strongly
The Internet both trivialises community (via Facebook I can
fob off hundreds of old friends with the click of a button), and yet harnesses
community in a way that can transcend silly past distinctions that can set man
against man. It has developed a new kind of community, if you’re wealthy enough
to connect to the Internet. I think this is about 17% of the
For instance Wikipedia.
Or the Open Source movement, where armies of contributors
work for no $$ to create software that is free for the world to use.
Or the rise of the Creative Commons licensing, which releases
ANY content, poetry, music, film, for reuse by others.
The economics of copyright is thus being eroded.
People who give away their skills and creations, or
contribute to projects for no recompense may possible gain an economic benefit,
through an indirect chain of events, but their real pay-off is that traditional
of being part of a community. This may simply be the satisfaction of
knowing you gave something, or if you are not anonymous, the esteem of others.
This new community ethic is reversing the dominance of
economic principles. I think this is a great thing.
Information is Power
And power corrupts, in each and every case, without fail.
The key function of the Internet is to exchange information.
Often the information is trivial. Often the information is significant, yet
given away freely.
I think this is a great thing.
A Weak Attempt at
Tying it All Together
Humanity is in overdrive. Humanity is intensified. Humanity
is suffering, and soaring. A revolutionary way of harnessing human creativity
has come about in the Internet. It is democratic and beyond censorship. It
further facilitates the intensification of wide-scale behaviour, be it philanthropic
It prods us to be wary of the limitations of our perspective.
It provides a means for creating consensus without the clumsiness or distortions
of the media.
There is no knowing where it might lead.
Whatever we do with technology, as teachers, we’re
orientating students in a world defined by it.
True literacy for our youth must include Internet literacy.
Well, this post is not quite coherent. I will revise it once my mind is more coherent. In the meantime, I welcome your comments!
"Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present."
T.S. Elliot Burnt