Category Archives: Schumacher

The Inevitability of Robot Teachers

I really want to engage when writers talk about computers in education. I really want to believe that their opinions regarding computers in the classroom, and the use of computers in education are relevant and matter. However, I just can’t get past my predeliction to view it through the lens of Marxist critique. Every time I read someone talk about education and computers, especially MOOCs, I know the only reason this subject is being explored is because we don’t like paying teachers.

I’m reminded of a quote from Schumacher from Buddhist economics:
“From the point of view of the employer, [Labour] is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation.”

There are amazing possibilities available if we could discover the perfect mixture of computers and education. But as a society we never will. The motivation behind deploying computers in education is always about money, not quality. As long as that motivation pervades, the best intentions of all are pointless.

The ‘why’ of deploying computers in education outranks the ‘how’ in matters of public policy. It doesn’t matter how we go about deploying technology in classrooms, we’re going to deploy technology in classrooms because teachers/professors cost too much. We require the ‘how’ to only placate our misgivings of the ‘why’.

If the MIDS program at the I School is unprofitable it will be cancelled in a year. If it turns out to produce incompetent graduates, not that we’ll ever really know this, it will not be cancelled. This is what we need to understand the underlying motivations of programs like MIDS, and this motivation underlies most attempts at justifying the deployment of computing technology in classrooms. It’s the motivation that matters. Once we accept the ‘why’ as inevitable, we just start inventing and concocting narratives and plans to address the ‘how’ until something sticks and we’re placated.

So when I read Ted Nelson’s critique of CAI it seems pointless. Arguing about ‘how’ we deploy technology in classrooms is just splitting hairs. The real question we should have as a society is; if we consider education so important, why are we constantly trying to do it on the cheap? Or to again go back the Schumacher; if we value our education so much, why are we constantly trying to rid ourselves of educators?

Deep Thoughts

Some really great reflections here! I think we are finally getting to the heart of it, if thats even possible.

Zack asks whether there is any absolute measure of “value”, of “goodness”. Have we become less human, or has the experience of being human simply changed? What does  it even mean for something to be human – and isn’t the definition of that constantly in flux, especially given our ability to use tools and to change our environment to suit us? Isn’t that the very basis of civilization?

Jordan asks why all of the focus on the poor? Given that it is the wealthy that are the ones that are mainly using (and abusing) technology, aren’t they the ones that really need this wisdom?

Andrew asks whether it is possible to decouple economic growth from ecological devastation. Is increased efficiency the answer? Or do we need to change what we measure when we consider growth in the first place?

Nick connects Schumacher’s design values to the augmentation vs. automation discourse of Engelbart, and asks which of these modern HCI and computing technologies have achieved.  Andrew and Mike echo some similar thoughts regarding the distinction between tools and machines. Mike also wonders whether his views can be decoupled from religious and spiritual thought, or whether even an atheist could agree.

Ajay considers the tension between technocratic, utilitarian goals versus scale and local empowerment. Is it possible to achieve both at the same time? And if not, which should we prioritize. I would add to this discussion a reflection on why the Appropriate Technology movement, with all of its philosophical appeal, has not really taken off in the way Schumacher would have hoped. Is this a failure of economics, or of human values, or both?

Excited for tomorrow’s discussion!

Use that Greed

Schumacher references Gandhi as saying “[e]arth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not for every man’s greed.” Greed is looked at through a materialistic lens, here the primary concern is for natural resources, but in doing so Schumacher denounces all greed. Similarly, he espouses the goal of having “enough.” Not only do these values conflict with human nature but they do not recognize how greed and dissatisfaction can contribute positively to existence.


I don’t think greed always translates to material wealth and always has to create envy. There can be a greed for knowledge, and truth and understanding. Our intense curiosity of the world is fueled by our tendency to never being satisfied, which compels us not to settle with our current understandings and continue to gather knowledge. This nature contributes deeply towards the process of finding meaning as deeper and wider progress towards truth is obtained.


With this in mind, and an attitude of acceptance of the duality of human nature, are there ways of cultivating our greed that results in a happier, spiritual and more balanced life?


It makes me think of the not so inaccurate stereotype of environmentalist trying to out green each other in their greed for prestige. Possibly gamification could play a role. There are applications that directly contribute to development like, tugging at our greed to win and fill up our rice bowl. Could this work in more standard industries? Other ideas?

Tools v. Machines

1) Schumacher’s economic ideals, and his views on mechanization, are intertwined with principles taken from, or inspired by Buddhist ideas. He states that “[t]he choice of Buddhism for this purpose is purely incidental; the teachings of Christianity, Islam, or Judaism could have been used just as well as those of any other of the great Eastern traditions.” Is religion just one means of getting to Schumacher’s end or is it necessary? Could atheist principles lead us there too, or does atheism lack something? Certainly Schumacher’s economics relies on a form of mild asceticism that is consistent with certain religious teachings, but what about his views on mechanization and the distinction between a tool and a machine?

2) Some of Schumacher’s arguments start to appear like they rely on a form of technological determinism. See for example this paragraph at page 101:
<blockquote cite=””>Strange to say, technology, although of course the product of man, tends to develop by its own laws and principles, and these are very different from those of human nature or of living nature in general. Nature always, so to speak, knows where and when to stop. … [T]he system of nature, of which man is a part, tends to be self- balancing, self- adjusting, self-cleansing. Not so with technology, or perhaps I should say: not so with man dominated by technology and specialisation. Technology recognises no self-limiting principle – in terms, for instance, of size, speed, or violence. It therefore does not possess the virtues of being self-balancing, self- adjusting, and self-cleansing. In the subtle system of nature, technology, and in particular the super-technology of the modern world, acts like a foreign body, and there are now numerous signs of rejection.</blockquote>

Yet underlying Schumacher’s main thesis and main prescription for the future is an assumption that we do, in fact, have control over the development of technology and a normative conclusion that we should aim to develop it in a certain way. How can this apparent contradiction be resolved?

Polanyi and Schumacher

Google just announced they will try and buy back their brand loyalty from the bay area after being targeted as the symbol of gentrification with their latest .org venture.  The judging criteria is:

  1. Community impact
  2. Innovation
  3. Scalability
  4. Feasibility


How would Schumacher lay out the four criteria?  (Choose your own)

  1. Community obviousness
  2. Cheapness
  3. Un-scalable
  4. Creativity inducing

Why must an idea scale to be valuable?  Isn’t too big of scale just the problem?  Karl Polanyi, a political economist who is in vogue right now, suggests that the problem with capitalism is that our social values have been stripped from economic relations.  And in turn that they can be re-embedded , therefore protecting the eventual ruin of all natural resources in a self regulated market.

Can Schumacher values provide a roadmap for this re-embedding?



Carpet Looms, Power Looms

I found a common notion between Schumacher and Gandhi regarding their perspective on technology. In describing Buddhist economics, Schumacher differentiates the “carpet loom” and “power loom”. The carpet loom is a “too”l because it supplements the use of our own body for work. The power loom is a “machine” because it replaces our body for work; it is a “destroyer of culture” because it does the “human” part of work. In light of Buddhist economics, we need this “human” part of work because work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and must not be separated.

In a similar vein, Gandhi notes that “The machine should not be allowed to cripple the limbs of man”. He frowns upon cars because they do not satisfy “the primary wants of man”. True happiness, instead, arose from the proper use of “hands and feet”. He cautions in becoming a slave to the machine and losing one’s “moral fibre”.

While Schumacher describes how the carpet loom is seen as a helpful “tool”, Gandhi similarly compliments the sewing machine as a fine technology. On the other end of the technological spectrum, Schumacher notes how (under the microscope of Buddhist economics) the power loom is a harmful “machine”, and Gandhi deems cars unnecessary. Both discuss how machines can negatively affect culture and society by replacing the valuable work of people. The proper use of the human body and the value of good work seem to be the common denominators.

I know I discussed it above, but I thought this quote was too good to not post below:

“The carpet loom is a tool, a contrivance for holding warp threads at a stretch for the pile to be woven round them by the craftsmen’s fingers; but the power loom is a machine, and its significance as a destroyer of culture lies in the fact that it does the essentially human part of the work.”

1) When does a positive “tool” become a negative “machine”?
2) What is the “human” part of our work as technology workers? How can we make it more “human”?

scientists never tire telling us that the fruits of their labors are ‘neutral’

The Buddhist point of view takes the function of work to be at least threefold: to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence.

this is the closest i’ve read to a qualification similar to what we developed last class. or, at least, i’m tempted to say that our qualifications apply.

the first qualification – “a chance to utilise and develop his faculties” – reminds me of englebart and licklader. he continues,

there are therefore two types of mechanisation which must be clearly distinguished: one that enhances a man’s skill and power and one that turns the work of man over to a mechanical slave, leaving man in a position of having to serve the slave.

i’m wondering which of these, if not both, modern human-computer interaction has achieved?

Disposable vs. Interchangeable

The current state of western society seems to be built on disposability. Something broken? Replace it. Here is an example from my own life: several years ago, the rope of my showerhead was breaking, and water would leak everywhere. Our solution was to replace the showerhead, rope and all. It didn’t occur to us until much later, that we could simply found a replacement rope. Repairing a part seems like such a foreign concept right now.


I think this mentality is easily extended into the technological world. Technology as we know it creates far too much waste: old phones, old laptops, and various other old devices clutter our drawers and closets. For those who do not get emotionally attached to some specific device bought so many years before, for X amount of money (this is not me; I would be the first to admit irrational sentimentality), recycling is an option. But recycling can be a pain: even if we can find an appropriate place to bring our things, how do we even know if they are recycled properly?

As software evolves to bring us more computational power, the demands on our hardware increase, and suddenly, the computer you bought two years ago is somehow inadequate. Or perhaps some component is broken, and needs to be replaced. In an ideal world, it would be simple to replace a small electronic part. But if corporations make it difficult to do repairs ourselves (e.g., glue down the battery), we are at their mercy, and must rely on large-scale production methodology.

What will it take for us to repair our instinct to replace? Is it possible to combine our current standard of living with smaller-scale production? How much would this change the technology manufacturing industry, and is it sustainable from a business perspective?

What have we really lost?

During his meditation on eduction and the separation between ‘know-how’ and fundamental metaphysical knowledge, Schumacher’s discussion of Shakespeare and the second law of thermodynamics struck a chord with me.  I’ve certainly borne witness to the third and fourth generational effects of educational systems that are dependent on the centrality of relativity and know-how to their pedagogy. So while I want to react to Schumacher with a similar sort of almost embarrassingly reactionary conservatism (you can’t just /stop/ progress!) as I’ve witnessed myself myself leap to in the reading of works from Gandhi and Illich, it is essential to note that I am myself situated entirely within the pedagogical approach which he here decries.

In particular, Schumacher’s urgings for the re-establishment of a clear hierarchical organization of the universe drew my attention.  To be frank, I agree here with Schumacher, as I did with Tagore, some essential experience of life that may be foregone with the compartmentalization of life into discretized, compartmentalized, and relatively unordered spaces, as technology and modern science have so efficiently allowed for.  I certainly was not educated with any sort of cosmic hierarchy in mind, and so I often find myself unconsciously scoffing at the protestations of philosophers who urge us to “higher” pursuits, or more “whole” understandings of the world.  That isn’t to say that I don’t recognize the nuances or even the possible boons of such world-views; merely that it is one thing to understand a belief or a perspective in the abstract, and entirely another to hold it.

I worry that I may simply have fallen into a relativist trap.  “What makes a world-view that incorporates such beliefs any better than one that does not?” I, almost involuntarily, ask.  How do you sort out whether, as Darwin claims and Schumacher supports, a life wherein the enjoyment of Shakespeare has been stymied in favor of data-processing is a bad thing?  It seems almost a ridiculous question to ask – of course being able to meaningfully understand one’s place in the world and appreciate the nuance of literature is a good thing.  But still, somewhere, I struggle.  Many of the arguments against the rise of modern technology have pointed toward the loss of some element which has made us somehow less essentially human.  But this seems too easy to me.  Have we truly lost some piece of our humanity, or has what it means to be human simply changed?

“Good enough” science & technology

In past readings of Schumacher, I hadn’t paid as much attention to the education chapter — or at least didn’t remember it as  well. I was struck by the hard line he draws between the humanities and the sciences. There’s no doubt that those distinctions still exist, but I think there’s a strong trend towards increasing dialogue between disciplines — at least in academia (and to some extent in the general public sphere). Schumacher says:

The sciences are being taught without any awareness of the presuppositions of science, of the meaning and significance of scientific laws, and of the place occupied by the natural sciences within the whole cosmos of human thought.

I think context has become pretty important here — as has a tacit understanding that technological and scientific progress can both enrich and detract from life.

My second point arises from my work in household energy and health in the developing world. There’s been a lot of attention (for us, anyway) on “clean” cookstoves as a way of mitigating exposures to health damaging air pollutants. Many of  the newest of these interventions are centrally engineered, metal stoves with many parts — not exactly “appropriate” technologies as originally defined. These have come to market in response to the failure in many parts of the world of the locally developed interventions to (1) meet technocratic goals and (2) satisfy the needs of the end-user (in this context, Schumacher’s rural poor). I wonder about this tension — between providing adequate service to end-users, meeting national and international heath and energy goals, and between scale — scale of technologies, distribution, organization, and impact. Any thoughts?