International College Hong Kong
Jun 22, 2017

The Human Technologies Test

Those familiar with ICHK know that Human Technologies is a programme of study that we have developed over the past five years and which students from Year 7 to 10 follow each week.

The course teaches that what makes humans so effective and powerful a presence on the planet is not just our native intelligence, but also our ability to share in and benefit from the thinking of others. And not just others in our immediate vicinity, but others in potentially distant times and places, whose ideas and innovations have come to shape the societies and cultures in which we live. So, the course suggests, being able to select wisely and healthfully from the plethora of technologies on offer is the true sign of human intelligence.

This week I shared my final session with the Year 10 group with whom I have been exploring the Human Technologies perspective for the last twelve months. To mark the occasion, I held the Big HT Test – a series of questions and conundrums with no right answers, but, rather, plenty of opportunities to reflect and discuss, argue and persuade. In groups of four, the students debated and crafted their responses.

To put this into context, for the student of Human Technologies, more or less any cultural practice will be construed as a technology. Language is a technology that revolutionizes our capacity to think and communicate our thinking; domesticated fire is a technology with multiple uses, including cooking foodstuff, so radically altering the diet of humans and, as a result, their physiology; the meeting agenda is a technology that sets the scene for groups of humans to engage purposefully and effectively in pursuing a common, collective purpose; yoga is a technology that promotes physical and mental agility and well being … and so on, ad infinitum.

So, the test began.

Which was the more significant material technology, they were asked, the horse-drawn plough or the printing press? Which technology better promotes social cohesion, the campfire or the communal bath? List ten spiritual technologies that serve your group well as ways to know, enrich and better yourselves (they came up with, among others, listening to music, mindfulness, taking a walk, singing, showering, singing while showering, praying, meditation, playing team sports, reading, day-dreaming, ancestral worship, eating, taking a nap.)

However, it was their responses to the question, “What is the most damaging material technology ever invented?” that I would like to share. There were six groups and their musings are presented below.

When 15 year olds come up with ideas and reflections of this quality, I am instantly reminded why it is such a pleasure to work with them at this point in their lives, as their thinking begins truly to embrace the paradoxes and complexities of our world.

Question 4: “What is the most damaging material technology ever invented? Why?”

4G phones – because of their seductive power to distract, because of the way they make young people feel compelled to ‘connect’ and be ‘social’ even when they’ve had enough, because they can’t be left alone.

Nuclear bombs – because of their insane destructive power, because they heralded a world in which humans could completely destroy each other, because we must all live under their shadow forever.

Nation states – because they encourage us to see each other as different, because they demand allegiance at the expense of other nations, because they are historical inventions that close our minds to people of other nationalities.

Spears – because, as the first projectile weapons, they made killing easier, because they allowed people to kill at a distance and so with less emotional immediacy, because they were the initial step in a journey that has led to unmanned drones and real-life killing as if it were a computer game.

Money – because it speeds up the market to the point where human interest gets lost, because it congeals power and gives some people too much authority over others, because as an enduring store of wealth it perpetuates inequality.

Cigarettes – because they are designed to be addictive and are unhealthy, because they also adversely affect those who do not smoke, because as a ‘stress reliever’ they support smokers in living increasingly stressful lives, so avoiding the issue of whether they can make their lives less stressful.

Great answers, from students who, truly, are engaging imaginatively and positively with the difficult, arduous, sometimes befuddling challenge of being a thoughtful human in our modern world. And, in each instance, what their explanatory thinking explores and enumerates is the ways in which material technologies inevitably have cognitive and social effects; the ways in which our physical inventions and tools shape our thought patterns and our communities.

Was my thinking this sophisticated and nuanced at their age? I don’t think so.

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