The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 2, September 2001
Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability
University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia
Reviewed by Craig Machado
Norwalk Community College
Consider the following: (1) a college student spends over an hour looking for a journal on the internet. Exasperated, he asks a librarian who tells him the journal is on the shelves. Nonetheless, the student insists on finding it on line so he can print it out; (2) a software developer has created a computer simulation for school children based on the Oregon Trail. Students follow the pioneers west, decide what provisions they should put in their wagons, imagine hardships along the way and how to deal with them, etc. The simulation instructions, however, mention nothing about what really happened to the native peoples or the cultural assumptions that brought European settlers west; (3) a college professor develops a CD Rom to enhance a class on the work of detective writer Raymond Chandler, feeling that students lack the historical memory (and/or imagination) to conjure up their own images as they read. At various points in the texts considered they can clique and bring up photos of Los Angeles in the 40's, Veronica Lake look-alikes, car styles, snips of recorded dialog, even scenes from filmed versions of the novels.
In each of these examples computer technology has intervened in the learning environment, but with consequences overlooked by the users who labor under the "computer or perish" mantra. In the first scenario the student has been so sold on the virtues of on line documentation that he even refuses to check the text out of the library and/or work with it there. If it's not personally printable, the text must not be worth the trouble. He has succumbed to a technological imperative, according to writer C.A. Bowers, which has pushed educational institutions to spend billions of dollars unquestioningly on computer equipment as the only way of "securing the future."
In the second scenario, a computerized attempt to make the teaching of the history of "how the West was won" into a fun "learning" game gives neither the students (nor the teacher) a clue as to what the native peoples suffered, how their environment was irreparably harmed by the damning of rivers and the felling of vast forests in the Northwest. For Bowers, the computer is not a neutral tool but the digital legacy of the Industrial Revolution which has, in proselytizing the Western view of life, brought ecosystems to the point of failure, moved human capital to the cheapest and most exploitive of labor markets, disregarded non-Western cultural values as anti-progress.
In the third scenario, ordinary books are no longer good enough to capture the current generation's imagination. Instead they need (because the demand has been planted and hyped) "hyper-morphing"texts, computerized instructional programs, video and audio props- in short, a plethora of technological realia, - to render the act of reading worthwhile. The pleasure of reading and creating one's own meaning through and from shared cultural knowledge now needs a techno-fix to make literature more appealing because the writing itself can't.
Bowers has grown increasingly concerned, warning about " the proliferation of computer education courses that failed to engage issues surrounding the most dominant characteristic of the computer: It is a cultural mediating and thus transforming technology." Let Them Eat Data: How Computers Affect Education, Cultural Diversity and the Prospects of Ecological Sustainability is the most recent of several books he has written, doggedly critiquing the role of computer technology in education. He joins authors such as Lewis Mumford (one of the first to critically examine machine technology's impact on civilization in The Age of the Machine) and contemporaries like Theodore Rozak (The Cult of Information), Neil Postman (Technopoly), Sven Birkherts (The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in the Electronic Age)- all of whom have raised serious, thoughtful concerns about computerization and the fate of the world.
While perhaps striking some readers as a Luddite, Bowers is not anti-computer; however, he does feel passionately that the nature and scope of the computer revolution requires much more discussion than it is given. For example, how often (if ever) has there been a dialog over the amount of money schools spend on computers versus other needs? How seriously have educators engaged each other as to the proper instructional role of computers? Why don't colleges, for example, offer a course about the history of technology and its adverse effects and consider making it a requirement along with computer literacy?
Bowers says that we live in the age of "technological determinism," reinforced by the business and science communities and by a Western concept of the autonomous, self-referential individual who constructs his/her own meaning from the world rather than having it tested and molded in a "community of shared knowing." As he repeatedly insists, computers have helped accelerate the commodification of everything- from lifestyles to education- and perhaps, most alarmingly, fostered the notion that nature is just more abstracted data that humans can manipulate for their own ends, yet with increasingly destructive results worldwide.
As for scientists, since they play such a crucial role in promulgating computer technology, Bowers is especially unsparing: "Science can not provide the basis of moral values that should govern relationships within the cultural and natural commons." That basis, he says, must come from the culture/community (and local bioregion) through dialog, narrative, the lessons and visions of the past informing our decisions today. While science can be of help in reversing global warming, deforestation and air pollution, it must also recognize its complicity in the globalization of wasteful and destructive consumption patterns and actively work to reform its most cherished assumptions. One very sobering statistic he shares is that one North American requires 5.1 hectares of land to sustain his/her lifestyle and recycle the resulting wastes: someone from India needs only .4 hectares.
Let Them Eat Data is certainly a wake up call, not to completely derail the techno-train, but at least to get it onto a slower track where serious debate can begin about the role of computers in society and their affect on the environment. Bowers is a forceful, articulate advocate and the writing is accessible though at times repetitive. It's as if he needs to remind the reader from as many angles as possible about the lurking dangers in our technology. Given the computer juggernaut, will he get anyone to listen?