Friday, August 29, 2014

Spell Check & Educrats

A few days ago I tried composing a post on my tablet. I like the equipment; it's new and shiny and it lets me get things done while sitting on the couch with my wife instead of hunched over my desk.

But for whatever reason (no doubt a setting that I haven't located and changed yet) it is an aggressive fixer of my spelling. And my battles with the spell checker remind me of the role that technocrats have tried to play in education.

Spell check seems like such a helpful idea in theory. Whether you mistype or mis-spell, the power of the computer will correct you, help you get things right. Except that instead of helping you get things right, it helps you write things that the programmer judges as right. And here we hit trouble.

Granted, the only thing worse than my spelling is my typing. I have a cadre of loyal readers who regularly direct my attention to mistakes I've typed. The process there is that they send me a message about what they've spotted, I check it, and if need be, I fix it.

This is different than the process of spell-checking, in which the computer program substitutes its judgment for my own without asking. In the case of my tablet, it is so insistent that even when I think I have overruled it, I find out later that it simply changed things back. It's not trying to be oppressive. I have no doubt that the software writers felt that they were offering a helpful feature, that this overruling of my judgment was for my own good. But it does not need to know me, meet me, even make an attempt to understand what I'm trying to say. The content of my writing doesn't matter; I will be assimilated.

Technocrats dream this dream a great deal. They dream of an elegant system, a perfectly produced piece of software that will make human judgment (so messy, so flawed) unnecessary. So Google tries to finish my words for me even as they work on a car that will drive for me.

It's a weird warping of time. It feels as if the software overrides my judgment right now, but of course the decisions that created that moment were made by programmers a while ago, long before they would even know who would be using their program. They could never have known that I like to bend and twist words, make new illegitimate ones. They could never have known that I think one of life's great little moments is when somebody puts together a sentence that has never been spoken or written before.

It also makes subtle value judgments. Most spell checkers assume that people either never would or never should use words like shit, and never, ever drop the F bomb. So spell checkers are also politeness checkers.

You can see all of these drives in the technocrat approach to education reform. The dream is a system so smooth and uniform that it can be implemented anywhere and, more importantly, the people who are actually pressing the buttons don't ever use their personal judgment because the system renders their judgment unnecessary. Teachers and students should be able to just boot things up and step back and wait for their prompt. Their individual qualities and preferences shouldn't matter. When the system and the people clash, the system is keyed to simply override the humans. Human judgment as exercised by humans, after all, is messy and sloppy and unpredictable; it reacts to too much, is steered too much by its senses and surroundings. On the other hand, human judgment enshrined in the form of software is solid and unchanging and smooth and unaware of anything except its own directives.

When live humans and software collide, technocrats blame the humans for not getting in harmony with the system. I can tolerate that in my word processing, but not in my school. Or to speak in programmer terms, human chaos and responsiveness to the world, the tendency to change and grow and change some more in relationship with the richness of the world and other humans-- these are not bugs. They are features. They are the whole point.


  1. "[H]uman chaos and responsiveness to the world, the tendency to change and grow and change some more in relationship with the richness of the world and other humans-- these are not bugs. They are features. They are the whole point."

    I cannot like this I've Shared it so other people can Like it for me. :-)

  2. Excellent and important article. Perfect analogy.