It matters because…

This post might come across as something of a ‘rant’, and is perhaps more relevant to the communities and algorithm blocks of this course, but it’s where my reflections have got me to over the past couple of days and therefore, in my opinion, relevant.

The last time I studied humanities as a subject in its own right (and here I use the word ‘studied’ in the loosest sense of the word) , was as a high school student in the early 1970s.  I am willing to admit that I didn’t really know what ‘humanities’ meant back then and it’s only since I’ve started to consider some of the bigger societal questions around technology through this course that the proverbial light bulb has turned on.

It’s not that I have been blissfully unaware, people and particularly their attitude toward technology are a crucial aspect of my job and I have strong opinions on some of the more worrying aspects of our interaction with automation and artificial intelligence, such as the privileging of certain information, ‘fake news’ and the altering of history.

On this latter point, and pertinent to the question of education and digital cultures, even the origin of the phrase ‘history is written by the victors / winners / conquerors’ (which is particularly apt in this context) has multiple and varying narratives.  The phrase is firmly attributed to Winston Churchill on many websites, to Walter Benjamin on others, George Orwell, Niccolò Machiavelli, Ramzi Haroun on others, and so on.  The phrase is also frequently attributed to William Wallace thanks to a version of it being included in the script of the movie ‘Braveheart’.

A more recent version of the phrase is ‘history is rewritten by the Internet’ and not only does this neatly sum up the issue, it points to a wider problem that everything, not just history, can be ‘rewritten by the Internet’.  Relatively recent examples of this phenomenon in the UK are highlighted in this article from Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of Guardian News & Media: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jul/12/how-technology-disrupted-the-truth

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‘The word’ has always spread, with both good and bad intent, whether as knowledge passed between individuals, folklore, marketing or propaganda.  The difference today is, as Viner refers to in her article, that everyone is a publisher and everyone ‘has their own facts’.   As Viner’s article points out, quoting legal scholar Danielle Citroen, “people forward on what others think, even if the information is false, misleading or incomplete, because they think they have learned something valuable.”

So this matters in almost every context I can think of, but to bring it back to education and specifically to my own professional practice , it matters because trust or distrust in information provided, or perhaps more importantly, the skill or inability to critically appraise information, are crucial to belief and trust in the products and services we provide.  For instance, in the current climate will individuals be more or less willing to accept scientific evidence if it is funded by the company that developed the product?  How trusting will employees be of the company they work for when ‘fake news’ stories are circulating about it on social media?

Fortunately it seems that the issue is starting to be picked up by governments, the media and scholars, although it is my belief that this is an issue that, ultimately,  can only be resolved by the same means it is being perpetuated.

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