The double-edged sword

Here are some recent headlines about Twitter, culled from the technology site slashdot:

What strikes me most about this collection of stories is how difficult it is to run a journalistic enterprise. Twitter, like any company, is fundamentally in the business of making money for its employees and stockholders, but I’m sure the Twitter brain trust believe they have a somewhat higher calling. Twitter is justifiably proud of its role in the Arab Spring and other revolts against oppression, but the dividing line is often a blurry and uncertain one. Do you let Thailand censor tweets in exchange for allowing the Thai people to use Twitter? Do you give a user’s tweets—all of them—to the US government just because it asks for them? After all, the courts have ruled that Twitter users have no expectation of privacy, thus there is nothing to keep secret. Not all questions have a right or wrong answer.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Ecclesiastes wrote “There is nothing new under the sun” and “There is a time for war, and a time for peace.” If Ecclesiastes were alive today, he’d probably nod and say it again. The technology has changed, but the human condition has not. The challenge is how we use our double-edged technology.

But is it education?

An interview with Bill Gates made headlines yesterday because he said that tablet computers in the classroom aren’t the solution: “Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record.” It’s a good read, although I confess my first reaction to the article was “Good grief, Bill Gates is looking OLD”. The comment feed on slashdot, where I first read about this, ran predictably along Gates-Jobs lines; we can wade into that swamp later.

And of course giving people devices isn’t the answer. The answer is education. Good teachers, paid well. More emphasis on science and math, way way less emphasis on standardized tests. In the 1960s the space race galvanized this country to excel in science, but that war is over and we have lost to China. Time to wake up and smell the reality, folks.

I really identified with the analysis of completion rates. University rankings have typically focused on whether or not the best and brightest attend, not on how well they do once they have students in place. In every society there will be over-achievers and really bright stars that succeed wildly regardless of what system they have to run through (or step outside, as in the case of Gates and Jobs). A more practical measurement is: What are we doing with everyone else? My evidence is anecdotal, but I see many college systems that create professional students, not educated and enabled adults; and I think the way we teach math and science in high school is the reason that we are so far behind in those fields. We make it a joyless slog…who wants to do that? And the culture of school is no help either. The closest analog we have to American high school is the American prison system. Sad state of affairs.

I think it’s funny that they decided to highlight device technology in their headline. Clearly, Bill falls into our camp: tablets are content consumption devices, PC’s are content creation devices. And that’s not the biggest part of it, as you so eloquently put, David.

By the way…reality smells like raspberries.