Virtual predictions

January 8, 2007

Here’s a little something David Letterman fans might appreciate. The ACRLog provides a link to the “top ten technology forecasts” put forth by the World Future Society, which did not predict the end of libraries. Apparently, they have done so before, but not this time. While I feel relieved to know that libraries won’t become obsolete, I do have a lot more questions than warm and fuzzy feelings about futuristic techno-utopias and Second Life, which the blog also mentions.

Prediction #4, which ACRLog specifically mentions, is of most interest to education. It visualizes the redundancy of classrooms and teachers in a world where students will learn in virtual realities with avatars as guides. Visiting virtual worlds may be fine for some disciplines, but they cannot apply to all. It would work in science and technology, but their usefulness seems murkier in the social sciences and humanities. Admittedly, something like SimCity would be useful for some social science classes. However, virtual reality would work at a very superficial level for history, and it would be nearly impossible for studying literature.

Regarding the idea of avatars guiding coursework (a prediction made by the World Future Society), I have difficulty imagining such a scenario. I understand the desire to loosen the reign that human teachers have on classes, but I feel that the use of avatars would replace one “oppressive” form of teaching with another. These avatars might “know” what you need to get through a class, but the information students enter about themselves would necessarily be too superficial for real interaction. Getting into privacy issues, exactly how much information would one need to give to have a “tailor-made” course guide? I would not want an avatar to discount my complexity as a human being, or to have potentially sensitive information about my personal life. I prefer to use my own brains and tangential intellectual leaps, or to discuss things with a human (including the teacher). Avatars might be fine for “paint by number” classes, but I have doubts about its practicality for classes that require thinking.

I guess I’m thinking about my “profile” on a number of websites. I’ll use Amazon as an example. The list of recommendations is based on very superficial information about items I have ordered, written reviews about, and searched for under my account. However it does not understand my motivation for those actions.

I would like to believe that things will be easy as technology becomes more advanced. Certainly, I don’t mind the ease with which one can do the busywork in everyday life. I just have concerns about the notion that technology will be the salvation of learning, and that we will sacrifice deep understanding of our “first life” in favor of approximations within a “second life.”

The ACRLog posting links to an article about Second Life, which has become the latest “hot thing.” The article still doesn’t have me convinced. I don’t think defying the laws of Physics is all that great… especially if one is in Physics class. (I suppose the teacher could use it as a “teaching moment,” which could get way off topic if too many people do too many physics-defying tricks.) Anyway, we get bamboozled enough as it is in the movies.

I suppose one can develop a sense of community and collegiality in Second Life, but we have yet to see if virtual dune buggying does such a thing. Besides, if I want to practice dance moves at a Tiki bar, I would go to one in the real world, not in a virtual classroom. I could even have a couple of Mai Tais to loosen me up, which one cannot do in Second Life. (And what’s with the “retro” stuff? I thought we were in the 21st Century!)

I do have to wonder about the overly-optimistic predictions of these futurists. In addition to Cynthia Crossen’s article about predictions of the past, Siva Vaidhyanathan recently wrote a column about the futility of trying to predict the future (which inspired me to write an entry in my own blog), and how doubt rarely enters the minds of grand visionaries who talk about changes that will supposedly improve things.

I do not discount distance education. It certainly has the advantage of convenience, and it may offer the prospect of “having fun” while learning (however one defines that). Still, we have quite a bit of work to do in approximating the non-digital world. I doubt that we will reach that point in 25 years. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it took much longer.

As a real kicker, even the World Future Society President doesn’t believe that the forecasts have any metaphysical Nostrodamus-type quality. His quote at the end is worth noting:

    Much of what will happen in the future depends on what we humans decide to do… If we could know the future with certainty, it would mean that the future could not be changed. Yet this is a main purpose of studying the future: to look at what may happen if present trends continue, decide if this is what is desirable, and, if it’s not, work to change it. Knowing the trends can empower you for effective action.

Not much different from science fiction, I suppose. Still, I hope that at least some of these predictions will come true within 25 years, and that we can continue to use technology as a tool to improve our lives… not to become our lives. I especially hope for #10, as well as the predictions about new energy sources. I do have ambivalent feelings about #9, which relates somewhat to the education prediction.

In the meantime, I’ll stick with David Letterman’s Top Ten lists. I have a much easier time believing those.

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