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The Thoughtless Age

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We are living in a world of ever increasing automation. This isn`t to say that technology is becoming a more integral part of our lives - that would be a trite statement indeed. What it means is that we aren`t required to put as much thought into the every day tasks of life. Only a few decades ago the kettle would whistle when it was boiled - and if you didn`t answer its banshee screech the water within would soon become part of the atmosphere, boiled away to vapour! Now of course kettles have a thermostat, and will turn off the heating element once their contents have bubbled and roiled for a few seconds. There are even machines that will make the whole cup of tea, adding just enough milk and sugar to suit you. Perhaps soon the contraption will deign to drink the beverage as-well, and save you the trouble of all that sipping and swallowing. In our plastic-fantastic world of ready meals and microwave snacks the art of cooking is fading fast - why go to all the effort of preparing and combining numerous ingredients (some of which you might even have to seek out in different shops!) when you can just peel back the advertising membrane, pop the the whole thing in the machine, press a few buttons, twiddle a few knobs and voila! you have something masquerading as a meal. Best get it down your neck quick though, before the additives and preservatives start reacting with the air.

Soon there will be self driving cars - just open the door, get in and sit down, and tell the machine your destination. In moments you will become part of tributary system of other automobiles, all travelling in excess of 100 mph, each device only a short distance from its neighbour. A cattle parade of the future. Electric toothbrushes, robotic vacuum cleaners, dishwashing machines - It can all be done for us, no exertion is needed. Contractions of any major muscle groups will soon be a thing of the past. Our lives can be lived for us - and the machines are going to get them right.

Many job roles are being replaced by automatons of one sort or another. When self service checkouts were introduced into our supermarkets about a decade ago, people were amused. The consensus seemed to be that it was a mistake - that someone at head office had enjoyed an long and inebriating lunch, then issued a few drunken proclamations that were somehow taken seriously. `Customers scan their own products? Then they`ll be able to choose which ones they want to pay for!` seemed to be the popular thought at the time. Of course the insidious devices worked rather better than many hoped, and numerous jobs were replaced by these beeping, bagging area contraptions, all without protest: not a luddite in sight.

How far could the education sector be automated though? It seems too incredible to imagine an android at the end of a classroom, explaining the nuances of a shakespeare sonnet with a tinny, emotionless voice. This might be the wrong way to visualise things though - after all, the self service checkouts hardly fit the image of a robot, even though that is just what they are.

Just think what a learning resource something like Youtube is, how many major universities (including Harvard and Berkeley) upload and large amount of their lectures. A year ago my son expressed an interest in learning the guitar, and when it became obvious this interest wasn`t going to abate, wasn`t just another ephemeral passion like so many others (stamp collecting, painting, archeology) we purchased him an acoustic guitar. A few months later I heard my son listening to some fairly technical guitar playing in his room, and I paused to enjoy the music myself. I was reminded of my teenage years, how I was going to be the next Kurt Cobain, and change the world with the brilliance of my compositions. The music was good, obviously some `unplugged` album by a new performer whose name I would never have heard of, but was all the rage right now. Walking into my son`s room I was astonished to discover that he was the one playing. I asked him where he had learnt to play so well, how he had become so proficient in only a few months.

`On youtube dad - they have thousands of teachers. You just pick one you like, and work your way through their lessons.`

There are it seems lessons for almost anything on this most popular video sharing website. Those who malign it for being nothing but a juvenile repository for funny cat videos are quite significantly misjudging its encyclopaedic catalogue of more academic and useful information. I myself, not being particularly computer literate (perhaps it would be more accurate to say I don`t spend hours a day staring at a screen - the world is more engaging, more beautiful to me than anything the liquid crystal screen can conjure up) was ignorant as to the the full breadth and range of its resources. There are videos to help you learn how to juggle, to fix your car, to cultivate your garden to blooming success; to paint, to diagnose medical ailments, to write a novel; there are numerous and extremely edifying videos (I have begun using them) on cookery; and there are videos on learning the guitar - and just about every other instrument you can think of.

Though this repository of information would put the library of Alexandria to shame (and no fire can so easily destroy it) watching a video is not the same as getting a lesson from a teacher. The demarcation is perhaps not so clear though - if a teacher is simply speaking to the class, and not engaging with them, and not attending to each pupil`s needs, then they might not be providing a pupil with anything they can`t learn online. The great benefit of one to one tuition is that the teacher can give their full attention to just a single pupil - gauge their understanding of new concepts and techniques as the lesson progresses, and discern the specific points the pupil is struggling to comprehend. For the moment teachers are probably safe - there`s no `Robbie the Robot` coming to take their job any time soon. Things are changing fast though - only a few years ago the proposition of a self driving car would have seemed lubricous, something out of a science fiction film. Those just beginning their career as a cab driver may well find themselves supplanted by a self driving automobile (how apt the etymology of this word is becoming) well before they retire.

15 months ago
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