Technology sprints; understanding plods.

This being Computer Science Education Week, Tuesday evening’s #RuralEdChat was about the role of technology in education.

Black and gray cover of Koestler's Darkness at Noon
A political prisoner reconsiders impact of technology on history.

As so often happens, I ran across an unrelated passage in a novel I’m reviewing tomorrow at GreatPenformances, which struck me as related.

The novel is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, the novel is about Nicholar Salmanovitch Rubashov, ex-Commissar of the People, in an unnamed country that certainly is the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin. (Koestler was a communist until 1938 and spent time in Russia.)

Rubashov is arrested for acts against the Party. He’s being held until he produces a suitable confession, at which time he knows he will be killed.

Rubashov writes a diary, meditating on his political career and contemporary history.

He says, in effect that history swings from absolutism to democracy, then from democracy to absolutism, depending on the political maturity of a country’s citizens. That maturity, Rubashov writes, depend on citizens recognizing what’s in their own best interests. Here’s part of that entry:

Every jump of technical progress leaves the relative intellectual development of the masses a step behind, and thus causes a fall in the political-maturity thermometer. It takes sometimes tens of years, sometimes generations, for a people’s level of understanding gradually to adapt itself to the changed state of affairs, until it has recovered the same capacity for self-government as it had already possessed at a lower stage of civilization. …

When the level of mass-consciousness catches up with the objective state of affairs, there follows inevitably the conquest of democracy … Until the next jump of technical civilization … again sets back the masses in a state of relative immaturity, and renders possible or even necessary the establishment of some form of absolute leadership.

Rubashov likens the ability of citizens to understand the impact of technology to the progress of a boat through a series of locks. The boat rises within its lock, but even at the top of its lock, it is far from the level to which it must rise to make progress forward. The mistake of socialism, he thinks, was that it assumed the people’s ability to understand the implications of new technology rises steadily.

The peoples of Europe are still far from having mentally digested the consequences of the steam engine. The capitalist system will collapse before the masses have understood it.

We probably would do well to consider whether the fictional Rubashov is right about how long it takes people to understand the true impact of any new technology.

If he’s right, we’re in deep trouble.

© 2017 Linda G. Aragoni

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