In January 1813, 17 men were sentenced to death in York for the crime of “frame breaking”. Others were sent to Australia for the same offence. These men were Luddites and were part of an uprising against industrialisation, destroying machinery in wool and cotton mills around northern England. They did so because they saw these machines as a threat – a threat to their wages, to their jobs and to the skills required to do those jobs. It was a battle they could not hope to win.
The extent to which we have allowed machines to dominate not just our workplaces but our lives over the past 200 years would be unimaginable to the Luddites. So wholly has technology become entangled with both our culture and our economy that we would be helpless – most of us – without it.
Still today there are many who question the wisdom of this level of entanglement. But there are, too, many more who would have us move further down this path – who argue that those parts of our lives in which technology is not already dominant need to be brought, imminently, into “the modern world”.
Such a person is Isabel Nisbet, the chief executive of Ofqual, an examinations watchdog, who declared recently in the Times Educational Supplement that pen and paper no longer had a place in exams.
“This cannot go on”, she wrote. “Our school exams are running the risk of becoming invalid as their medium of pen and ink increasingly differs from the way in which youngsters learn.”
Ms Nisbet explained that pupils “use IT as their natural medium for identifying and exploring new issues and deepening their knowledge”. Therefore, she argued, online examinations were necessary to keep up with this change.
(It was perhaps unfortunate for her cause that the article appeared during the same week that over 3,000 students who had taken online exams discovered that they had been awarded the wrong grades. But nevertheless, the point still deserves consideration.)
There is certainly some truth in what Ms Nisbet says; computers and the internet increasingly are “the way in which youngsters learn” today. That is undeniable. But to acknowledge that fact is not necessarily to be glad of it.
Accessing information on the internet rather than in books and on paper is not better learning. Indeed, there are increasingly strong arguments that the opposite is true – that high levels of internet use are making us less creative, less able to retain information and less able to think for ourselves. Sitting here on my computer, often for hours on end, I am inclined to agree.
The problem is that many people (and Isabel Nisbet may well be one of these people) have got themselves in a muddle. They have forgotten the difference between access to knowledge and knowledge itself; they have confused Googling with learning. They are advocating change, it seems, for change’s sake. And that is foolish.
Technology ought to be seen as a tool and nothing more. It is valuable in so far as it is useful, but that usefulness must always be weighed against its potential dangers. A spade may dig a garden, but it may also, if employed without care, chop your foot off.
The internet is a tool too, and we should make the most of the opportunities that it brings. But at the same time we should not be fooled into thinking that it is inevitably a positive influence. A child left alone with a computer will not necessarily learn anything at all (unlike, I suspect, a child left reading a book). But if we go further and encourage that child to abandon a skill previously thought necessary – the skill of writing by hand – simply because that is the way things seem to be moving, then we will be making a very serious mistake indeed.
The Luddites may have lost their battle with the mill owners, but there are other battles that are still to be fought. We must judge technology on its dangers and limitations as well as on its merits, or else risk becoming ruled by it. And we should not give up the tools we have until we are sure we no longer need them.
Meanwhile, I long for the day when I can take a sledgehammer to this laptop of mine.