This week I am teaching disruptive innovation in Japan. I am a regular visitor here and the highly disciplined society continues to fascinate me. Technology seems to play an important role in creating this social order.
While discussing the digital transformation with the students, I realized that we should stop “blaming” tech. And when I say tech, I mean tech in the broadest sense (automation, social media, “Big Tech”, etc.).
We see this blaming everywhere:
“Automation is destroying jobs and we don’t always know the consequences of developing intelligent machines.”
“Social media is addictive and damaging our social relationships.”
“Big Tech companies are intruding on our privacy, abuse workers and have too much power.”
“It has become too difficult to understand algorithms of artificial neural networks, making them a potential threat to humanity.”
Of course, the students can see the downside of the technological developments. But they tend to focus on the upside. Particularly, those from emerging economies. They see the benefits of “leapfrogging.” They see the urgency of using tech to change the world (creating jobs, equality, health, a better environment).
And all the students realize that these technologies are not going to disappear. They know that the opportunities of the current technological revolution are unique.
Nevertheless, there is still a lot of negativity.
So, why do we see so much negativity about current developments in tech?
In short, because the current technological change is just so all-encompassing and threatening. Such change only happens once every few centuries. Everything is challenged and the “foundations” of our society are being corroded.
But isn’t it better to embrace the opportunity to re-think the basic building blocks of our world?
This is obviously a difficult question, and it is hard to know where to start. As always, the answer is to begin with education.
The “Black Box” of Technology
In general, educators — of all levels — are responsible for preserving “old world” thinking and feeding a negative attitude towards technology.
Let me explain why.
In education, tech and tech companies are usually perceived as “Black Boxes” interfering with our lives. Some educators even ignore the digital transformation and pretend it isn’t happening or important. Others (often the more innovative ones) try to fit these Black Boxes in the world we know today. They try to squeeze the Black Box of tech into existing ways of thinking and doing things. They start discussions about giving human rights to robots or explain why Big Tech must be broken up or constrained by regulation.
An advantage of this approach is that it gives us the feeling that we remain in control of our world or society in which we assume that we know why things are happening a certain way.
Remember that educators often spent a lot of time studying, understanding, and conveying the dominant understandings of the world. The rules of the “game” are usually right there in front of us. But it takes a lot of effort to wade through all of that detail. When you study hard enough (what most educators do) you end up with a pretty good idea of how the inner workings of the “game” function.
We spend so much time as educators convincing ourselves that the world is like it has been taught to us. The world that we are teaching today.
And such world views are all consuming. Many people socialize and marry people in a similar walk of life. Doctors socialize with other doctors. Lawyers hang out with other lawyers. Mathematicians operate within their own “inner-circles.”
This trend often results in a “one-sided” view of the world that is rarely tolerant of alternative ways of looking at things.
Opening the Black Box
The digital transformation is everywhere, and it is hardly surprising that many of us are excited by the new opportunities that are created both for business and individuals. But many people are nervous or threatened about where tech is taking us.
So, what should we do?
First of all, we need to “open” the Black Box of technology. We need to understand the inner workings of the automated complex systems (platforms with all the relationships, artificial intelligence) and their applications.
We need to know how to design, use and re-design the technology to arrive at a desired destination.
Take a Japanese example. Pachinko. The Japanese pinball-like game involves a complicated and random system of metal balls falling over pegs. The player triggers the ball and an automated process takes over, eventually determining where the ball will land and whether it scores points for the player. Becoming skilled at pachinko entails learning as much as possible the inner workings of the game. It involves “steering” the system to your advantage.
Something similar needs to be done with technology — understanding and making it work to our advantage. Blaming is not the answer.
This means that we need to “re-humanize” tech by focusing on the design of technology and continuously reflecting on the inner-workings of technology. Also, we have to be more conscious about decisions when to give up our attempts to understand certain technologies, such as algorithms of artificial neural networks, and continue to treat them as a Black Box.
But this can only happen by rethinking education and focusing on multidisciplinary discussions, basic understanding of the technology, co-creation in class, innovation in class, moving away from only past-knowledge-based thinking, introduce skills-based thinking, and technological literacy.
I don’t say that technology is always “good” or “bad.” But I do know that it creates lots of fantastic opportunities. We need to open the “Black Box” and make people more literate. We need tech to make sense of the increasing data sets, stricter deadlines, and analytical processes that are just too rigorous to be conducted by traditional ways of working. We need to work together to build a new “Digital Mindset.”
This is what my experience in Japan this week has taught me.