In Kurt Vonnegut's novel The Sirens of Titan, one of the characters observes that the big trouble with dumb bastards is that they're too dumb to believe there's such a thing as being smart. The trouble with most of the rest of us, mired in the imagined external attractions of empty heroics, low comedy and pointless death, usually involves the considerable convoluted effort we pointlessly put into trying to conceal the pathetic formlessness of our own apparent aspirations... with or without split infinitives. But even within the artificial externalization of our shallow, superficial self-created nightmare of meaninglessness without end, the quantum metaverse, or universal will to become, laughingly continues to point out a fatal flaw. No matter how shabbily we dress our morality and stupidity, we invariably choose our preferences. And more particularly, we also change our preferences. Epistemologically, reality is comprehensible. We just need to choose to comprehend.
Although no one fully knows what consciousness is, it's clearly related to the growth and representation of knowledge in the brain. And within the quest for knowledge, truth is not always obvious and the obvious need not be true. For example, it's obvious that George Dubya enjoys his iPod – even though it only contains around 250 of its potential 10,000 songs. But then again, ol' George isn't one for exploring the full potential of just about anything apart from the illusory acquisition of dirty money and even dirtier power. Whether it's true that George having an iPod is a good thing for Apple or a mere insult to every other iPod user is probably just as obvious to both sides of the debate. And despite the slow-news coverage of his rather anodyne playlist in the media, I couldn't give a monkeys what the moron chooses to listen to.
It also may be true that you can get vouchers for Macs for schools at Tesco, that magnificent food chain that recently announced record profits of £2 billion. But is it also obvious that this is a good thing for Apple, considering that Friends of the Earth and various other organizations reckon that this ridiculously high profit was made at the expense of the livelihoods of British farmers and small shopkeepers, exploitative working conditions in developing countries and just good old-fashioned environmental damage?
Now there's a conundrum. I mean, getting more Macs into schools must be a good thing, right? It's obvious that computers for kids at home and at school provide an absolutely essential key to securing that aspirational A-star in GCSE English and Maths, isn't it? And as we all know, using a Mac is far superior to suffering under the yoke of Microsoft mayhem. So what if there's a bit of an uncomfortable ethical dilemma. Do we need to give it any thought? Should we apply the old cliché about the means justifying the ends, or should we try to bend all this into a more enlightened package that suggests that needing absolute answers may well be an artefact from outdated worldviews, while becoming comfortable with uncertainty may be our path to a new one?
An even more uncomfortable, though probably less obvious true, is the recent research that argues that the growing use of computers of any ilk in secondary schools for homework or whatever could actually be leading to worsening performance in literacy, science and maths. An international study of over 100,000 15-year-olds in 32 developed and developing countries suggests that the hype and drive to equip an increasing number of school children with computers – Macs or PCs – may be savagely misplaced. Apparently, students perform significantly worse if they have computers at home and having computers actually distracts them from learning both because learning with computers may not be the most efficient means of learning and because computers are invariably used for other activities (games) instead.
So, if even the stylish wonders of the Macintosh can't guarantee academic success – what can? There are other interesting objects that have been around for some time now where a lot of really clever people often hide particularly interesting information and knowledge. They're called books. They're extremely portable, they contain pleasing typography, many have great graphics, and the interface is intuitive. You also don't have to worry about battery life. In fact, according to this study, students with more than 500 books in their homes performed better in maths, science and literacy than those with no books at all. Apparently, it's good reading, writing and maths skills that most improve a child's ability to get on in life – not which personal computer they use. Now there's food for thought that you won't find at Tescos.
If books are more intimately related to the growth and representation of knowledge, should parents ban computers at home? Should Tesco scrap its Computers for Schools programme and the government abandon its policy of learning with computers? Of course not. But it does suggest that we may need to really begin to 'think different'. Wouldn't it be refreshing to realize that the act of measurement is associated with the formation of reality and that this provides the act of observation an especially privileged role of collapsing the possible into the actual? Instead of pretending we're interested in the content of Bush's iPod, or spending on computers for kids, maybe we should just for fun consider that the universe consists of possibilities and that relationships and processes are more fundamental than substances.
Behind the effort we put into trying to conceal the formlessness of our own aspirations, there are, as quantum physicist David Bohm observed, many people who think they are thinking when they're just re-arranging prejudices. And despite all the big dumb bastards, there's such a thing as being smart. Books help us think. But if computers stopped aping the trends set by crap TV and other dumb media, they too could become powerful tools for thought. After all, as the Buddha said, we are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. And with our thoughts, we make the world. MW