Returning to the Tower of Babel


Itsukushima Shrine and its famous torii (gate), Hiroshima

With automation taking over more and more tasks once performed by humans, creating large numbers of surplus people in the process (something like 91 million in the US alone at the time of this writing), the next significant and complex human task to fall victim to relentless automation appears to be foreign language learning.  Eliminating repetitive mind-numbing tasks in the factory it should be noted has been a good thing for the most part as it frees up people for more productive and interesting work, at least for those who choose to apply themselves to learning new things.  As more and more complex tasks yield to automation, more and more people seem to have little regard for learning new and especially “hard” things.  Advances in technology and the growing complexity of modern living are leaving more and more folks by the wayside.  It’s bad enough that music and art programs in the public schools are being cut back or eliminated ostensibly due to funding issues, but recently schools in Ohio have stopped teaching cursive writing.  Guess they’ll never be able to read letters from Grandma and Grandpa.  Or my writer’s journals. Supposedly this was due to complaints from the students about it not being necessary to learn since everyone uses computer keyboards or mobile devices now.  Kids stopped learning their times tables after calculators came out.  My son, who tutored part time when he went to university, was gob smacked when some students had to use a calculator to figure out 2 x 2.  And now the latest announcement that by 2020 our portable devices will be so powerful and well connected that they’ll be able to perform bi-directional spoken language translation in real time.  This is yet another Star Trek technology coming true, along with another excuse not to learn something hard.  But the real problem is that simultaneous real time mechanical translation might get most of the words correct but how can one understand the proper meaning of those words without any knowledge of the cultural context?  Learning a foreign language may be hard, but in the process one learns more than just the right words or phrases to use, one learns how people using that language THINK.  Without at least some understanding of cultural context, simultaneous real time spoken translation risks becoming just so much babble and nonsense with the potential for some horrific misunderstandings.  These gadgets might be fine for tourists or other casual users but I wouldn’t want to trust a business deal to something like this.  Or nuclear arms negotiations…

It’s unfortunate that even College is seen as nothing more than vocational education these days.  Yet much of what one learns in the way of a vocational nature will be obsolete by the time a person graduates, if not before.  Think of electronics and computer engineering.  It’s like trying to keep up with advances in medicine these days.  Advances in electronics come so fast it seems that I have to learn everything all over again every 9 months or so.  So unless the US shapes up and we require students to learn hard things in the lower grades and cultivate learning for its own sake at the university level, people will continue to get dumber and dumber.  At some point the machines will be smart enough to take care of themselves, then all humans will be surplus, just like in some 1950’s sci fi movie.

“They say a bad idea is worse than no idea.  That’s why business is hard.” -Unknown