This week I was invited to partake in a panel discussion about positive and negative scenarios of digitization. Sadly we didn’t break new ground, but passed the time basking in cultural pessimism and the usual “web 2.0” chatter. Business as usual.
The conversation touched on many aspects of digital culture, including the impact of new technologies on the labor market. Algorithms are often better than humans at completing specific tasks; the result is a net loss in jobs. We talked about education as well. Many people lack basic digital skills: familiarity with online media, competency in privacy management, the ability to shop online, the whole nine yards. But almost nobody seemed to recognize that labor and education are inextricably linked.
There’s still a deeply entrenched belief that learning is done in school, not for life. But have high school or college graduates really finished their learning process when they receive their diplomas? Of course not. Learning continues after graduation, and it changes as media and technology change. Access to knowledge is organized and structured differently today than it was twenty years ago.
From the beer garden to the library
Despite my relatively young age, I can share a few stories to illustrate my point. In 1995 my mother typed the final copy of my high school research paper on our family’s electrical typewriter. In 1998 I enrolled for a study-abroad program in Rome by punching keys on an old Triumph Adler typewriter. As a college freshman in 1996 I researched potential sources for my papers by flipping through boxes of index cards. Years of use had rendered many of them greasy or mellow. Broken cards were fixed in an DIY manner with strips of scotch-tape. Years later I went to university in Munich for a doctorate. It was 2005, and the university library had transitioned to a digital catalogue. I could go online to check the availability of books and to recall borrowed books. Digitization cut my library time in half.
Much of the time thus gained was subsequently split between my desk and the local beer garden. But it’s ludicrous to blame the internet (as one of the panelists, a professor, did) for an alleged decline in students’ cognitive abilities. Students have always gotten drunk, regardless of whether they had to flip through index cards or could consult online catalogues. Many conversations in bars or beer gardens have culminated in (seemingly) world-changing ideas and have contributed to the maturing of generations of students. We don’t learn for school but for life.
This mantra is unequivocally true. It would be pathetic to claim that we simply accept our fate in stoic resignation once we have celebrated our twentieth birthday. It would be foolish to argue that the conditions of one’s life have all been pre-determined and must be accepted as natural facts.
Like any paradigm shift, the rise of digital technologies forces us to adopt a new focus and to assemble a new set of tools. Resistance to change is nothing but grease on the gears of cultural pessimism. And neither education nor work can be successful without cultivating a sense of curiosity.
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