Back in 2002, for a complex set of reasons, we took a road trip from Reno to Yosemite. In those days we were slightly pre-GPS but post-Internet, and we had Yahoo Maps. In what I believed then to be a masterful technological feat, I plugged in our starting address and our destination motel in Yosemite, pressed a button, and voila! Step-by-step directions, and a map. I printed everything out and we navigated like pros, south on the 395. Not too complicated, but once we left the highway, the map suggested that the roads were going to get windy-er. And narrower. And less well paved.
Turn left here, turn right there, turn again--here? Really? Though we were growing increasingly dubious, we knew we'd been following the directions precisely--even though with each turn the breadth of the road shrank by a foot, or the quality of the paving surface reduced by one grade, or both. Pretty soon we found ourselves driving down a narrow twisting gravel lane, heading steeply downhill toward a tiny log cabin with a carport. The carport was also a dead end.
A predictable driver-navigator marital spat might have ensued here, but we were spared by the timely intervention of a weary-looking bearded man, who exited the cabin's front door carrying a little stack of stapled papers. "Oh God," he sighed, shaking his head, "another damn Yahoo Maps user." The papers he handed us provided handwritten directions to the highway from his carport.
"You get a lot of these around here, I take it."
"At least three a day. Damn Yahoo Maps. I keep a bunch of these things ready for the likes of you. Ya try to live off the grid and look what happens..."
The map is not the territory. The machine has its limits. (If you've ever heard a GPS trying to pronounce Hawaiian street names, you know.) I suppose some techno-geek could weigh in here and tell me that I'm not up to date on the latest in artificial intelligence and that the machines are becoming smarter, look at all the technological improvements we've had even since 2002, etc. All true.
But I strongly believe that in almost all endeavors, we are always going to be better off if we employ human judgment and engage in person-to-person communication. To some extent, "artificial intelligence" will always remain oxymoronic.
If you want to learn more about why, you might want to talk to a court reporter. That was my job for two decades--which meant that when I disclosed my occupation in social situations, I was typically subjected to a round of tedious and predictable questions. One of the most recurrent was, "Why can't they just use tape recorders?"
The short answer: "Because somebody still has to transcribe it." And when 100% accuracy is expected, you can't rely solely on a machine. A real human being knows if a statement has been obscured by outside noises and can ask for it to be repeated on the spot. A real human being can be attentive to various accents. A real human being can tune in to the vocal inflections that help determine whether the speaker implied the use of a full stop or a question mark, which in some legal situations might crucially matter. A real human being can put a stop to overlapping speech before it gets out of hand (or can at least try--if any court reporters are reading this, they're probably laughing. Let's just say people don't always listen to us.) A real human being can read back stenographic notes on the spot when a dispute arises over what was actually said. Those are just a few examples of why we need real human beings to transcribe important legal proceedings; there are more.
The court reporting profession has been battling this dehumanizing incursion of the machine for many decades--far longer than academia has been. Yet the profession still exists, thanks to the well-informed activism of many dedicated court reporters and, not least of all, their unflagging solidarity on this issue. They have not won every single battle (especially in smaller venues), but in terms of the larger war, court reporters are still with us. If those of us in academia want to fight back effectively against the incursion of the machine into realms where real human beings are still necessary, we would do well to learn from them.
The other day I was speaking with a close friend who dispatches delivery trucks, along routes that he used to drive himself. A young newbie driver had recently griped about my friend's dispatches: "Why have you got me going here and then here and then taking the long way around here? Don't you have me going way out of my way?"
My friend's response: "Because for decades I drove those routes myself. I know where the gullies are, I know where the ravines are, I know where you're likely to get in a traffic jam at lunchtime and how to avoid it, and at each place you stop, I know which direction you want the truck to be facing to get your hose where it's needed."
The incursion of the machine, the difference between map/information and territory/knowledge--these aren't only issues in the field of education. These are issues for everybody.
Many of the powers-that-be would like nothing more than to eliminate human beings from the workplace altogether. We're such a nuisance, after all: we insist on things like bathroom breaks and meals and time to sleep (the nerve!). We get sick, we have babies, we ask for time off to attend funerals. Some of us even have the gall to expect occasional time off for leisure--how crazy is that? All this costs money, and line item expenditures in your budget are always a bad thing. Just look at how much money we could save if we did away with people.
It might sound like a genius idea, if you're relying solely on the logic of the machine. But the machines aren't always right, and without a human being to make the necessary judgments and adjustments, our whole society might easily end up in a metaphorical carport, at the dead end of a narrow, steep and twisting gravel lane.