As all the kids should now be safely back in school (whether they like it or not), Google has launched a campaign to convince parents that a new Android-powered 7″ Nexus tablet is just the thing that will transform their shy child terrified of public speaking into a class orator with the confidence to chase that pretty girl in the front row.
Technology has been sold as the key to educational edge-cutting for quite some time, and Google is only the latest to try and talk parents into buying the newest and shiniest toys in an effort to give their children a leg-up in the school game. Much of that technology has been a genuine benefit, as those of us slightly numerically-impaired have been able to outsource heavy-duty number crunching to calculators, ensuring that we would be tested solely on our shaky grasp of the mathematical concepts, rather than our inconsistent adding.
But now that our experience with technology is moving from the straight outsourcing of routinized tasks to the obtaining of auto-retrieved results before we finish typing our first word, perhaps the time has come to wonder just how much of our everyday life is properly externalized. Our model for this discussion could be the widespread adoption of spell-check, and the ever-present little red squiggles that have leapt from Microsoft Word to our browsers and e-mail clients (Firefox is highlighting “leapt” as I finish this line).
When we are aware that our omni-present computers are monitoring what we write, and automatically correcting our slips, we needn’t self-monitor our writing quite so much. When we know that Google will auto-complete our search box with several approximations of what we really want, we needn’t stay in the habit of finishing a query, even in our head. All we have to do is start off in a direction, and Google will carry us the rest of the way, its algorithmic approximations getting us close enough to where we would want to be.
If this is the trend, however, as it certainly is, then perhaps purchasing one more avenue for Google Now to anticipate our every need is not educationally value-added. Perhaps, what our education system should be focused on is keeping our minds sharp and disciplined, preserving the powers of self-direction and careful attention.
Perhaps, what we need is poetry.
Far from being part of our cyborg life, where we make computers part of our minds by externalizing tasks to them, reading poetry is all analog. There are no shortcuts to take by scanning words, recognizing them by the first and last letters and assembling the meaning as you go. Poetry (and heavy-duty prose) requires careful attention to each word, each sound, each shape of a clause and its sentence.
Sounding out what we read, going only as quickly as the text will allow us, could be one of the last, best exercises for the fully human mind. Perhaps our schools, then, need less Samsung and more Shakespeare, less Verizon and more Virgil, less Droid and much more Dante.