Why I …

In October 2001

Susan Blackmore

In October 2001 I spoke for about 5 minutes in a debate on the future of electronic learning held at the Royal Institution. To my great surprise journalists started ringing me up wanting to know more. Since then I have discovered that rumour has gone around that I think the web is corrupting young children, that it’s bad for them, that it ruins their memory and worse. I do NOT think that. Here is what I really think. A slightly shorter version of this article was published in the Times Higher Education Supplement on 8.11.01

THES Soapbox.

Why I ….

… think the web will alter human evolution.

Will technology solve the problems of education in the 21st century? This was the question, and I had three minutes to answer it at this year’s First Boxmind Debate on Electronic Learning at the Royal Institution. Being fascinated with information technology, and inspired by the growth of the web, I jumped in with enthusiasm, little anticipating how I would be misunderstood. I said this.

A few million years ago our ancestors let loose a new evolutionary process. By learning to imitate each other they unwittingly created the first memes. Those memes – the habits, skills, songs and stories that they copied – began to compete and evolve, much as genes compete in biological evolution. The result was the creation of culture, and hence the need for education—for cultureless cats and canaries do not have “problems of education”.

In the past few years we have let loose another new evolutionary process – one that may prove as significant as the first. By joining together all those computers with phone lines, radio links and satellite systems, we have created a vast new space in which digitally encoded texts and images can compete to get copied and passed on. And the winners determine the shape of the whole system as it evolves.

Some people seem to think that because humans designed the world wide web, it is there for our benefit and is under our control. Not true. Certainly much of it benefits lots of people, but some memes are positively harmful, and cyberspace is awash with semi-autonomous crawlers, viruses and junk. As for controlling its uncentralised expansion, no one alive today even knows how big the web is, let alone what’s out there. It is only ten years old and is growing by the day, the hour, and the second. No one could destroy it without destroying almost every computer and phone line in the world. This genie is well and truly out of its bottle.

So what will it mean to be a human being growing up with this new evolving system? Think about this for example. At the moment you probably have a hard disk full of stuff you have collected or created, and might want again. This resource is precious to you. Indeed, in a sense, it is part of who you are. Now imagine you had such fast access that you could retrieve things as easily from the web as from your own hard disk. The whole of the web would seem as though it was right there in your own computer.

This much is already feasible, but now imagine another development – perhaps not impossible within ninety-nine years – a technology such that if you could think a question clearly enough in your mind the answer would go straight from the web to your brain. The experience would feel familiar, even though the underlying technology was novel—answers would just mysteriously pop into your mind the way answers from your own memory normally do. Now the whole of the web would seem to be part of your own mind, and it would seem that way to everyone else too. What would education be like in a world of such expanded minds?

On the darker side, what would happen to us if the whole system became self repairing and self maintaining?  We might not be needed any more, even as cyber-slaves to maintain the hardware and run the power stations. Or what if software agents out there started doing history or science or mathematics better and faster than human minds could do it, and there was knowledge evolving without human guidance? This would be a world intellectually richer than anything we can imagine today, but what kinds of creatures would we become? How would we educate our children emotionally and socially, as well as intellectually, in such a world?

My conclusion is that, far from solving the problems of education in the twenty first century, technology will utterly transform those problems – and in ways that no one can predict.

How on earth did this impassioned speculation end up as “Scientist claims Internet damages children’s learning”? I suppose this ‘disapproval of the Internet’ meme is a winner, whether it’s true or not. So let me be clear; it is not true. I think the web is a fantastic tool and a wonderful inspiration to us all. But while we use and enjoy our newly evolving creature, we must not underestimate its power and autonomy.