Tech Mania

Technology is widespread, as is recognition of its importance, but the understanding of various technologies and their appropriate applications lags far behind. Therefore, it is relatively easy for a technology interest group to convince others (without resort to evidence) that the group’s favorite technology can solve a problem of general social concern. This can cause more problems than it solves.

Recently, a man who is fascinated by the purported potential of laptop computers decided that giving a laptop to each and every child–especially third-world children–would revolutionize education, lift kids out of poverty, and generally improve their lives.

Somehow, he convinced schools, school systems, state governments, and even entire national governments to purchase hundreds of thousands of cheap, low-capacity, and clumsy laptops. When these were distributed, it was found that, although the children were indeed fascinated with them–when they worked–the magical effects did not occur. That is, the reasons the children were in poverty or were poorly educated were not addressed by ownership of a laptop. Political and economic corruption, wars, lack or poor distribution of material resources, illiteracy of parents, widespread hunger and illness, and so on, are not solved by children with computers.

Even in the USA, the richest nation, where nearly everyone has access to a computer, if not at home then at a friend’s or at a library, children were not (and are not) lifted out of poverty, nor even better educated. The dream, it seems, was not based upon any evidence, but merely on personal preferences: “I like it, it helped me, so others will like it and be helped.”

Experience now shows that placing computers in the hands of American public school students generally does not improve academic performance, and even worsens the performance of students in low-income families. Many of the schools and governments that had been convinced of the purported benefits have now retreated, belatedly recognizing that they wasted money, effort and time.

Another example is the drive to focus on STEM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The specific claim of STEM education proponents is that our school systems are not producing enough graduates in these areas. The broader claim is that becoming competent in STEM subjects will increase one’s chances for a better standard of living.

Once again, this enthusiasm is not based upon evidence. In the first place, there is no shortage of persons trained in STEM subjects; thousands of graduates are unemployed or employed elsewhere. STEM positions have either migrated to other countries, or they are filled here by immigrants from other countries.

The fact is, the only shortage in the USA is a shortage of highly-talented STEM graduates willing to work for the relatively low wages that tech companies are willing to pay. The companies’ positions are populated with immigrants for whom such wages are a boon. This fact was the subject of articles published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and by some business journals.

And, in spite of widespread belief, there is no correlation between levels of education and income levels except at the lowest end of the income scale.

The latest misguided mania to grab public attention is the idea that “everybody” should learn to program (or “code”) a computer. This follows on the heels of the belief that everyone should know how to use a computer, but is based on even less evidence.

The national effort to promote coding by the masses, targets everyone from kindergarteners to retirees, using slogans like “anyone can learn computer science”.

Put aside the fact that computer science is far broader than programming, and put aside the fact that “anyone” could not include illiterate or unintelligent people, or people whose temperaments are not suited to the task. The question is: Why should “anyone” need to learn it, or even want to?

Overall, there is far less need for programmers than for computer users. Knowing how to program does not make one better able to use the most popular or important applications. Again, there is no shortage of programmers looking for jobs; there is a shortage of programming jobs.

Is it because computers are vitally important in our society that everyone should know how they work internally? How about surgery, television, or four-cycle internal combustion engines? You could make a case that the history of computing could be of more general interest and importance, but I see no mention of that.

In all three cases–laptops for kids, STEM education, universal coding –it seems that a person or group is inflating the importance of personal or group interests beyond any degree indicated by evidence. This can only waste time, effort, and money; misdirect attention away from actual problems and their solutions; and raise false hopes among the people drawn into these schemes.

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