Technology Is the Magic That Changes Our Lives

Frank B. Withrow - The Dawn Patrol

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke, British science fiction author, 1917–2008.

What our children and we think of as common parts of our daily lives were once developed for other purposes. The good part of the human race has always sought ways to help the disabled among us lead more productive lives. The concept of IQs was developed as a way to better understand the mentally challenged among us. The typewriter was originally developed to assist Cerebral Palsied people write. Alexander Graham Bell was a teacher of deaf children when he developed the telephone. His wife, Mabel Hubbard Bell, a deaf woman, was a major funder of early aviation. She funded almost everyone that wanted to fly across the Atlantic Ocean with the exception of Charles Lindbergh.

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, as white-haired, white-bearded man.

In modern times Raymond Kurzweil developed OCRs in creating a reading machine for blind people. OCRs have opened up a wide range of new technological devices as well as given blind people unlimited access to the printed world. Ray Charles, an early user of his reading machine, said he could read his own mail and bills and not have to have another person read his most private correspondence.

Think for a moment of what it has meant to society when people have dreamed of things to make life better for the disabled. Without Alexander Graham Bell’s interest in the development of speech and language for deaf children, we would not have developed our magical communication system that today beings us information in full living color from around the world to our doorsteps. Yes, I know others were moving towards this same end, but I am pleased that these developers were concerned with the disabled.

It is informative to watch a six-year-old master a game on an iPad. She is essentially self-taught and quickly adapts to all of the requirements of the game and magic technology. But to her it isn’t magic. It is just one of the tools in her life, a tool she has grown accustomed to as part of her life. When VCRs first came out we, the older generation, had to find a ten year old to program them for us.

The new magic of today is the expected resource of tomorrow. Our children do not ask why. They just accept the magic of our technology as their right. They master it and use it to their advantage. Just as technologies often change the lives of disabled people, their magic changes the lives of average people. With games and information available at their fingertips, children explore the digital world. It is magic. What does it all mean? We will perhaps have a brighter self-taught generation. We, as their mentors, must be wise enough to guide them into a better tomorrow.

4 Responses

  1. As a member of the (much) older generation, I can relate because we of my age also had our technologies readily available that we took for granted while our forebears did not. I believe that the most important of these were the dial telephone, radio, and commercial aviation. By the time I could drive, the Interstate Highway system was largely complete and so were a myriad of freeways in the Los Angeles area where I grew up. Television had also become common by then, and computers made their way into schools.

    As a freshman college student, I had unlimited access to a computer with punched paper tape, a drum memory, and vacuum tubes. I jumped right in and learned to program without any training. These things (computers, television, commercial aviation, an interstate highway system) were magic to the previous generation but were just taken in stride by us. My father remembered the first radios, telephones, and airplanes as well as early automobiles. More magic.

    What does all of this mean to education? Television added to it but did not cause any fundamental change. When I was a high-school senior, I used to get up an hour early to watch Continental Classroom’s physics lecture series. I learned more from that than from my high-school physics class. This experience was a mere shadow of the future. But the future has yet to be fully realized for our children.

    Many articles here have sought explanations for that non-realization and have posited possible futures for technology in education. It’s a great discussion that I hope will be joined by many more people.

  2. In fact I am going to sing a song that no one wants to hear. There are people who are still outside of the dissemination of technology except by happenstance.

    The digital divide, the information divide , the technofluency of citizens is a problem. We do not have broadband everywhere, There are a great many citizens online, but there is a huge gap.

    The conversations going on online lack many of the people who should be sharing. I think it is as significant as separate but equal which was never the case.

    The telcos tell the tale that we are wired. In fact there is a great disparity .
    Even the Broadband map is not correct.

    I know that there are some solutions, but ? Do people care?
    M-Lab is one solution. But who knows about it ?

    • Thanks for the ref to M-Lab, Bonnie: of course its technical measurements of connectivity are needed. And you might be interested in a description of other factors involved in the digital divide in the “How Can the Web Accelerate Social and Economic Change?” conversation between Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Gordon Brown, moderated by Alberto Ibargüen (1).
      From the subtitled and hence transcribed version of the video (45:09 – 48:40):

      Ibargüen: And Tim, do you know, what is the difference in cost in setting up a regional broadband, versus a simpler text Web access kind of system? Is it that much harder to do?
      Berners-Lee: Well, yes.
      Ibargüen: and therefore, more expensive?
      Berners-Lee: it depends on exactly what kind of broadband you are talking about, and where you’re doing it, and which – and so on.
      (…) when we went to Uganda it was noticeable that we were looking at people who didn’t have any internet connectivity. But meanwhile my colleagues were tweeting about it. (…) So, there was signal. So in fact, 80% of the population have signal. So if you were there, if you went to visit them, you’d be able to tweet. So you’d be able to phone home, but they don’t make-
      So what – if 80% have signal and 20% use the web, so what’s the difference? If you like, the Web Foundation is looking at the difference. And the difference, in fact, can be quite complicated.
      So, and it’s not all access. Access to the internet is one thing. But of course, it’s also using the Web means that you’re going to be actually using Web pages, and hopefully even writing Web pages. So what’s the difference?
      There is in fact all kinds of different factors, which can come in, apart from just the connectivity. It can be that you’ve got signal, but you don’t have a phone.
      Well actually, as Gordon was saying, the number of people with phones is actually a minority of people now who don’t have phones. That means that if you don’t have a phone, chances are that you’ve got someone in the family, or certainly someone in the village, who’s got a phone.
      So if you have a phone, maybe it is that you have a phone, but it doesn’t have a Web browser. Well, there are lots of phones out there.
      The standard $10 Nokia brick phone, which sort of has swept Africa doesn’t have – didn’t have a Web browser. But a vast majority of new phones which are sold worldwide do have Web browsers.
      So, maybe then, you have a phone, and it’s got a Web browser, but when you go onto the Web, you can’t find anything in your native tongue. (…) So: a huge effort to make the Web a multilingual thing is called for.
      So, maybe that you have a phone, and it’s got a Web browser, and there’s something there in your own language. But you know what? You’re illiterate. So, you can’t actually see that there is something there in your own language.
      And maybe it is that you’re not illiterate because you are in a remote African village and you haven’t learned to read, because you are in a developed country, in a city, and you ought to be able to read, but actually you can’t.
      So there is the urban illiterate as well. So within that question between who’s got signal and who’s using the Web, lots of different questions (…)

      (1) This conversation, organized by the World Wide Web Foundation, took place at Geneva University on April 6, 2011

  3. There is always a degree of implementation of technology. That is some people have access more rapidly than others. England told Bell that they would never have telephones because they would always have messenger boys (men)to deliver notes and messages. It often takes time for us to see the potential applications of new technologies. The challenge is for us to keep experiementing with the new technologies.

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