Daniel Lemire's blog

, 6 min read

Know the biases of your operating system

Douglas Rushkoff wrote in Life Inc. that our society is nothing more than an operating system upon which we (as software) live:

The landscape on which we are living “the operating system on which we are now running our social software” was invented by people, sold to us as a better way of life, supported by myths, and ultimately allowed to develop into a self-sustaining reality.

In turn, operating systems are designed and maintained by engineers who make choices and have biases. He makes us realize that corporations, these virtual beings which live forever and are granted full privileges (including free speech), are not natural but are bona fide inventions. He also stresses that central currencies, that is, the concept that the state must have a monopoly on the currency, is also an invention: why is it illegal to switch to an alternative currency in most countries?

We fail to see these things, or rather, we take them for granted because they are our operating system. Someone used to Microsoft Windows takes for granted that a desktop computer must behave like Microsoft Windows: they cannot suffer MacOS or Linux, at least initially, because it feels instinctively wrong. Anyone, like myself, who uses non-Microsoft operating systems in a predominantly Microsoft organization is constantly exposing hidden assumptions. “No, my document was not written using Microsoft Word.”

Science has an operating system as well. One of its building block is traditional peer review: you submit a research paper to an editor who picks a few respected colleagues who, in turn, advise him on whether your work is valid or not. By convention, any work which did not undergo this process is suspect. In Three myths about peer review, Michael Nielsen reminded us that traditional peer review is not a long tradition, and is not how correctness is assessed in science. Gregori Perelman by choosing to forgo traditional peer review while publishing some of the most important mathematical work of our generation could not have made Nielsen’s point stronger. Similarly, we believe that serious academics must publish books through a reputable publisher: self-publishing a book would be a sure sign that you are a crank. Years ago, scholars who had blogs were clowns (though this has changed). We also value greatly the training of new Ph.D. students, even when there is no evidence that the job market needs more doctors. We value greatly large research grants, even when they take away great researchers from what they like best (doing research) and turn them into what they hate doing (managing research). But nobody is willing to question this system because the alternative is unthinkable. “You mean that I could use something beside Microsoft Windows?”

In my previous post, I challenged public education. Some people even went so far as to admit that my post felt wrong. I suspect that this feeling is not unlike the feeling one gets when switching from Windows to Linux. “Where is Internet Explorer?”

Several people cannot imagine that you can become smart without a formal education which includes at least a high school diploma. It is not that the counter-examples are missing (there are plenty: Bobby Fischer, Walt Disney, James Bach and Richard Branson). It is simply hard to imagine that you could do away with brick-and-mortal schools and still have scholarship and intelligence. Similarly, we cannot imagine a world without corporations or without central currency, or science without formal peer review.

Challenging preconceived notions is difficult because your feelings will betray you. Radically new ideas feel wrong. The cure is to try to remember how it felt like when you were first exposed to these ideas. On this note, Andre Vellino pointed me to Disciplined Minds, a book so controversial that it got its author fired! It reminded me of my feelings as a student about exams, grades and teachers:

  • Exams and grades appear neutral: on the face of it, they are merit-based challenges. While in fact, they are really tests of conformity. To get good grades, you must organize much of your life around what others expect you to do. I cannot think of a good reason why most people would care about the integral of x3 cos(x). Why do we require such technical knowledge of so many people? The reason is simple: if you can set aside all other interests to learn calculus just because you are told to do so, then you are good at learning what you are told to learn. If you refuse to hand in an assignment because you think it is stupid, you will be punished. It does not matter if you use the free time to be even more productive on some valid scholarship.
  • Teachers appear unpolitical at a first glance. They teach commonly accepted facts to students. However, teachers are political because they never challenge the curriculum, and when they do, they are frequently fired. As a kid, I refused to learn my multiplication tables. I was repeatedly chastised for failing to memorize them: instead, I would design algorithms to quickly deduce the correct answer without rote memorization. This was called cheating, and my teachers would wait for the small pause and then interrupt me: “you are cheating again, you have to memorize”. I still have not memorized my multiplication tables. Why is it that no teacher ever opposed the requirement that we memorize multiplication tables? Because their job involves teaching obedience.

So, the same way corporations and central currencies are not neutral, public education is not neutral. Kids are naturally curious. If you leave them alone, they will learn eagerly. Alas, they will also refuse to learn what you are telling them to learn. This is precisely what schools are meant to break.

Public education historically helped class mobility. Publicly funded scholar have also greatly contributed to our advancement. However, as the world is changing through increased automatization and globalization, we may need to drastically shift gear. Stephen Downes answered my previous post with a pointer to his essay Five key questions. In this essay, Downes offers a foundational principle for a renewed public education:

It represents a change of outlook from one where education is an essential service that much be provided to all persons, to one where the role of the public provider is overwhelmingly one of support and recognition for an individual’s own educational attainment. It represents an end to a centrally-defined determination of how an education can be obtained, to one that offers choices, resources and assessment.

Downes challenges conformity as a core value for education. Quite the opposite: he calls into question the idea that education should be “managed”. I believe he would agree that one of the great tragedy of public education is the centrally mandated curriculum. This was ideal preparation for the slow-moving corporations of the sixties and seventies. In 2011, why punish a kid who decides to spent five years building a robot?

Go ask your kid to name a planet. If his answer his Jupiter, Mars or Earth. Be worried. In the twenty-first century, we need kids who answer Eris or MakeMake.

Further reading: Brian Martin, Review of Jeff Schmidt’s Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes their Lives, Radical Teacher, No. 62, 2001, pp. 40-43.