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Apr
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Isaac Asimov predicted the Internet of today 20 years ago (1988)



Bill Moyers: Can we have a revolution in learning?

Isaac Asimov: “Yes, I think not only that we can but that we must. As computers take over more and more of the work that human beings shouldn’t be doing in the first place - because it doesn’t utilize their brains, it stultifies and bores them to death - there’s going to be nothing left for human beings to do but the more creative types of endeavor. The only way we can indulge in the more creative types of endeavor is to have brains that aim at that from the start. (…)

In the old days, very few people could read and write. Literacy was a very novel sort of thing, and it was felt that most people just didn’t have it in them. But with mass education, it turned out that most people could be taught to read and write. In the same way, once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries, where you can ask any question and be given answers, you can look up something you’re interested in knowing, however silly it might seem to someone else.

Today, what people call learning is forced on you. Everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. But everyone is different. For some, class goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wrong direction. But give everyone a chance, in addition to school, to follow up their own bent from the start, to find out about whatever they’re interested in by looking it up in their own homes, at their own speed, in their own time, and everyone will enjoy learning.

BM: What about the argument that machines, like computers, dehumanize learning?

IA: As a matter of fact, it’s just the reverse. It’s through this machine that for the first time, we’ll be able to have a one-to-one relationship between information source and information consumer. In the old days, you used to hire a tutor or pedagogue to teach your children. And if he knew his job, he could adapt his teaching to the tastes and abilities of the students. But how many people could afford to hire a pedagogue? Most children went uneducated. Then we reached the point where it was absolutely necessary to educate everybody. The only way we could do it was to have one teacher for a great many students, and to give the teacher a curriculum to teach from. But how many teachers are good at this? As with everything else, the number of teachers is far greater than the number of good teachers. So we either have a one-to-one relationship for the very few, or a one-to-many for the many. Now, with the computer, it’s possible to have a one-to-one relationship for the many. Everyone can have a teacher in the form of access to the gathered knowledge of the human species. (…)

BM: What would such a teaching machine look like?

IA: I find that difficult to imagine. It’s easy to be theoretical, but when you really try to think of the nuts and bolts, then it becomes difficult. I could easily have imagined a horseless carriage in the middle of the nineteenth century, but I couldn’t have drawn a picture of it. But I suppose that one essential thing would be a screen on which you could display things, and another essential part would be a printing mechanism on which things could be printed for you. And you’ll have to have a keyboard on which you ask your questions’ although ideally I would like to see one that could be activated by voice. You could actually talk to it, and perhaps it could talk to you too, and say, “I have something here that may interest you. Would you like to have me print it out for you.?” And you’d say, “Well, what is it exactly?” And it would tell you, and you might say, “Oh all right, I’ll take a look at it.” (…)

BM: But the machine would have to be connected to books, periodicals, and documents in some vast library, so then when I want to look at Isaac Asimov’s new book Far as Human Eye Could See, the chapter on geochemistry, I could punch my keys and this chapter would come to me.

IA: That’s right, and then of course you ask - and believe me, I’ve asked - this question: “How do you arrange to pay the author for the use of the material?” After all, if a person writes something, and this then becomes available to everybody’ you deprive him of the economic reason for writing. A person like myself, if he was assured of a livelihood, might write anyway, just because he enjoyed it, but most people would want to do it in return for something. I imagine how they must have felt when free libraries were first instituted. “What? My book in a free library? Anyone can come in and read it for free.?” Then you realize that there are some books that wouldn’t be sold at all if you didn’t have libraries.

BM: With computers, in a sense, every student has his or her own private school.

IA: Yes, he can be the sole dictator of what he is going to study. Mind you, this is not all he’s going to do. He’ll still be going to school for some things that he has to know.

BM: Common knowledge for example.

IA: Right, and interaction with other students and with teachers. He can’t get away from that, but he’s got to look forward to the fun in life, which is following his own bent.

BM: Is this revolution in personal learning just for the young?

IA: No, it’s not just for the young. That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school - reading books, having ideas, asking questions - that’s kid’s stuff. Now you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing any more. (…)

You have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed afterward of going back to learning. If you have a system of education using computers, then anyone, any age, can learn by himself, can continue to be interested. If you enjoy learning, there’s no reason why you should stop at a given age. People don’t stop things they enjoy doing just because they reach a certain age. They don’t stop playing tennis just because they’ve turned forty. They don’t stop with sex just because they’ve turned forty. They keep it up as long as they can if they enjoy it, and learning will be the same thing. The trouble with learning is that most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning, and they’ll keep it up.

There’s the famous story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was in the hospital one time, when he was over ninety. President Roosevelt came to see him, and there was Oliver Wendell Holmes reading the Greek grammar. Roosevelt said, “Why are you reading a Greek grammar, Mr. Holmes?” And Holmes said, “To improve my mind, Mr. President.”

BM: Are we romanticizing this, or do you think that Saul Bellow's character Herzog was correct when he said that the people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. What they're really seeking, he said, is clarity, good sense, and truth, even an atom of it. People, he said, are dying for the lack of something real at the end of the day.

IA: I’d like to think that was so. I’d like to think that people who are given a chance to learn facts and broaden their knowledge of the universe wouldn’t seek so avidly after mysticism.”

Isaac Asimov, American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books (1920-1992), Bill Moyers interviewed author Isaac Asimov, World of Ideas, PBS, 1988.