HEWN, No. 313

Pigeons and primates...

Kin and I stopped recording our weekly podcast over a year ago. I was in the middle of my Spencer Fellowship at Columbia’s J School, taking Sam Freedman’s infamous book writing seminar, and I just didn’t have time. I’d also grown so tired of the tech industry’s bullshit, so exhausted from listening to their bombastic promises (and then their empty apologies). Each week, each episode, I felt like I was repeating myself with some variation of “Facebook has done something terrible” or “Elon Musk said something ridiculous.” Again.

We’ve re-started the podcast. I know. I know. Everyone has a podcast. We’ve altered our format a little. We’ll record episodes every other week. Rather than just kvetch about the terribleness of the latest tech news, we are going to focus on some of the beliefs and stories that buttress the industry (and more broadly, a digital society). There’ll be some history. Some analysis. And some cussing. We’ll try to unwind some of these powerful narratives that many folks take on faith. Episode 79: “Software is Eating the World” (Or So Venture Capitalists Want You to Think. Next up: No, Technology Is Not Changing Faster Than It’s Ever Changed Before. Then: None of This Is Inevitable, No Matter What Gartner Tells You. Or something along those lines.

I am still trying to avoid as much of the (ed-) tech industry news as possible. But I did catch wind that Elon Musk is at it again, so just a few words on the latest from this techno-dystopian P. T. Barnum. On Tuesday night in an Internet livestream, he offered an update on his plans to connect people's brains to computers (and eventually, bring about human-to-human telepathy). He announced that Neurolink, a company in which he’s invested some $100 million, is ready to submit an application to the FDA and begin clinical trials on humans — hopefully next year, according to the marketing hoopla. The company, which has so far experimented on mice and monkeys, will seek volunteers — not “patients” as this seems to be much more a commercial endeavor than a therapeutic one — who’ll let Neurolink drill some holes in their skulls and insert threads into their brains which will pass data to an implant near their ear. I can’t really speak to the technology or the neuroscience — MIT Technology Review talked to others in the field about what problems Neurolink really has solved and whether this is actually a breakthrough (or just well funded PR). What caught my attention, no surprise, was the invocation of The Matrix and the claim that these sorts of computer-brain interfaces will be the future of learning. (I’ve written previously about this particular fantasy.) The company said that the surgery would be the kind of thing you’d “recommend to family and friends,” “basically an experience like getting Lasik” — a voluntary surgery that’ll cost you several thousand dollars. Even though Musk insists computer-brain implants won’t be mandatory, as he outlines his vision of the future, it seems they surely would be. Computer-enhanced human brains will be necessary in order for humans to keep up with artificial intelligence, he argues. You’ll need them for work; you’ll need them for play; you’ll need them to communicate. So, people will go into debt to obtain this cyborg enhancement, or they’ll be left out, left behind. “I think it’s safe to say you could repay the loan with superhuman intelligence,” Musk insists. “I think it’s a safe bet.”

Oh. Okay then.

Speaking of education technologies tested on primates in what I can only imagine as utterly terrifying scenarios...

I don’t have much to say about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission (although I did like this article by Alexis Madrigal because it gets to the heart of one of those cliches about technology that folks repeat without ever questioning). Me, I guess I’m just not as fascinated by space exploration as some folks. I don’t care how cool the math was; I can’t help but think of the costs of imperialism. Hearing and reading all the recollections this week have made me think of Gil Scott Heron’s poem “Whitey on the Moon.” It also made me think about a newspaper clipping that stopped me dead in my tracks as I poured through the papers in B. F. Skinner’s archives: “Teaching Machine Tutored ‘Ham’ For 5000-Mile Ride in Rocket.” Because when I think about Ham, the first hominid in space, I think of this picture:

I’d like to write something more about this some day, I think. The horrors of Ham. The horrors of education technology and education psychology. (The only thing I know of that’s been written on Ham is The Right Stuff. Ugh.)

Recommended reading:

This week’s pigeon is the Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative of the dodo. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,
~Audrey