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Technology and critical thinking

I am appalled that newsstands have vanished from subways and that most people are playing videogames rather than reading about policy or economics while riding.
Apr 25,2017
Koreans boast to me about their country’s latest technological developments, or express envy for technologies that other nations have mastered. After 10 years working with Korean research institutes, and observing Korean society, I am convinced that the most serious challenge Korea faces is not a lack of technology, but rather the decline of scientific thinking.

A new automobile, or robot, is presented to Koreans as something miraculous, an amazing device that can do the impossible. Although such an approach inspires awe for technological achievements, it encourages complacency in our thinking and a sharp dip in our critical analysis. Citizens should be inspired to try to understand how a smartphone works, or for that matter how the government or the economy works.

Indulging in dazzling presentations leads to impulsive decisions and sloppy thinking.

News broadcasts these days assume that the audience doesn’t want to see anything that isn’t entertaining. Complex subjects are stripped down to simplistic one-line phrases. Of course, the technology used to film and edit these short programs is state-of-the-art. Excellent broadband service provides those images instantaneously for watch

What Korea must do is insist on the rigorous application of the scientific method in education, in media and in the policy decision process.

The scientific method demands that we observe the world around us carefully and postulate hypotheses and explanations on how it works. We then test those hypotheses through investigation to see whether they hold true consistently and thereby establish principles for understanding the physical world, our society, our government or our economy.

But the media present a ready-made interpretation to the viewer and offers no discussion of the complexity of the issue. The entire program is created to achieve a predetermined emotional response.

If technological devices are used in a manner that leads us further away from a scientific approach to understanding governance or economics, might we not be required to limit the manner in which communications technologies are employed so as to assure that citizens are engaged in a serious debate about the future of the nation and do their best to understand the issues?

Encouraging citizens to use technology impulsively is simply unethical. We need to use the scientific method in our approach to assessing the impact of technology on our society, rather than using science for the purpose of creating more technology.

But, some might object, it is impossible to engage people, especially young people, on topics that are not entertaining or easily understood. Koreans no longer have the patience to read through complex texts or engage in a challenging debate.

But we are getting the whole thing backwards.

To assume that the habits of citizens are unchanging, or that we live in an age in which rational debate on critical issues is no longer possible, is unethical. If we assume that the lack of rational thinking is a problem, then we must focus on that issue. Encouraging rational thinking is much more important than the next line of smartphones.

I am appalled that newsstands have vanished from subways and that most people are playing video games rather than reading about policy or economics while riding.

This dangerous trend of creating an ill-informed population can and should be reversed through active intervention. We can establish laws for education that require reading of complex texts and analysis of those texts. We can increase viewers’ attention spans and encourage them to engage in a thoughtful discussion about current issues through our approach to programming. We can even take steps to limit the use of smartphones, especially for young people, in a manner that will restore a literate society and place the scientific method as the core of our decision-making process.

Currently, newspapers are full of pictures of politicians at rallies or public opinion poll results. This reporting is not news and does not help the public understand policy.

There is no detailed description of current laws pending in the national assembly or how they might be implemented. Some might say readers are not interested in such details. But the question for us, if we are thinking about good government, is: How we should cultivate a long attention span and concern for policy? How do we move beyond flashy images?

We can create a culture around us, through strict regulations, in which citizens are required to read and listen carefully. We can give our children the time and the inclination to explore issues and avoid addiction to images and flashing headlines.

This seduction by technology is serious in its implications. If we do not pay attention to the world around us, if we do not debate possible interpretations of problems and come up with solutions that are focused on issues, not on images, we will end up with leaders who are only followers, heroic-looking people who make cowardly decisions, and a dazzling technological wasteland.

*The author is an associate professor at the College of International Studies, Kyung Hee University.

Emanuel Pastreich