Digital Wisdom, Digital Education, Digital Exhaustion

Digital technology, I believe, can be used to make us not just smarter but truly wiser. Digital wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities. Because of technology, wisdom seekers in the future will benefit from unprecedented, instant access to ongoing worldwide discussions, all of recorded history, everything ever written, massive libraries of case studies and collected data, and highly realistic simulated experiences equivalent to years or even centuries of actual experience. How and how much they make use of these resources, how they filter through them to find what they need, and how technology aids them will certainly play an important role in determining the wisdom of their decisions and judgments. Technology alone will not replace intuition, good judgment, problem-solving abilities, and a clear moral compass. But in an unimaginably complex future, the digitally unenhanced person, however wise, will not be able to access the tools of wisdom that will be available to even the least wise digitally enhanced human.

H. Sapiens Digital:From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom, Marc Prensky

I don’t mean to be glib or anything, and I certainly like the idea of promoting wisdom over “mere cleverness” as Prensky suggests, but this piece makes me tired. There are lots of good ideas here, but it’s the Utopian vision of an ambitious professional more than a near-future prognosis.

One way to get at what I mean is to think about the “we” that Prensky uses throughout the essay. It’s certainly true that cell phones and notebook computers extend our cognitive abilities in a helpful way. Everything he says “we” will do or will need to do, however, is dependent on higher education.

Prensky wants us to assume that access to these tools will be more or less universal. It’s easier to imagine a world in which the vast majority of people have very limited computers or cell phones (like the so-called $100 laptop or my TracFone) while a small minority use more sophisticated versions.

There are already two very different systems of health care in U.S., for example, and nothing inherent in the technology will ensure that there won’t be two (or more) Internets, one that works via a simple search interface (for example) and one that works through more complex information aggregation.

Technology can’t trump class. It’s no substitute for all the messy work necessary to make sure that a majority of people have the education they need to use the new tools. I think Prensky misses something else: we won’t just need the tools, we will need the tools to help us escape, if only for a moment, from the world.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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