By Ruhail Andrabi
The world is evolving continuously through technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, big data, new scientific discoveries in sciences, thereby taking away human jobs through intelligence machinations. This ballyhoo has made a dramatic shift in society from the pre-modern to the post-modern context. In between these two phases, we have not only witnessed radical changes in the fields of economy, politics, and education, but also in our understanding of different micro and macro components of the universe. These have been transformed through prodigious production of new epistemological binaries which have challenged the existing set of theories. As a result, a new paradigm shift is shaping our world through the birth of new technologies. The trajectory of human journey through the 21st century seems to be landing us in mini-planets governed by robots, machines and vibrant sensors deciding everything on behalf of us when we manipulate them through subtle movements of our body.
As we traverse the road of technology, our convictions, biases and prejudices also go through an evolution which set a new challenge to our thinking, and behavior. We are not only evolving into e-human beings who are contingent upon digital technology, our intersection with virtual technology is expanding the breadth of our digital footprints. What has brought such tremendous structural changes in the social institutions and human relationships is the fascinating mechanism known as the Internet. It has changed the world we live in, particularly the social landscape of education. What the internet is doing to our brains and how it is rewiring the topography of cerebrum, which is responsible for learning and cognition, have remained an intriguing question in the field of educational neuroscience and brain sciences.
Today’s classrooms are not only equipped with the latest interactive whiteboards, mobile devices and podcasts but also change the parameters of learning within the space of the classroom. When we look through an anthropological lens into today’s classrooms, we could re-theorize Thorndike, Hull, and Pavlov taking into the consideration a new variable – the Internet. It has penetrated the walls of the classroom and challenged the pedagogy of the teacher. In his groundbreaking book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr shows that the internet is successfully rewiring our brains, inducing a new understanding of the universe in creative ways. Decoding the concept of time and black hole on the Internet now seems to be as simple as doing a mathematical calculation on a calculator. Carr anticipates that the repercussions will surprise the cognitive scientists when the Internet completely penetrates every phase of human life. He further argues that there are profound changes in the way we live, communicate, remember, learn and socialize, including our conception of the social self.
This virtual giant (Internet) fosters both ignorance and restructures the paradigm of the social in many ways. The constant overuse of the Internet is a sign that it controls the way we ought to behave. This phenomenon could be associated with plasticity which denotes that we are being shaped and molded in a certain direction. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, a top researcher at Harvard Medical School, argues that our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behavior reworks the circuitry with each sensory input. The question arises: Do these virtual and tangible technological changes challenge the theoretical frameworks of contemporary sociologists like Weber and Durkheim who have sought to understand society in a particular way? Of course, yes. The emergence of new platforms constantly pushes human beings to adapt to new ways and devise diverse strategies to compete with new sensors which are well-equipped with divergent functions. Even the values currently shared, cherished and epitomized in virtual spaces recreate and refashion our societies within the social media landscape. What we are experiencing is the movement of the planet to a worldwide village, where we are just like international voters interconnected to every alternative through exciting artificial intelligence supported applications and social media islands that replace groups of people in writing, art, interaction, and intellectual professions. Imagine a situation where we are international voters with one country, one citizenship, and one flag. This is where technology might take this planet to in near future. The essential role played by virtual societies that function across web domains (like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram) is of inserting new non-material cultural components like social media imaginations, e-beliefs and e-norms, that are currently embedded across a range of social contexts through virtual emotions and e-social interactions.
While these unprecedented changes – what Alvin Toffler termed as ‘future shock’ – take place, we are going through a massive shift which is played out in a variety of contexts, especially in the field of education where it is going to challenge the anthropology of tomorrow’s classroom. The question is: Will the robots overtake the role of teachers or neutralize his/her position in the classroom? This nascent question seems to be generating a lot of debate within the world of academia. A new research has been exploring how robots as teachable agents will lead to widespread benefits in education and open new possibilities enabled by physical embodiment. What we might be experiencing is ‘power relations’ (in Michael Apple’s language) in the classroom in the way technology will create a new arena of contestation where the students will have freedom and ample opportunities to take the projects in their own hand, execute them in their own pace of learning, rather than relying on the orthodox aristocracy of teachers. In the conventional classroom where the teacher possesses a monopoly to transmit knowledge to their pupils, taking full control of the classroom, will be under the scanner now. The teacher has to compete now with the robots and enhance their expertise by installing new applications in their brain, updating themselves with world-class literature by uploading new virtual concepts, and making teaching more efficient by using a range of technological tools.
There is a concomitant challenge spun by the growth of new technologies in the field of education, which is the mushrooming of online courses offered by world class universities through virtual classrooms. Khan Academy is a leading example as it produces updated curricula content as frequently suggested by Bill Gates and Ken Robinson. The conventional teachers will have to face up to the challenge of their wards listening to a lecture from Chomsky on geopolitics on YouTube, learning things about poetry from a ‘master class’ with Laureate Billy Collins, discussing evolutionary psychology with Steven Pinker, and taking lessons on human intelligence from Howard Gardner in his online project zero lab. The Google assistants are already surfacing on the benches of the classrooms, making the students excited to visualize robots delivering a lecture on theoretical physics by problematizing the concept of quantum entanglement and cell biology with a major focus on cell signaling. This intersection of AI within the social landscape of the classroom will lead to an interface of technology with the human brain which Elon Musk is looking forward to executing in the upcoming years. The current changing paradigms of learning is going to challenge the current pedagogies that teachers continue to adopt in the Indian subcontinent.
Apart from the technological revolution, the contemporary classrooms continue to perpetuate more anxiety and oppression among students. Alvin Toffler in Future Shock argues that education today is a ‘hopeless anachronism’, that is, our education system is flawed, echoing the theory of Ken Robinson, who writes:
Most young people find school hard to use. Indeed, many young people find school a negative learning environment. Not only do schools fail to help students become competent in important life skills, they provide a warped image of learning as something that takes place only in schools, segregated from the real world, organized by disciplines and school bells, and assessed by multiple-choice, paper-and-pencil tests. (Ken Robinson, Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution that’s Transforming Education.)
Children are sent to schools like prisoners, as if criminals are being sent for punitive changes. They carry bags full of books inhuming complex content that they do not assimilate logically. Rather than boosting their intelligence and evoking their curiosity to cultivate an enthusiastic interest in learning things divergently, the schools manufacture them on completely different lines. Their behavior is controlled, reinforced, and regulated as if they are in a mental asylums, carrying a uniform and badge of alienation on their faces. In Foucauldian language, the schools discipline their bodies through stringent measures in which the classrooms exercise their power. As a result, the classroom negates the dialogic possibility. It does not create a mind that understands, relates or empathizes. Instead it creates a mind that is in war with itself and with others. The fourteen years of schooling make our minds exclusive, hierarchical, and casteist.
In many cases the teachers come with their own biases and prejudices that bring negative energy into the classroom. If these are the issues that currently emanate from the education system, then the question arises: Is Artificial Intelligence going to act as a messiah in tackling these problems? Technology has a sedating effect as well, that is, it delinks our consciousness from reality and traps us in an Orwellian world of dystopia, if technology is not used sensibly. During my conversation with JNU Professor of Sociology, Avijit Pathak, who claims that everything is becoming technocratic, I raised a question: What new elements can teachers offer in the classroom when technology takes over? He argues that the current times demand a redefinition of pedagogy as the classrooms become empty. Teachers need to ask critical questions to themselves as to how their teaching would be different from online learning. The fact that our life is now dictated by technocracy and the human embeddedness of relationships has diminished. What Pathak visualizes as the ugliest phase of technology is unfolding in the postmodern world where a school boy is seen all the time on the internet. He seems to have disassociated himself from reality of the world. The case of an eighteen-year-old Bangalore girl struggling with the ‘perfection syndrome’ is a relevant example. She used to take around hundred selfies every day until she was diagnosed with neurosis. When we try to understand these phenomena through an anthropological eye, we see how our minds have been colonized by digital technology. Can teachers play a critical role with human creativity that will shatter the seductive and hypnotizing robotic surveillance?
Ruhail Andrabi is currently a Junior Research Fellow based in New Delhi. His writings have appeared in Caravan, Frontier Post and Two Circles. His forthcoming poem “I’m a butterfly” is to be published by HarperCollins India. His work focuses on the relationship between resistance and youth politics in postcolonial societies with a special focus on issues of citizenship, identity and gender/sexuality.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City and India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.