It Does Not Compute

Like many large ideas that once had meaning, the term “paradigm shift” has been trivialized to mean any time a group of people change their outlook about something. But as originated in Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution, it actually is a powerful concept. Kuhn demonstrates how the shift from an Earth-centered to a sun-centered concept of the solar system not only revolutionized science, it also completely changed the ways humans perceived themselves and their relationships to the world. A paradigm, in this sense, enables us to filter our perceptions according to a rational-seeming model. It also influences our behavior. When it is challenged or destroyed, we have to rethink who we are.

On a slightly less complex level, we also organize our world experience with metaphorical constructs, depending on and influencing our behavior. If we think human society is a cesspool of sin, we act one way; if we see it as a cradle of civilization, we act another way. For very complex manifestations like the brain, we rely on metaphors (think of them as mini-paradigms) as explanatory devices, even though they don’t actually explain anything, but instead simply give us something to visualize.

Here’s where it gets complicated: How we act as the result of our metaphorical constructs may be appropriate for the metaphor but not for the metaphor’s object. So, for example, with the rise of the idea that the brain is a “computer” we have created ways to treat it as such. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as computers have become more powerful and complex, the ways to test and collect data on students in every grade have become more complicated and intrusive. Our faith in and dependence on computers have lent credence to the metaphor that the brain is a computer, and therefore can be treated as one and in fact be thought of as separate from the body, a programmable thing that simply tells its holder what to do.

In his new book, You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who gave us the term “virtual reality,” rebels against the prevalence of the brain/computer metaphor because it threatens to dehumanize us. An excerpt in Harper’s this month starkly outlines the problem:

Information systems need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality. Demand more from information than it can give you and you end up with monstrous designs. Under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, U.S. teachers are forced to choose between teaching general knowledge and “teaching the test.” The best teachers are thereby disenfranchised by the improper use of educational-information systems.
What computerized analysis of all the country’s school tests has done to education is exactly what Facebook has done to friendships. In both cases, life is turned into a database. Both degradations are based on the same philosophical mistake, which is the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships.

Lanier’s description here can be seen as elasticizing the brain/computer metaphor: If the brain is a computer it should be easy to collect data from it; if that data is collected and analyzed, it distances us from the individuals we got it from, and enables us to see them not as individuals but as data points for the larger “computer” that uses them as data. While collections of data as well as metaphors can direct our behavior, they shave off the rough edges and anything that doesn’t fit. They are designed for generalities, not specifics. When we mistake the latter for the former, when we take the metaphor as reality, we can go seriously off course.

I’m spending time on this topic because more and more I see children treated like data in schools I visit and spend time in. Schools are oriented toward getting higher test scores, not better education (no, they are not the same thing…); they are forced to aspire toward artificial goals laid out by computerized systems that analyze and crunch numbers instead of genuinely reaching out to and helping the flesh-and-blood students in their classrooms. These imperatives suck all the pleasure out of attending school and out of teaching, for that matter. Even at small charter schools I work with, emphasis on score improvement seems to overshadow the possibilities of enjoying reading or math or history.

Upper and middle-class kids should not be the only ones getting real enrichment programs; their underserved counterparts should be getting them, too. If anything, underserved kids should get more of them because even though they have a lot of catching up to do, they have historically been deprived not only of educational opportunities, but also of ways to associate them with the genuine pleasure of reading something great or learning something wonderful. Thinking of students as little data points and their brains as little computers that just need “inputs” strips them of their essential humanity and renders their educations moot. They obey but do not learn; they accede to our demands but have no intellectual strength by which to make their own worlds richer. To substitute one metaphor for another, students should be seen as hungering for knowledge, not waiting for data. There’s a universe of difference.