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Artificial Intelligence and Society: Implications for Educators

By Conrad Hughes
Artificial Intelligence and Society: Implications for Educators

Land of the Android

I'm in the metro in Madrid, it's Friday night. Night hawks and revelers pile onto the train and flow out at successive stops like a heaving single organism.

Observing them from my corner, I notice three essential categories of people: the occasional small group chatting and laughing, groups chatting and laughing while looking at their phones, and the vast majority, which is those sitting or standing in isolation staring at their phones. Very occasionally, I see a lone soul like me, sitting in silence and observing the world go by.

No one is reading.

A few days later I’m in Dakar in a café. The scenery is quite different, what with bougainvillea plants climbing their way across the walls and the sound of reggae in the background. Most people are having lunch and are therefore engaged in some sort of conversation, but I notice that the phone is never far. Many of them are talking to each other across the phones, in a sense, even through their phones. If I were an alien from outer space who came to visit this scene, I might imagine that the phones were translators or microphones of some sort.

There are a few people eating alone. But unlike in the 1980s when sitting alone at a restaurant or waiting alone at a street corner made for a slightly embarrassing moment of solitude, here it is quite different. In contrast, it now makes for an intense browsing of the phone, the eyes ablaze in the prism of light emitted onto the face, the brow slightly furrowed, the index finger swiping down the screen nervously for older users, the younger digital natives doing this effortlessly with the thumb.

What strikes me is less the fact that just about everybody is on their phones and more what they are doing on their phones. It seems quite clear and quite visible from the way they interact with the device that they are not reading but viewing, not writing extended prose but texting quick sentences or clauses, swiping through images restlessly, seemingly not going into any depth but skimming through everything.

Information, Knowledge, Wisdom

TS Eliot’s chorus in his strange play “The Rock” asks rhetorically, “Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Perhaps the answer to that question is in this frantic, globalized, and relentless cell phone addiction that appears to have overtaken just about every imaginable part of the planet.

Many parents turn to schools for the answer, wanting to know what their policy on cell phones is. But I fear that this is a societal problem that runs much deeper than what happens in schools and classrooms. If parents are addicted to their phones, and if they are giving their children phones, what good is there in asking schools to ban them?

The issue is not the technology, it's what it's being used for. If the phones were being used to write articles, to read quality literature or journalism, to engage in critical discussion, or to edit creative, original photographs, that would be one thing; but most of the time, they are being used to like truncated Instagram video clips and photographs, to take selfies that all look alike, to Snapchat sound bites or send emojis, sometimes with an aim to harm.

Similarly, when television became a household phenomenon after WW2, what the Frankfurt School of philosophers deplored was not access to technology, it was that technology was being used to pollute the mind with mindless mass entertainment rather than critical thinking; when, in the 19th Century, the telephone became a standard communication tool, Henry David Thoreau, the reactionary transcendentalist philosopher asked, sardonically, now that they had the means, what on earth people were going to talk about?


Artificial intelligence is less of a threat to the mind than hours of self-inflicted binge-watching of formulaic reality shows late at night or over the weekend; handheld android devices are less of a threat to an education than the ill-informed decision to pay no attention to books, high powered conversations, or the arts (things that happen at school). Cyberbullying is not done because of technology; it is done through technology. It is the bullying that is the problem, not the cybernetics.

In essence, technological advances, in general, will be as good as what they are used for. And, most usage happens outside not inside schools, since that's when we have time to surf the internet and be on our devices.

In fact, if there is one place where artificial intelligence and technology, in general, are used well, it is probably in schools, where students are educated to live with it, are taught about their digital footprint, how to use 3D printers and laser cutters and, if the school is thinking ahead, how to work with artificial intelligence.

For thinking to be deep, experiences meaningful, and approaches critical, efforts have to be made beyond school, at home.

Not Too Late

I'm back on the metro in Madrid. At one point my eyes lock for just a few seconds with a person who, like me, is not on their phone. Our gaze seems to stand out from the sprawling mass of cell phone users like two of the few surviving prehistoric creatures that share some sort of ancient bond.

On one seat a middle-aged woman is crouched intently over a novel. The sight is strangely incongruous in the ocean of plasma.

Perhaps, if we make a concerted effort at home to put the phones down, to have a conversation about life once in a while, to read to our children at bedtime, and to organize outings to museums and the great outdoors, perhaps then we might be able to overcome what ultimately is a self-inflicted condition of enslavement not to technology, but to mediocrity.


Conrad Hughes (MA, PhD, EdD) is the campus and secondary principal at the International School of Geneva, La Grande Boissière. He has been a school principal, director of education, International Baccalaureate diploma program coordinator, and teacher in schools in Switzerland, France, India, and the Netherlands. Conrad is a Senior Fellow at UNESCO's International Bureau of Education, a member of the advisory board for the University of the People, and a research assistant at the University of Geneva's department of psychology and education. He teaches philosophy.

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03/06/2023 - HollyWarren
I can see what you see ans seeing becomes the beginning of awareness. My question is, why do we call them phones when phoning is the least we do with them.