First Boxmind Debate
at the Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London
11 October 2001

Will technology solve the problems of education
in the 21st century?

A few million years ago our ancestors let loose a new evolutionary process when they first discovered how to imitate each other. Once they could copy habits, skills and ways of doing things from person to person these memes began to compete and evolve – leading ultimately to the creation of culture. And it is, after all, because of culture that we need education. Cats and blackbirds do not have “problems of education”.

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

Some people still seem to think that because we built the hardware and designed the software for the world wide web, it is there for our benefit and is under our control. Not true. Certainly some of it benefits lots of people, but much of the material is misleading or positively harmful, and cyberspace is awash with viruses and junk. As for controlling it, no one alive today even knows how big the www is, let alone where everything is stored, and it is growing by the day, the hour and the second. And no one could destroy every single computer and phone line. This genie is well and truly out of its bottle for ever.

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

That much is close to being available already, but now imagine another development – not feasible at all at the moment but perhaps not impossible – a technology such that if you could think a question clearly enough in your own mind the answer would be retrieved and fed straight to you. It would just mysteriously pop into your mind in the way that answers from your own memory do normally. Now the whole of the web would seem to be part of your own mind. As it would also seem to be for everyone else. What would it mean to educate someone in such a world?

On the darker side, what will be the role of humans if the system becomes self repairing, and self maintaining? Today we are needed to maintain the hard ware and provide the motivation for the whole system but this need not always be so. 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 any person even knowing about it? In any of these cases, 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.