Saturday, March 17, 2018

A new illiteracy


A new type of illiteracy seems to be emerging as an unintended side-effect of technological progress. Many people have some competence using one or more electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. Few people are familiar with all of the features and capabilities of their device(s). Very few people actually understand the software and hardware required to make those features, much less have the knowledge to modify or to create a new feature or capability for their device.

This new illiteracy especially strikes me because I remember how easily I learned to program in Basic and Fortran as a largely self-taught high school student using a computer at a local college. After mastering those two languages, I learned that particular computer’s machine, which required mastery not only of software but also the design of the computer’s hardware. Neither the high school nor the college then offered courses in programming. Nevertheless, the college did require students in some courses to program and to use its computer, expecting its students to learn those skills on their own time. Today, fifty years later, both the high school and college offer computer programming classes as electives, a reflection of the growing complexity of software and hardware.

A few software designers and creators are still largely self-taught. Most, however, acquire their skills though formal education and training programs. Hardware design has advanced to the point where only the well-funded and well-educated have the resources and knowledge to innovate.

The rest of us are electronic illiterates. What are the potential consequences of this new illiteracy?

First, the new illiteracy results in a new elite. The trend toward greater utilization of and reliance upon electronic devices seems likely to persist for years. Will this new elite continue to earn disproportionate incomes and power (think of pay in Silicon Valley and the influence of tech billionaires and venture capitalists)? If so, what will be the consequences of this for the rest of humanity?

Second, will the new illiteracy coupled with the potential ability of machines to program and then to design themselves (a new form of self-propagation?) tip evolution away from humans towards a new, non-animal entity (calling it a life form feels wrong)? If so, will that trigger the extinction of humans or human enslavement to serve the needs of their electronic masters?

Third, where is God in all of this?

Fourth, is this future inevitable? Alternatively, will a new electronic literacy emerge that mostly eradicates the new illiteracy?

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