Artificial Intelligence Through the Lens of Postman

A word cloud of common words associated with artificial intelligence

Artificial Intelligence Word Cloud by Madhav-Malhotra-003, CC0 1.0   

Fear Born out of Misunderstanding

In his discussion of Marshall McLuhan’s work, Mark Federman pointed out that people often misinterpret the quote, “The Medium is the Message.”  As Federman noted McLuhan was not insisting that method of delivery is more relevant than its content, but instead that we miss structural, subtle changes in favour of the glaring obvious.  This is where I find my understanding of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and its associated role in education, at present.  With news stories of rampant academic abuses circulating in the media I have largely thought of A.I. as another way to game the system; something to be detected, stamped out, and avoided.  However I feel that I have been staring into the headlights while missing the larger picture.  What is less obvious?  What new opportunities does A.I. hold for my classroom?  If A.I. is dangerous to education, is it in a way that I am completely missing?  Is my current perspective a reflection of a lack of digital/media literacy?

Working Through the Problem with Postman as a Guide

Fortunately, Neil Postman provided us with a framework for understanding and dealing with technological change.  He argued that there are five key considerations for evaluating any new technology (which Jason Kottke later broke down brilliantly here), which I intend to use to examine my own understanding and feelings about this emerging tool.

All Technological Change is a Trade Off

As a graduate student (and high school instructor) I often fear the writing process.  I find translating thoughts to the written word to be a solitary, esoteric, and difficult.  Now imagine what this must feel like for a grade nine student without the benefit of my education, privilege, and experience.  The appeal of asking an A.I. chatbot to expand upon a prompt or idea is not only enticing, but liberating.  One of my students described ChatGPT as akin to having a calculator for math.  Is it important that high school students in a calculus class long divide?  Or is it just meaningless busy work that puts off the exploration of deeper problems.

On the other hand I wonder about the value of process.  Did struggling through the endless essays, hours of repetitive computation, and combing through reams of library books give me a deeper appreciation and understanding of English, mathematics, and research?  Are students who use A.I. tools missing out on the growth and development inherent in the struggle?  Or are these deprecated skills that are no longer relevant?  One thing is certain: there is no free lunch.  As Postman points out something will be lost, as A.I. proliferates there will be downsides that are inevitable and unavoidable.

The Benefits of Technology are Never Distributed Evenly

Teaching through the pandemic taught me one important lesson – access is not universal and the most disadvantaged suffer the most.  Those who have access will leverage their advantages to get ahead and stay ahead (this often referred to as the Digital Matthew Effect).  Affluent students with access and experience using A.I. based tools will leave their less fortunate counterparts behind.  Given the current context education funding in Canada, I don’t see universal access and a level playing field anytime in the near future.

Powerful Ideas are Embedded in New Technologies

This is the what I struggle with the most.  What ideas underpin A.I.?  What is it saying about us?  About teaching?  According to electronics manufacturer Nvidia generative A.I. identifies patterns and structures in data sets and allows users to quickly create new content (including written material, images, music, animation, 3D models, etc.).  But who decides what content is sampled?  How will artists, authors, teachers, and researchers be compensated for their work?  In my opinion this implicitly degrades the contributions of those who create the material that A.I. models are being trained on (unless they are recognized and compensated).  The lines of personal ownership and authorship are becoming deeply blurred.

On the flipside A.I. seeks to break down  barriers of entry to certain mediums.  Talent/skill requirements are being lowered so that anyone can create images, animations, and music.  A.I. promises that anyone anywhere can create – without the years of mastery previously required.  As someone who spent a life time learning to draw this is both exciting and upsetting to me.

Technological Change is not Additive; it is Ecological

The accessibility of A.I. tools is allowing it to permeate in a way that is unprecedented.  Years ago in my bachelor’s degree I was told repeatedly that virtual reality would transform education (20 years later I am still waiting for it to do so).  A.I. is in my classroom now.  Students are submitting work utilizing it.  I worry about keeping up with them.  The institutional inertia of public schooling has been incredibly resilient to change (our classrooms, bell schedules, and assumptions about how school “works” is a testament to this), but this somehow feels different.  I feel that my colleagues and I will be grappling with this new reality on a daily basis.  To cope with this change we are going to need training, expertise, and resources (but when hasn’t this refrain been echoed in a thousand educational journals by a thousand different researchers, students, or frontline workers?).

Media Tends to Become Mythic

As Postman pointed out technology is not a gift that is bestowed from the heavens.  A.I. is created by people for people and is a reflection of our current context.  We are not at the mercy of the machine (yet), but ourselves and our own desires.  The internet gave us the illusion that everything is free, on demand and available 24/7 365 days a year.  Is this not an extension of this?  We want what we want, right now, delivered, and we don’t want to pay for it.  However nothing is free, nothing comes without cost, and as Postman reminds us the bill always come due.


One thought on “Artificial Intelligence Through the Lens of Postman

  1. Hi Matt! You make several valid points that are worthy of discussion. I too wonder about the “value of process” and how are we going to impart this to our students when AI, like ChatGPT, can generate idea/images that are web-based. Many of my students feel that copy and pasting images to create a power point is being creative when all they are doing is using the web to assist with creation. The digital divide is evident within my community. Some students have web access/internet and some don’t even own a cellphone, let alone home computers and internet. This is more an economic and income factor than accessibility. I worry about the students that spend hours creating, using media of choice, against those who have instant access to computer web applications. Many things to consider when we bring technology into our classrooms! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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