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Computers are not people

I think we can finally admit it is coming: the impending event referred to by some affectionately and others callously as the "virtual revolution." It has been predicted time and time again — usually resulting in a Terminator-esque, post-apocalyptic world where humanity is taken over by the machine. More realistic though than the risk of losing our lives to freethinking robotic weaponry, is the potential for a growing number of individuals to lose their livelihoods. The Ridgewood, N.J., school district replaced its three Spanish elementary educators with the computer language learning software, Rosetta Stone. Debra Anderson, a representative from the district, said that "this was a good solution in view of the financial constraints," seeing as the switch cost only $70,000, which is less than half the combined salaries of the three teachers, according to The New York Times. Ridgewood is only one in a number of school districts in the tri-state area who are cutting back on foreign language instruction. Certainly, saving money has become the driving force behind most decisions made in the wake of the economic crisis, but does the reduction in cost offset other losses? Almost a decade ago we became preoccupied with the threat of Y2K. The belief was that we were already so immersed in technology that potential new-millennium computer data failures would have ramifications in every sphere of our lives, beginning with banking errors and extending as far as mass chaos. Of course, we did not appear to learn from the Y2K scare that we could be more cautious when it comes to the power we give our technology. Nor did the four "Terminator" films, "The Matrix" and its sequels, "I-Robot," "Wall-E," or the newly released "9" seem to get across that point. Perhaps it is too much to expect fantastical films to be taken seriously enough to motivate real-world change. It would be a definite shame for this planet to be populated solely by nine stuffed-animal-like beings, but I cannot really blame you for not taking action against that highly unlikely risk. However overblown they may seem, these on-screen scenarios may merit some consideration, especially in an era where decisions to go hi-tech are made without good reason. Originally, technological advancement was based on the idea that it was making things easier for people — communication, production, day-to-day household activities. Even when technology resulted in layoffs, it could be justified for the greater good it helped achieve. When mechanized parts replaced the human assembly line, the shift was accepted because it was more than simply cost effective, but it also sped up production. There appears to be big changes of this nature approaching. The day is looming when major newspapers will be forced to close their doors once and for all because Internet publications allow for wider readership. Many people in this industry will lose their jobs. Online colleges are causing the same ramifications as online newspapers. As with print media, academia may have to one day admit that their technological counterparts are simply more effective. You may feel, as I do, that attending a college class in the flesh is an experience you could not possibly trade for a course behind your computer screen. Those who love the feeling of a newspaper crinkling in their hands and the black ink residue on their fingers could say the same thing about print media. I am fairly sure that the men and women who lost their places on the assembly line due to technological advances were equally opposed to making the change. But it is hard to deny the perks that come along with trading our commonplace way of getting the news and attending a university for the modern, mechanized alternatives. Likewise, I can imagine it may have been difficult to justify keeping factory workers over installing machines to do the work.Online colleges are significantly more affordable for the student and allow you to complete your degree without compromising your ability to work and see to other responsibilities. It also permits more students than you can cram into a lecture hall the ability to receive the same standard of education.However, the arguments that may apply to computerizing education for the college-aged student differ tremendously from the arguments for changing K-12 education. According to The New York Times, "some educators said they were re-evaluating foreign-language programs not just because of finances but to update them and incorporate new technology." Yet, aside from the fact that they are money-saving, what advantages do these technological programs provide for the children who will now be forced to use them? One explanation that has been offered is that Rosetta Stone will allow the children to "learn at their own pace." With students expected to keep to their teacher's pace in Mathematics, English, Social Studies, Science, Health, Music, Art and Physical Education classes, why would we view learning a foreign language at their "own pace" as constructive? If indeed this could be construed as a necessary change in education, then surely the way we are teaching all other subjects must be unsuitable. I think, however, the school district may have some difficulty dismissing all their staff in favor of electronic learning.Replacing a teacher with a computer program will only prevent students from getting their questions answered, and it will cause them to lose elements like positive reinforcement and a motivational tone that only a person can provide. Not to mention that it will eliminate a critical element to learning a language: conversation.I think our fears may be misplaced. As "The Terminator" suggested, there is real reason to be careful with how we use our technology. Yet, it seems as if it will not be the machines that will turn against us, but rather people that are working as impediments to their peers and as allies of the machines. Rather than guarding against a takeover of self-motivated, murderous robots, maybe we should adjust our focus and avoid choosing technology over humanity just because we can.  Larissa Klein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior. Her column "Definition of Insanity" runs on alternate Thursdays. She welcomes feedback at [email protected] 


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