Published in The Times Higher Education, February 12, 1999. p15.

Smart to be simple

Harold Thimbleby challenges the view that lifelong learning should equip people to cope with an ever more complex world.

Each person now consumes more energy, travels faster and is able to consume more information than ever before. If our growth continues unchecked, there will be problems, whether of over-fishing, pollution, war or famine. There are also new opportunities to use technology to communicate and share solutions to problems. People anywhere in the world can now have access to information that can help them, whether they wish to dig wells, make news, or to be politically active.

All countries need literacy, and in industrial countries there is a growing awareness of the need for technical literacy - being able not just to read and write, but to use computers and contribute to the worldwide flow of information. Because of the rapid rate of change, it is no longer sufficient to be made literate once. What we learned as children is no longer sufficient to enable us to participate as adults.

There are powerful arguments for lifelong education. But if we are not careful, we promote the wrong sort of education. There is the education that provides the skills to cope with the complex world we live in. Enthusiasts for this approach argue that since education will be provided on computers, we will have to know about computers even to learn. So we will be learning even more, while sales of gadgets to help us learn keep the consumer economy growing.

But there is another sort of education, that imparts the skills and attitudes that put people in charge of their lives and enable them to make informed choices. Someone who has done mathematics GCSE will have a healthier approach to credit arrangements and taking out loans. Someone who has studied drama can express themselves and make their opinion felt. These people can change the world in which they live. They are not mindlessly skilled to consume. They will understand the issues around digital television, they will understand mortgages, and they will understand energy conservation and pollution.

Not many people in power want to hear this. Critical consumers may not comply with some of the schemes that currently make the rich richer. Today's children are increasingly aware of the cost of the consumer society: waste packaging, cars idling their engines, and third world debt. Britain buries thousands of computers every year as landfill, because those computers are thwarted hopes and dreams turned to dust. Are they not the very computers that, a few years ago, we were teaching everyone to use? To stay alive in our society we have to earn our living. To do that we have to conform and give ourselves the skills to be employable so that we can consume to live. When we confuse being a good consumer with being a good citizen, we begin to feel it is our responsibility to understand how to consume better.

We apparently need lifelong learning because technology is changing our lives. We now have set top boxes, internet access, the world wide web and email. People who do not know how to use these new technologies are locked out of many jobs, and they are locked out of opportunities to consume gadgets whose very use requires those skills. Adults are supposed to be embarassed because some children know far more than they do about the gadgets.

There are over 50 million people in the UK, and almost everyone is going to need a computer at home and another at work or at school. If each is worth £500 there is a market of very roughly £50 billion. The information itself will cost extra, and when the technology becomes obsolete there will be another £500 to get from everyone.

Whether individuals actually gain by this may be open to question. What is certain is that companies can make massive profits out of such a large change in society, by selling boxes, laying cables, and providing content including educational materials. But none of the investment will be worthwhile unless everyone is better educated to use the things. Surely learning how to send email and use the world wide web should not be a lifelong learning issue? Gadgets should be easier to use, so that they do not take a lifetime to learn. Gadgets are just one symptom of our over-complex society. Another example is the UK tax system. The recent introduction of self assessment is one of the many changes in our fast-paced society. It is a legal requirement to comply. Lifelong education will help us to fill in tax returns - and whatever else we will have to do in the future. From the conventional point of view lifelong learning helps us be better members of our society, less likely to fill in our tax returns incorrectly. It is our responsibility to learn to cope.

Another view is that the Inland Revenue could not cope with the job they had, and they have now had the law changed so that everyone must do the job that they, the experts, could not cope with. Perhaps someone should have said that the tax system was too complex. If a simpler tax system had been proposed as the solution to the problem of the Inland Revenue not coping, then we would not have needed self assessment, and we would not have needed lifelong learning to learn a new trick.

The question we should be asking is, are we making ourselves better than other people, or are we making ourselves a better world? If we learn new skills to own and master new technologies, we are merely making ourselves better than other people who do not have such privileges. In fact, we are making the world a worse place for the less well-off. On the other hand, if we see that the technologies we are supposed to understand are in fact things made by other people, then they can be mastered at a much deeper level. Our complex world is our own creation, and we can change it - at least as soon as we decide to. By being more discriminating in what we consume, we can force manufacturers to produce better goods. We know this from the consumer movement. We got safer products when we demanded them, so we should be able to have simpler and easier to understand products if we want them. Sadly we have been trained that it is our own fault, and therefore our responsibility to get ourselves educated, rather than to get the manufacturers educated.

It is very hard to see clearly because our whole culture and many of its institutions are caught up with the same perspective. Let me give one very simple example. In schools we teach our children how to use calculators. Using calculators is a useful skill in the modern world. Maybe. On the other hand, it is quite easy to show that most of what we teach about calculators is actually how to overcome silly problems with the design of the calculators themselves.

For example, try a simple VAT calculation on 100 pounds. The Casio MC100 says that 100+17.5% is 121.21212, while the similar-looking Casio SL300LC says 100+17.5% is 117.5. Should not these numbers be the same? Once we are initiated into how calculators work, it is quite hard to see the problems as unnecessary and avoidable - indeed many people learn to avoid using the % key. It seems, at first sight, that calculators are a fixture of the modern world, and we had just better learn to use them.

Note: The Times Higher article said that '117.50' was displayed, whereas in fact '117.5' is displayed. Since Casio phoned me to take issue with my observations on their calculator design, I feel it is important to point out this typo (which is corrected in the paragraph above). But I'd rather they had phoned me to ask how to design their calculators differently. (See this PDF article, for example.)

When I point out that calculators make mistakes I am met with derision. When I point out that calculators from the same manufacturer give very different answers to the same problem, I am told that that is all the more reason to know how to use them properly. Only when I point out that almost identical-looking calculators do things very differently do people begin to see that something is slightly wrong.

We should not be learning how to use such things. We should be learning how to recognise and promote excellence, and learning how to recognise and deal with rubbish when we see it. And some people should be learning how to make decent products that work properly - and that may well be their life long learning challenge.

Harold Thimbleby is professor of computing research, Middlesex University.