I have often said, and have occasionally written, that we have too much education in the modern world. But I have never been sure how much I mean it.
Looked at from the point of view of the effect of education on the world’s population, the statement is obvious nonsense. In that part of the world where people do not even have access to clean water to drink, or electric light to read by, or even to the basic opportunity of learning to read and write, education is the key to improving the lives of millions, one could say billions, of people. I would never have the nerve to stand on one of those immense trash heaps that surround so many third world cities, where people actually live and scrabble out a living by desperately recycling useful items that have been thrown away by those who are better off, and tell one of the army of children whose world is limited to that trash heap, that the world has too much education.
From another aspect, however, the statement makes obvious common sense: we have such a vast amount of information at our fingertips, a collection of knowledge that is growing exponentially every year, that it is obvious we have more knowledge than we know how to control so that it should benefit every person on earth.
Put it another way: we can explore the far reaches of space, land men on the moon, and perform other miracles of only marginal use to human kind, spending untold gazillions of dollars on these projects, while at the same time we cannot find the way to make sure every person has enough to eat, and that is true, even though we are able to grow enough food for everybody. We simply fall short of getting it to those who need it. This is not only appalling: it is obscene, immoral, disgusting and infuriating.
One of the problems is the intense specialization that has gone into the development of this knowledge. Some of our biggest brains pursue knotty problems the solution to which could create chaos, or even disaster, to our social system, and they do so simply because they are fascinated by the intellectual problem before them, and really don’t care about their effects, were they to succeed. I remember one occasion on which I was researching a film on the subject of the biology of aging, which required me to talk to some of the world’s greatest experts in the field. One of these top experts told me when I visited his lab in San Francisco that “if I were to walk out of my lab holding up a test tube that I said contained the solution to the problem, any sensible person would smash the tube to the ground.” He knew that his work might conceivably allow everyone to live until 125 or even 150, but the impact of that on society would have to be someone else’s concern.
In the last few months there has been a veritable outburst of concern in the public prints, warning against some of the bad effects of the sort of technology that everyone believes has immeasurably improved our lives. For example, the first smartphone was introduced ten years ago, a phone that can take pictures, record and send written messages, store whole books and thousands of pictures and tunes, can do everything, it seems, but sing and dance, and is so widely available that already medical and educational specialists, not to mention the technologists who have driven these developments, have become concerned about addiction to the phone, among children as among adults, that has become a real problem. “The dopamine-driven feedback loops we have created are destroying how society works,” says one former executive. And another says that the Facebook platform “literally changes your relationship with society, and with each other….only God knows what it is doing to our children’s brains.” The Internet is laden with sites explaining how Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had limited their children’s access to this gadgetry that they have invented. And a columnist has recorded her surprise when she saw that in the home of Jim Balsillie, inventor of Blackberry, none of the gadgetry she expected was to be seen. He didn’t want his kids to over-indulge. The case against all this fancy technology was summarized in one column recently in The Guardian thus: “We now know --- don’t we? --- that the person who begins most social encounters by putting their phone on the table is either an addict or an idiot.” We certainly all know how the ever-present cell phone has changed manners by constantly interrupting conversations.
I live in a high-rise apartment in Montreal, and I take the elevator every day with young men and women whose attention when they enter is invariably concentrated on their cell phones. I often think I would like to ask them exactly what they are doing on their phone, are they talking to somebody, are they texting, are they doing research, are they looking for somebody’s number, or are they just pretending as a means of discouraging conversation in the elevator? But I am too polite, or reticent, to have bothered them.
In Canada we had plenty of advance warning of these problems. I remember that the highly esteemed anthropologist and archaeologist Professor Bruce Trigger, gave a lecture on Archaeology and the Future around 1985 in which he classified the most recent archaeological era as one in which technology is running out of control of the human beings who have invented it, and getting it under control was going to be the number one problem for society in the coming generations.
He suggested we do not have the tools needed to carry out this task, that the nation state is too limited in scope, and broader planning would be needed involving world-wide collaboration on over-arching problems that were presently beyond solution.
Later, he wrote s book called Sociocultural Evolution, a concept that had fallen into disrepute because for many decades it had been used to propagate racist ideas. Trigger’s background freed him of any such suspicion, his master work Children of Aataentsic, a history of the Huron people until 1660, probably one of the greatest books ever written by a Canadian, having established his belief that different societies might be at different stages of development, but that does not mean one is superior to the other. In fact, he argued that the Huron society was quite sophisticated, conducted embassies and contacts with surrounding peoples and in addition ran a huge trading network that covered the eastern seaboard. It was the proselytizing of the Jesuits, bringing a new guilt-ridden religion, that caused so much confusion among the Huron that when attacked in 1640 by the Iroquois --- only twenty years after the arrival among them of the Jesuits --- they collapsed and disbursed across the continent.
In this book Trigger attacked the faith right-wing economists have in the invisible hand of the free market, since, he said, there is no force out there to ensure that everything will turn out all right in the end. We have to be collectively responsible for our own future.
"Technology is morally neutral," writes Trigger. "It's what you do with it that counts. Technology can help cure diseases and it can lead to weapons of mass destruction. Thousands of years ago, if somebody built a better spear, the implications weren't that large. We can't afford to make mistakes anymore -- the technologies today are just too powerful. Look at Chernobyl -- that affected thousands of lives.”
I got to know Bruce Trigger quite well after an article I wrote about Children of Aataentsic managed to get the book re-published and back into bookshops. I was in awe of his intellectual power: his books normally contained at least 800 references and he gave every evidence of having read them all. For me, he was the very image of the scholar, the man of knowledge. He wrote more than 20 books, including several major works, he took up the struggle for the indigenous people on many issues, and before he died he was recognized in the archaeological profession as the world’s greatest expert on the history of archaeology. After studying in Yale university, the world was his oyster, but against the advice of his American colleagues, he took a position at McGill university, where he stayed until his death in 2006.