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Posts Tagged ‘pessimists archive

I enjoyed the latest podcast episode of Build For Tomorrow (formerly Pessimists Archive). Its host, Jason Feifer, cited how some alcohol laws in the USA changed as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.

TLDL (too long, didn’t listen)? The USA has strange state laws, like convenience stores only allowed to sell unchilled beer in Indiana, to deter consumption in transit. Such laws have been accepted as the norm and people do not question them.

But when the laws change, like how cocktails can now be ordered to-go to keep restaurants and bars operating during COVID-19 lockdowns, people wonder why the old laws even existed.

The lessons I drew from the episode were not new:

  1. You should take advantage of a negative to create positives. To promote e-learning, for example, you could cite the need for emergency learning during a disaster. These open the doors for nascent technologies and pedagogies.
  2. To elicit change, you could aim for small and decisive victories. These are not only more palatable to all, they boost the morale of change agents and might pave the way for more changes.

This way the “impossible” can become “it’s possible”.

When some people say how things were better in the “good old days”, have you ever wondered when those days were?

Well, Jason Feifer of the Build For Tomorrow (previously known as Pessimists Archive) podcast tried to figure that one out.

At around the 47-minute mark of his first podcast of 2021, he summarised how one generation romanticised the “good old days”. Those in the USA today might look back fondly on the 50s, those in the 50s preferred the 20s… and his research and interviews went all the way back to the early history.

This was made plain at the 44-minute mark. Feifer described how the ancient Mesopotamians, the first to write and record history in 3500 BCE, looked back to a time when humankind learnt to cultivate crops, create laws, and apply mathematics. They moaned that “since that time, nothing further has been discovered”.

The bottomline: We tend to look back at the past with fondness and desire even when the present has so much good to offer. Why do we do this? Feifer offered three reasons:

  1. Achievements of the past were evidence that we can do better.
  2. We attempt to reclaim the pride, processes, and/or products that were lost particularly to oppression by another party.
  3. Records of history that highlight “golden ages” were often driven by nostalgic narratives.

These cloud our perception. I think of it this way:

Nostalgia is like grammar. It makes the past perfect and the present tense.

So what is a rational person to do to clear our collective vision? Feifer suggested not aggressively telling people they are wrong — they will simply dig in. His alternative was to provide a more compelling narrative for the here and now.

That seems to his overall goal with the name change of his podcast. It is also a good principle for me to follow when trying to convince people about the good that technology can do in schooling and education.

The latest podcast episode from the Pessimists Archive was Do We Lose Skills Because of Technology?

It was a bit of a squeaky wheel in that it repeated how technology evangelists might accuse technology luddites of romanticising old skills and bemoan new ones.

For example, there is somehow still a debate about how handwriting is better than typewriting on a laptop [prime example]. More recent research debunks that myth and research results differ depending on the nature of the questions students answer (factual vs conceptual) and how students take their notes (attempted verbatim vs reflective).

The latest podcast added some oil to the squeaky wheel by offering something more nuanced. Human skills evolve with time based on need, i.e., we adopt shifted skills.

We used to need to know how exactly to start a fire in the wild. Now we need to know how to control a thermostat, get the gas going, or know the difference between an induction and gas cooker.

We used to have to write relatively slow and deliberately with a fountain pen. Now we need to know how to tweet or blog effectively.

One other drop of oil was the discussion of specialist vs generalist skills. The podcast host suggested that many specialist skills could be replaced with robots and AI. I think he meant repetitive and routine skills like manufacturing, or more challenging and collective motor skills like controlling vehicles.

It is more difficult to lose generalist skills to robots and AI. These are the skills that cross disciplines, e.g., a plumber knowing not just how to change a pipe, but also about replacing structure (architecture) and applying knowledge of whether this was allowed (policy and law), and convincing/dissuading a client to do so (strategies of persuasion).

In the realm of education, I consider generalist skills to include metacognition and the ability to unlearn. These would require learners to have component skills of reflection and generation of strategies. Such skills are not just un-losable, they are critical for creating and embracing of even newer technologies that will challenge our skillsets.

The latest podcast episode of the Pessimists Archive was partly about one of my pet peeves. I hate the liberal and uncritical use of “unprecedented”.

The title of the episode was 224 Years of Election Hacking. It detailed how some think that the foreign interference and social media influence in the 2016 and 2020 US elections is unprecedented.

As usual, the host of the show, Jason Feifer, did his homework and showed how such election interference was not new in occurence, method, or scale. It was and is not unprecedented.

Calling a phenomenon unprecedented without first making sure that is factually true is a failure to learn from history. Why do this then? If you do not bother to look, you can claim to say it did not happen.

The problem with not looking is that you start with the wrong assumptions or oversimplifications. Feifer put it succinctly at the 10min 14sec mark of the episode:

Simplify a problem and you are unable solve it because you can’t see its fullness.

Some problems, like the current coronavirus pandemic, are complex and defy reduction and simplification. People that do these want easy answers to difficult problems.

One easy answer is to say that this has never happened before (it is unprecedented!) so they can offer any solution that suits them and/or we should forgive them for making costly mistakes.

For me, one sign of lazy thinking is the use of unprecedented. Such thinking is reductionist and formulaic. It does not embrace complexity and nuance. This mindset is what needs to be nurtured in schooling and education. We need learners and workers who not only know content but also context.

The latest installment from the Pessimists Archive podcast was What Will We Fear Next?

At first face value, the title seemed to be about predicting a new technology with which we will likely place old fears on. But if you listen till at least the 38-minute mark, you will hear the podcast host say this:

Even if we can predict the technology, we can’t predict the context in which it will be experienced or the needs it will fulfil or the expectations that it will meet or shift.

This is a reminder to anyone who makes or reads predictions about the future — making projections about tools is relatively easy, doing the same about contextual use is not. This is why most predictions fail to materialise on time.

The episode might also have been the first to visit the concept of technological determinism. Shortly before the quote, the host described technological determinism as a one-way street upon which technologies change us. Since people fear change, they fear technologies because they are threats to established ways of doing things.

But I am reminded of one of my favourite quotations:

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us. -- Marshall McLuhan

We designed our tools and they are used in expected and unexpected ways. The outcomes of use are socio-technologically determined. This is why one successful classroom use of a technology does not guarantee equal success elsewhere. Context matters and that context is determined by many factors, e.g., students, teachers, support, environments, professional development, etc.

The latest Pessimists Archive podcast episode might seem like a departure from the usual fare.

The usual message is how we do not study recent history when encountering new technologies. We then make the same mistakes from the past.

This episode started with a photo of two different-looking men sharing an earphone set.

When contacted and interviewed, the two guys did not think anything unusual about their pairing because they had a shared passion. To the outside observer, they were as different as night and day.

Therein lies the underlying theme: We tend to see what we have already seen. We look for how we are different, which might then lead to unease or conflict.

I have had the privilege of having conversations with educators from different parts of the world. Even though I do not meet as many of them now, one thing has stayed with me from those interactions. We are more alike than we are different.

Are you wondering what life might be like in a modern country after one or more waves of our current pandemic? The latest podcast episode from Pessimists Archive offered some insights.

It is not a stretch that working from home and home-based schooling can become more feasible options. This is only if we follow the patterns of previous pandemics, i.e., we go with the flow of disruption, develop or improve supporting technologies, and craft enabling policies.

The entire podcast is worth a listen for the details. It was a bit of a departure from its usual fare of focusing on how we irrationally fear technology-enabled change. But it stayed true to its recurring message of why we need to move forward.

On a side note, I wonder how many people are preparing for the possibility of a long-term stay of the pandemic. By people I am referring to the lay folk, not strategists or governors. By long-term I am referring to possible cyclic returns and not one protracted wave.

If we do have cyclic returns that perhaps last about a third of each year for two to three years, what adjustments are we planning to make?

Just as soon as the harried assessment phase of the semester of one institution was over, I had to contend with the administrative and preparatory work with another institution.

So occupied was I that I left this little gem languishing as a draft in my Notes app — the “evils” of the telegraph.

The tweet, newspaper clipping, and podcast comes courtesy of the Pessimists Archive.

In the 1800s, the telegraph was a new technology and along with it came fear, mistrust, and disinformation. Back then, people wondered about:

  • Speed vs truth
  • Ease vs security
  • Convenience vs privacy

Today, people wonder the same about social media. The more things change, the more they remain the same. This happens because we do not learn from critical analyses of history.


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