If Machines Replace Teachers
It is being proposed that technology, artificial intelligence, more properly ‘machine learning’, can and will soon replace human teachers and physical classrooms, that digital systems will tease, challenge and program each student with interactive screen experiences that will lead to predefined, conditioned outcomes, far more efficiently, with greater precision and most importantly control, than sloppy humans could ever manage. When viewed from within the realm of existing knowledge, why would anyone object?
What is generally not considered are the limitations of existing knowledge, not only as data or content, with its implicit misinformation and propaganda, but more deeply, structurally, as a state of consciousness, and the simple fact that screen media filter out the most important qualities and capacities that define being human.
We are faced with a breakdown of general social order and human values that threatens stability throughout the world. Existing knowledge cannot meet this challenge. Something much deeper is needed, a completely new approach. I am suggesting that the very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem. The source of our problems is within the structure of thought itself.
David Bohm, Knowledge and Insight, 1981
Education as we know it, even most alternative educational models, exist in, and are limited by, the field or the state of mind David calls ‘existing knowledge.’ A metaphor that describes ‘the known’ is a house of mirrors, reflecting and re-reflecting bits of past conditioning as mental images, infinitely within the mirrored room. While this appears to be novel and vast, all this activity remains encased in the limited realm of a relatively tiny room, one small corner in the near infinite potentials of human consciousness. We call navigating the relative realities created in this house of mirrors - education.
As David, Krishnamurti, Joseph Chilton Pearce and others point out, the inherent limitations, conflicts and contradictions that arise, believing that what is perceived in this mirrored room is both true and all there is, has become suicidal, given the exponential power of technology to magnify and project these images around the globe. It is also important to appreciate that the structure we call thought, the intellect, is imitated in computers and machine learning systems. Computers will soon surpass the human brain in its capacity to process and associate various forms of data, rendering much of what we now call human thought and education irrelevant. This realization profoundly changes the meaning of education. Are we using the machine or is the machine using us? And, what is the difference that makes the difference?
The first step in bringing education into the present and therefore the future, and simultaneously negate the suicidal implications of machine learning systems replacing nature and human beings and as role models, is to devote a significant portion of one’s education to discovering the limitations of thought and knowledge, including when thought works correctly and when it does not. This study will lead to a fundamentally new perception of one’s self-world-view and our relationship to the living world and all of nature, and bring new meaning to what we consider to be education.
In this regard the presence and influence of living models cannot be over stated. For example, the capacity for spoken language is innate and, given a living model, will be imprinted, opened and developed spontaneously, without formal training. Failing to experience a living model at the stage specific time when the brain expects language to develop, no imprint will trigger the opening and development of spoken language. The same is true for empathy, wonder, playful relationships, altruism, compassion and the capacity for insight, certainly not in the mature forms that a living model will demonstrate. Machine learning system cannot model these embodied states. Why?
In his second book, In the Absence of the Sacred, media professional and critic, Jerry Mander, highlights the implicit filtering that occurs in the media experience, regardless of fidelity. You can’t get around it. Machines and screens are dead. Interacting with them is sensory deprivation. They appear to move but do not. They make sounds but the full living sensory experience is filtered.
Compare the experience of viewing a ballet on a phone to the full three-dimensional sensory experience of a live performance; thirty living, breathing, entrained musicians, dancers riding emotional waves the music creates, feeling, moving, breathing, radiating, touching, flowing together like Olympic athletes. Imagine walking under the starlit desert sky, gazing up with wonder, and compare this to an Instagram post of the same sky. Watch a video of a swimmer surrounded by a pod of orcas, teasing, and what that swimmer experienced moving through the water. Read the description of a shared ecstatic sexual experience and participating directly in that ecstasy. The word is not the thing. Like eating the menu for lunch, machines and screens, including online classes and Zoom meetings, are dead. The implicit filter represents a systemic form of sensory deprivation. What is filtered out are the very experiences and capacities that are most needed to grow and remain fully human. As Emerson observed, “the weaver becomes the web.”
Referring again to the tiny house of mirrors metaphor, imagine that this tiny room is a mobile phone projecting a digital representation of the Grand Canyon. The young student is standing on the east rim of the canyon but his or her attention is held captive by the screen image, and the young person has been deeply conditioned to believe that the screen image is the real thing, or at least, holds the same value. Why would anyone look beyond the screen? In this way thought and education as we know it exclude states of perception and meaning that exist outside of the ‘known.’
The unique human capacities, empathy, wonder and imagination, playful sensory and emotional relationships, altruism, compassion and the capacity for insight, do not abide in the house of mirrors, in the mind of image and concept. What we call thought, knowledge and education do not contain the embodied experiences these states offer, and therefore, abstract intellect and machines are incapable of modeling these living experiences, only the metaphor or concept. To experience and develop these critical human capacities one must, to borrow Krishnamurti’ s phrase, ‘be free from the known.’ Being free from the house of mirrors, the known, as knowledge, with its past conditioning endlessly projecting onto the present, attention is liberated from this symbolic-conceptual realm, and this liberated state becomes the something much deeper that is needed, a completely new approach, David Bohm is suggesting.
Freedom from the known opens the doors of perception to the non-conceptual, embodied experiences of empathy, wonder and imagination, playful relationships, altruism, compassion and the capacity for insight, and the spontaneous and immediate meaning these states represent in the body and mind, bring the chaos implicit in the house of mirrors to a new order, as a magnetic field organizes random iron files into coherent patterns. Schooling, even alternative modes and the forthcoming machine learning systems, are incapable of modeling these states, their meaning nor embodying the potential impact these might have on the future of human consciousness. As Bohm states; The very means by which we try to solve our problems is the problem. The source of our problems is within the structure of thought itself.
The essential prerequisite for appreciating and valuing the critical importance of a mind that is free from the known, and therefore the role of insight, in returning human thought and its implicit affairs to its natural order, is to discover the limitations of thought and knowledge, and therefore consign this tool called intellect to its proper place, and not, as is now the case, delude ourselves into believing and acting as if the tool is the whole of reality.
It is also important to consider that a mind enchanted and fully occupied in the conditioned house of mirrors, thought and knowledge, has no room, space or free attention to experience directly the non-conceptual states of empathy, altruism, etc. And this lack of space shuts our vast, uncharted human potentials and capacities that remain unknown, or have been forgotten for lack of a skilled model, something Joseph Chilton Pearce devoted his life to explore. Use The Force, Luke. This fully occupied state has become the default state of human consciousness, now exponentially compounded by technology, while the silent, sensitive and expansive and aware state of freedom from the known has become a rare exception, along with the direct experience of the excluded non-conceptual states we described.
Given this realization, what do we do? First, we must be ever mindful that the realm of abstract knowledge is embedded in, rests upon, and is guided by the non-conceptual. Rich development and appropriate use of metaphor and abstraction is completely dependent on the context provided by full physical, sensory motor and emotional development. Holding this undeniable fact, consider that over 54% of today’s American children live with one or more chronic physical illnesses, obesity, autism, attention challenges, and more. Emotional intelligence is born of experience; intimate touch, playful affection, physical safety and pleasure beginning with birth and shared appropriately throughout all ages and stages with family and with the natural world. Without this, the forces that guide a child’s intellectual development will be stunted and twisted. First things first.
Tragically, building this non-conceptual foundation is often missing or, at best, partial - and without a doubt, the more screen time in early childhood, up to and including age eleven, the less developed, weaker and more vulnerable this essential foundation will be. Age eleven is the sixth grade. Surely, I must be kidding? I am not. At approximately age eleven the brain releases ‘neural pruning hormones’ that dissolve and wash away the unmyelinated neural mass nature packed into the early brain. This extra supply of neurons represents near infinite potential for learning and the development of capacity, waiting, expecting a model to serve as an essential catalyst. By age eleven, and preparing for puberty, nature assumes that the brain has encountered, developed and mastered everything the environment has to offer.
The intellect fails to notice that form is content. In terms of neural development, the content viewed on screens might as well be the same program. To the developing brain the device is the environmental challenge, not the program displayed on the screen. From this perspective, every second of screen time, prior to neural pruning, displaces that brain’s full immersion in the living world. Screens are dead. Here you see the bubble on the balance between culture and biology tilt towards culture, with the disembodied intellect, like a parasite, now mirrored and expanded by technology, stealing more and more experiences from the child’s physical and emotional development, upon which the sanity and whole functioning of the intellect depends.
Rather than 100% of what we call schooling being invested in the known which, after age four or five, is mostly abstract, imagine that a full 80% of that precious attention is redirected to experiences that open and develop empathy, wonder, playful relationships, altruism, compassion and the capacity for insight, to which I will include one’s place in the interdependent ecology we call life, not as a concept, rather as experiences that form one’s identity. To this I will add that the expanding, deepening and transformative capacity of imagination, the ability of the human brain to create inner images not present to the senses, be the overarching goal, with spoken narrative and story being the catalysts for development, not the picture on a screen. In this way, imagination is developed and used to expand the meaning found in the direct experiences and shared empathy, wonder, playful relationships, altruism, compassion, the capacity for insight, and one’s place in the interdependent ecology we call life. None of this requires screens or machines, nor can screens or machines provide the child’s body, heart or mind with the experiences, the nurturing foods, that grow these capacities. Rather, screens and machines are sensory deprivation, sucking these living experiences out of the child’s life, leaving a dead counterfeit in its place.
Am I anti-technology? Not in the least. As it is immoral to feed a nursing baby meat, something their body cannot assimilate, it is equally immoral to replace living experiences with screen parasites, before the child has developed the capacity to use tools as a master craftsperson or artist. Would you give your five-year-old child a 45 caliber hand gun? Why then do you encourage your child and all children to engage with dead technologies, knowing that they will be stealing essential living experiences that will alter the course of that child’s life and with that, the future of humanity? What defines a sociopath is the absence of empathy and interdependence. Without these guiding forces as context, the human intellect is little more than a selfish machine.
One of the most important, and overlooked, aspects of brain development, or with humans, multiple brain centers in one organism, is the way each evolutionary advance changes both perception and identity. The perception of self-world generated by the sensory-motor brain is fundamentally different with the addition of the interior-sensing emotional-cognitive or mammalian brain. One dimension becomes two dimensional. The self-world-view changes again, from two dimensional to three, with the addition of the imagining-thinking brain. Opening and full development of the prefrontal centers changes perception and identity again, from three to four dimensions. Recognizing the resonate intelligence of the human heart, something often hidden by the other brain centers, each with their unique imaging capacity, changes one’s perception of self and relationship to the world yet again. Metaphorically, we can see that the meaning of the same bit of data, experience or knowledge, changes with the addition of each new brain center. Education from this holistic perspective becomes exponentially more sensitive, integrated and subtle.
The intellect focuses on content. Nature’s design is the unfoldment and development of capacity. Content and capacity are universes apart. Consider thinking about content, data or knowledge as individual letters, or a Lego block. The letter C is a knowledge unit, so is a Lego block. Add imagination and suddenly a group of similar blocks can be arranged to make near infinite shapes. As Einstein notes, imagination is more important than knowledge. More to the point, imagination is not knowledge. It is a capacity that can influence the world of knowledge but is not knowledge. Suddenly, the one dimensional world of data becomes two dimensional. Add to imagination the deeper non-conceptual qualities we have described and the meaning of each experience, each thought and each action changes. Appropriateness changes and distills the infinite potential of knowledge, guided by wholeness, wellness, and wellbeing for an identity grounded in relationship, interdependence and ecology, not simply survival of the fittest, emerging from an abstracted and separate image of self, struggling against the world.
The near universal push and appeal to engage the early child, again up to and including age eleven, in machine learning does two things; first, every second of precious attention invested in visual screens pushes aside and substitutes a dead experience for living experiences during the sensitive, age and stage specific, periods nature expects that developing brain to interact, in empathic ways, with the living world. Second, the extremely powerful image and thought producing machine substitutes its counterfeit content, displacing, limiting, and in many ways crippling that child’s capacity to create his or her own content, thus addicting the child to the only source of imagery they have, which is the device. This limits that child to a lifetime of mental content predefined by those who control the content displayed on the screen, with its implicit propaganda, censorship and social controls.
As a menu can point and describe lunch, machine learning can hint and even scream at the importance of empathy, altruism and compassion, but the dead symbol can never provide the nourishment needed to discover, develop and expand these life and world changing experiences, no matter how big the internet of things grows. Appreciating and acting on this realization, that is our challenge.
These recommendations, of course, demand that the parent-educator make a corresponding shift of their attention from the known to the non-conceptual unknown, which will invite an entirely new quality of awareness and attention to very moment, with the direct experience of empathy, wonder, compassion, altruism, play and insight being the guide. Upon this fully developed non-conceptual foundation we can use machines as tools. Without it, the tools will use and enslave us.