“Do you have much background in education or learning?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” said Julian.
Senator Florez had arranged for her friend Jamaal Anderson to talk with Julian about how learning technology had changed things in the past century. Julian had been surprised at how informative the public news was—a seemingly sophisticated level, seemingly personalized, and rather interactive. Maybe not as entertaining as he expected. He was also curious about what made KTS tick.
“I guess where I’d start,” said Anderson, “is with ‘attention.’ It’s really the central commodity. People need attention from experts. That attention is in very limited supply, and the key is to use technology to leverage and spread that expert attention in the optimal way. And then the learner’s attention – rapidly shifting, distracted by high-level uncertainties, by questions about relevance, by abstractions, and more.”
Anderson tried to explain some of the advances in cognitive science, and the range of tricks that that programs used to predict what a learner needed to see and hear next, and what questions were likely to be in the learner’s head at any given moment. He talked about the advantages of multimedia, and how easily it was created now.
Julian tried to take all of it in. “Are schools similar to how they were before?”
“Not that much,” replied Anderson. “Students don’t sit in classrooms as much as they once did. And they don’t move in lockstep, they’re encouraged to pursue their own interests. Though of course they’re tracked a lot, and they know it. Though not so much via formal tests.”
Julian wondered about accountability and the risk of laziness, but decided it wasn’t a very interesting line of discussion. What really interested him was the effects on public dialogue. His eyes drifted to the ceiling. “This is all very helpful...” he said, “but... here it is: it appears that production of educational technology takes up half of your economy now! Well, I don’t know what percentage, but, a huge amount. Why? I mean, sure, education is good, who is ever against education, but...”
Edith Rossini and Anderson looked at each other hesitantly for a moment, then Anderson gestured submissively to her. She began, “That’s an excellent question, Julian. It’s something like this: we learned that it was the only way forward.
“Our democracy was in a deep rut, where voters were basing things on feelings and not on reality. Where political machines manipulated them, where most of the public dialogue was about conspiracy theories... Anyway—we’re a ‘learning society’, we realized that ignorance was easily curable, and we decided not to tolerate it.”
“Yes,” said Anderson excitedly. “You’re right, learning production is only about a quarter of the economy. But, yes, we had—it was found that—the old ways of learning were incredibly inefficient. Reading, abstractions, trying to learn without visualization, trying to learn stuff you’re not interested in. We learned how to make sure the learner’s always getting exactly what—and socially, too, kids’ social interactions are organized carefully too...”
Julian looked down with furrowed brow.
Anderson continued hesitantly, “A lot of the spending is by government agencies themselves. They have to explain to citizens what they’re doing...”
Julian had a worried look, so Anderson stopped. Finally Julian said, “It almost sounds scary, like you know how to brainwash people now.”
Edith took this one. “I can see why it might look that way. But people are incredibly discerning, they have a sense when they’re being put upon. And they have the ability to challenge it, either directly or by escalating the issue. And they do. In fact, with a lot of people it becomes a bit of a problem.
“But I think there is definitely a difference from your day. Wherever we can, we challenge people, particularly when it comes to politics and ideology. We keep nudging them away from extremism and from simplistic slogans. Towards moderation, towards nuance. I guess we’re less tolerant than the days before the internet.”
“Interesting,” Julian said simply. “Not sure I like it.”
Edith nodded and smiled. “Interesting. May I challenge you?”