This January and February, I had the opportunity of teaching a 20-hour course in geopolitics at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IITGN). I called the course: “From the Cold War to a Multipolar World: the Future of Globalization.” The world order is undergoing a major transition before our very eyes. This seemed like the perfect moment to launch such a course that bridges the past, present and future.
The Ukraine conflict and the various largely unplanned for geopolitical movements it has provoked stands as the emblematic event of the year 2022. The events of January and February, culminating with Russia’s invasion of the neighboring state, accelerated a movement of uncomfortable realignment that has long been underway. But another event, this time at the end of 2022, signaled a very different but equally tectonic disruption that, like the clash in Eastern Europe, has also been long in the making. ChatGPT exploded onto our computer screens, provoking a flurry of both admiring and worried news coverage accompanied by a wave of panic in the universe of academia I was about to return to.
IIT Gandhinagar is, as its name indicates, an institute of technology. That means most of my students were doing technology or engineering degrees. My course belonged in the less significant realm of the humanities. Because of the nature of their studies, the students tended to be acutely aware of the emerging technologies now actively transforming traditional human activities and challenging many institutional practices. We are witnessing what some see as an assault on the organic reality of the material world. Our physical, social and mental world is turning into something that can only be called hybrid, if not bionic. Certain technology promoters and media pundits, especially on the west coast of the United States, have long predicted that we are all destined to become cyborgs.
AI’s sudden intrusion into our daily lives
ChatGPT publicly launched in November of last year. The media immediately perceived the panic spreading through academia about this insidious generator of undetectable cheating. In December, I decided that the best strategy consisted of confronting the challenge head-on. I was determined to find a way of integrating ChatGPT into the course, as something to think about and eventually wrestle with, rather than banning it or pretending it didn’t exist. At the very least, I wanted to bring the tool and everything it represents into the discussion from day one, to identify it as something more worthy of our curiosity than fear. Even before arriving at any kind of coherent strategy, I was convinced that working together we could find a collective way of dealing with it.
In the first weeks in Gandhinagar, I got some unsolicited help from the academic community at IIT. I discovered an atmosphere in which dialogue and intellectual exchange are encouraged. The faculty’s email discussion group had already jumped into the fray. With some background in the area of technology-enhanced learning, I joined the debate. We compared experience and ideas. It was thanks to that faculty-wide discussion initiated by the dean of humanities and social sciences, Jaison Mangaly, that I was emboldened to suggest the idea of actually assigning the use of ChatGPT and making the students accountable for the gap between human and artificial intelligence. If nothing else, it would have the effect of differentiating the authentic voice of our students as sentient beings from the obviously inauthentic voice of ChatGPT. With that in mind, I set about redesigning my pedagogical strategy for my course.
My original idea back in December was simply to demonstrate to the students from day one that I had myself begun exploring the tool and was familiar with its features and capacity. At the same time, I wanted to show that in no way did I consider it to be threatening. I felt it was important at this stage to find a simple way of demonstrating both my appreciation of the AI tool’s very real power and what it can bring to the learning process, on the one hand, and what seemed to me to be its obvious limits.
But first, a children’s poem to get things started!
After a few introductory words to situate what geopolitics is (the ongoing story of a very complex world) and isn’t (a study of precise historical events), I chose to surprise the students with an exercise that appeared to be as remote as possible from the high seriousness of the course’s title. I asked individuals in the class to read aloud the successive stanzas of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem that appears in the second Alice book: Through the Looking Glass. The students could not help but wonder why a deliberately nonsensical 19th century poem presumably intended for children was serving as an introduction to the theme of globalization and multipolarity.
Once the students had been exposed to the story of two obviously very British characters walking along an unfamiliar beach and then cajoling a bed of oysters to trot along with them in genteel conversation before expeditiously devouring the colony of mollusks for dinner, I asked the students to think about whether the poem was simply, as it appeared to be, a fun example of Carrollian nonsense or possibly something else.
The next step was to remind them of the precise historical context at the time of the poem’s publication (1871). It happened to correspond to a historical moment with which the Indian nation still has a few strong associations. To make things clear, we looked at the events that followed from the 1857 “sepoy mutiny,” or the first war of independence.
I then suggested that there might have been a connection in the author’s mind with what he knew about his nation’s colonial practices at the time. Could it have had any bearing on Carroll’s conception of the roles of these two Englishmen? What sort of person was the fat walrus? And what about the enterprising, technologically up-to-date carpenter, who “shed a bitter tear” when he realized that all his organizational skill might not be sufficient to clear the beach of its “quantities of sand?”
Once the students had begun thinking about who these two Englishmen were and what mission they might be trying to accomplish as they strode along the beach, the question then arose as to the identity of the oysters. The poem tells us that “eldest” (and wisest) contumaciously resisted the blandishment of their visitors. But their resistance was to no avail. Quickly multiple groups of “young Oysters” adhered to the project proposed by the strangers. (Carroll’s capitalizing of the word “Oysters” suggests that he was endowing them with the status of an ethnic group).
The dismal treatment by the Englishmen of the Oysters they had befriended can suggest parallels in European imperial geopolitics of Carroll’s time. Whether that was what he was thinking privately, or whether he intended readers to notice the parallels no one will ever know. But literary investigation – just like scientific empiricism and Sherlock Holmes’s style of criminology – requires exploring very real possibilities and not discounting them without good reason. Holmes stated the principle clearly: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
To bring home my point that Carroll may have been alluding to contemporary reality, I returned to the first stanza, fraught with the outrageous absurdity of self-contradictory nonsense.
“The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.”
That stanza was clearly designed to provoke laughter. The effect is very similar to the American composer Stephen Foster’s famous lines in his song Oh, Susanna (from the same epoch). “it rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry. The sun so hot I froze to death, Susanna don’t you cry.”
Who wouldn’t agree that writing such lines must have been done in good fun? Absurdity for absurdity’s sake. A chuckle, if not a raucous laugh is the guaranteed reaction. Highlighting the nonsensical nature of the lines, I then asked my class this question: Does the idea of the sun shining at midnight ring any historical bells, especially ones that might concern Carroll’s 19th century? It didn’t take long for one of the students to remember the cliché, current at the time of Carroll’s writing: “The sun never sets on the British empire.” Was this Carroll’s game? Could the poem really have contained an allusion to British geopolitics?
Literature, complex messages and the importance of linguistic analysis
Many have claimed that Stephen Foster’s song, “O Susanna,” whose lyrics originally prominently contained the dreaded “n-word,” may well have been racist, reflecting Foster’s own possible racism. The lyrics of the second stanza read: “I jumped aboard the telegraph, and traveled down the river,/Electric fluid magnified, and killed five hundred Ni—er.” It’s worth pointing out that leaving “Ni—er” in the singular but meaning the plural magnifies the sense of racism, since it evokes the way hunters talk about animals.
If Stephen Foster’s lyrics reveal him to feel comfortable with the ambient racism of his era, is it reasonable to think that Carroll’s text may reflect his awareness of and discomfort with imperial forms of racism? Alice clearly condemns their outrageous behavior, but given her age, no one would expect her to make the connection with the way the British were dealing with conquered populations overseas. Adult readers aware of history, on the other hand, might make that precise connection. If such a thing is not impossible, Holmes would say “it must be the truth,” or at least a possible truth.
In the context of the course, the major point I was making by getting the students to read the poem aloud was that in geopolitics, just as in literature, we should always be ready delve below the surface of any text, including official political and even diplomatic discourse. We should never be satisfied with the superficial, literal meaning of official policy.
Whether the subject is geopolitics or nuclear physics, as the great physicist David Bohm pointed out in his book, Science, Order and Creativity, meaning exists at many levels and should be explored through its multiple dimensions and varying perspectives. In all human discourse, some meaning is hidden, some disguised and a lot of it – especially when the discourse is intended for the public –perceived and processed unconsciously and uncritically. My regular Daily Devil’s Dictionary columns in Fair Observer have all been dedicated to guiding readers of the news to understand that words – to quote Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty – are slippery beasts: “ “When I use a word” Humpty told Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” Except, of course, Carroll’s point is that meaning will always surpass any specific intention and Humpty’s belief in his control of meaning is both presumptuous and illusory.
From Alice to AI’s wonderland
At this point I still hadn’t quite finished with “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” There was one more thing to do. Having established the possible legitimacy of my audacious reading, it was time to confront the students with AI’s capacity to understand and account for topics as rich and complex as literature, which is, by definition, the result of the creative use of language. After all, ChatGPT calls itself a “large language model.” Is it large enough to contain the meaning and “truth” of human discourse?
While preparing the course back in December – only a few short weeks after the release of ChatGPT – I was curious to test the tool’s capacity for human-like insight. My initial attempts at using it convinced me of its infallible ability to produce a good old stodgy, academic-style exposé on any topic. You know, the kind of essay that will earn at least a B for content and possibly an A for correct style, devoid of grammatical mistakes. Still, I remained skeptical of its capacity for creative insight. I thus decided to conduct an experiment with “The Walrus and the Carpenter” to test ChatGPT’s capacity to process the meaning of a text.
I began with a general question about the meaning of the poem. ChatGPT’s response remained at a level of literal banality.
“The poem ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ by Lewis Carroll, is a narrative poem that tells the story of a walrus and a carpenter who go for a walk on the beach and encounter a group of oysters. The walrus persuades the oysters to come with them and the carpenter ends up eating most of the oysters. The poem has been interpreted in many different ways, but one possible message is that appearances can be deceiving and that those who seem charming and trustworthy may actually have ulterior motives.”
At this point, if I wanted to test for an awareness of multiple levels of meaning, I realized I needed to be more precise, so I asked whether there could be a political meaning to the poem. ChatGPT offered these thoughts:
“Some readers have interpreted ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as a political poem, with the walrus representing a politician who uses rhetorical tricks and manipulation to persuade others to follow him. In this interpretation, the oysters represent the general public who are easily swayed by the walrus’ charms, but end up getting exploited for his own gain. However, this is just one possible interpretation of the poem and there may be other ways to understand its meaning. As with all works of literature, the meaning of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” can be open to interpretation.”
That was a slight improvement, but in its abstract generality, it missed the real point. I decided to take it one step further and asked whether Carroll might have had something overtly political in mind. This question produced the following answer from ChatGPT:
“There is no overt political message in Lewis Carroll’s poem “The Walrus and the Carpenter.” The poem is a narrative that tells the story of a walrus and a carpenter who encounter a group of oysters and end up eating most of them. While the poem has been interpreted in many different ways, it does not have a specific political message. It is possible that some readers may find political allegory in the poem, but this would be a personal interpretation rather than a clear message from the author.”
So, there is the lesson I’ll have to live with for the rest of my years in a world that is likely to be increasingly instructed – if not dominated – by the authority of AI. ChatGPT’s response was unambiguous: “it does not have a specific political message.”
My continued experiments with ChatGPT to this day in my regular column “Breakfast with Chad” have demonstrated a clear tendency for this tool to put forward what appear to be common sense moral strictures. These usually take the form of a phrase beginning with the words: “it’s important to…” In this case I might have expected ChatGPT to keep an open mind and suggest that an author could very well have secondary meanings or messages contained within a work. But in this case, it peremptorily tells me that “it does not have a specific political message.” The moral here seems to be something like this: “Critic, stay within your bounds, and don’t leap to unfounded conclusions.”
In ChatGPT’s moral universe, an unfounded thesis would appear to be anything that doesn’t fall within well calculated statistical norms. After all, ChatGPT acknowledged that “some readers have interpreted ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ as a political poem.” But upon further interrogation it affirms that those readers are wrong. On what authority does ChatGPT know this? I expect that its database eliminates anything that is statistically marginal at the time of consultation. Had Einstein interrogated the tool before devising his theory of relativity, I expect that ChatGPT would have told him that space and time are measurable and cannot be thought of as relative.
I shared these three exchanges concerning Carroll’s poem with the class to show, mockingly, how I had been humiliated and corrected by ChatGPT’s authority! At the same time I wanted to encourage studies to “move beyond” and “think outside the box,” the AI tool seemed to be saying, “stay within the box, it’s more comfortable there.”
Pedagogical aims can also have degrees of meaning
Apart from demonstrating that I was not averse to having some “unserious” fun in the course – which, by the way, is a very serious pedagogical goal – I chose to begin the course with Carroll’s poem for several other reasons. First, I wanted to establish the notion that, rather than focusing exclusively on power relationships and the components of political authority and influence, understanding geopolitics requires a general awareness of changing historical worldviews and evolving trends. That means acquiring a sense of what ideas and beliefs guide us to define what any society takes to be normal and acceptable at any given moment of history.
I made the point that there is no way of “knowing” – in the sense of accepting as orthodoxy – what Lewis thought about specific political events and chose to put into his literature. But knowing is not the same thing as constructing one’s understanding. With a few clues, we can shape reasonable ideas and contrast them with others before deciding what we “know.” As one analyst of Carroll’s thinking has pointed out, Charles Dodgson (who adopted Lewis Carroll as his pen name) belonged to a category of “conservatives” who “abhorred ‘Liberalism’ which they felt turned men into brutes and desecrated the land, flora and fauna.” This would seem consistent with my suggested reading of the poem. Knowing that such thinking existed at the time helps us to understand the stakes of geopolitical decision-making.
The pre-Raphaelite designer and poet, William Morris, a contemporary of Dodgson’s, is remembered, just like Lewis Carrol, for his contribution to the arts rather than his views on geopolitics. But in his rarer work as a journalist he wrote that “the one thing for which our thrice accursed civilisation craves, as the stifling man for fresh air, is new markets, fresh countries must be conquered by it which are not manufacturing and are producers of raw material, so that ‘civilized’ manufactures can be forced on them. All wars now waged, under whatever pretenses, are really wars for the great prizes in the world-market.” That may help us to understand the Walrus’s and Carpenter’s war on the Oysters.
In other words, artists like Lewis Carroll and William Morris were thinking about other very serious ideas, some of which might find a way into their artistic productions. Carroll’s Wonderland is built around the metaphor of a game of chess dominated by a particularly arbitrary and sadistic Red Queen. The standard metaphor for global diplomacy and geopolitics in European culture is the game of chess.
Even after mounting all this evidence and more from the poem itself, I cannot affirm that The Walrus and the Carpenter is a poem about geopolitics. From a learning point of view, It suffices to understand that it might be, and that if it is, it is consistent with the culture of the time. It also suffices to understand that ChatGPT “believes” – if belief is a useful metaphor for what an AI tool affirms – that there is no political meaning to the poem and appears to be in the business of discouraging people, including students, from thinking about it.
So here was the real point. Geopolitics may be about how power is wielded but we must always analyze it according to the culture of the time, or rather the successive times. Geopolitical culture, just like popular culture, has its fashions and fads as well as a permanent need to adapt to a constantly shifting environment. We must consider the culture of every time period in the context of its evolution in both space and time. Once we begin acquiring those habits, we can consider ourselves legitimate, open-minded geopolitical investigators. My hope with this course was that, whatever the students thought about the changes currently taking place in the world, they would come away with this sense of context and the reality of cultural relativity.
What the 19th century tells us about today’s geopolitics
As I mentioned above, the fun poem enabled me to begin the course with a consideration of a painful moment in India’s history. That moment was one in which multiple European empires interacted amongst themselves in the context of what historians continue to refer to as a “multipolar Europe.” The price of the largely peaceful multipolarity of Europe at the time was the binary division of the world into colonizing empires and colonized regions and peoples.
I intended the work on the poem to stimulate reflection on these historical themes. We took a further step backwards to examine the relationship between the emergence of nation-states and the construction of European global empires. These general considerations made it possible to begin looking at the events of 20th century that undid the complex multipolarity of the 19th century and led up to the bipolarity of the Cold War. That in turn set the scene for exploring the relationships that shaped the rest of the century and everything that is going on in today’s world.
The “Walrus and the Carpenter” served yet another purpose. It enabled me to introduce, in our very first session, a fundamental theme of the course, one that Lewis Carroll never stopped exploring in his Alice books: the odd relationship between language and meaning. In international relations, there are not only starkly contrasting cultural assumptions in play at all times, but even within a single nation the language of politics becomes a major component of power. That language, with its explicit and implicit levels of meaning, is shared between governments, who make policy, their media, who translate and disseminate what they construe to be its meaning, and their populations, who receive it. To understand geopolitics it is essential to build awareness of the play of ideas that language permits. And those ideas, as well as the language they are couched in, shift radically in emphasis and meaning during periods of historical transition, when frameworks for thinking break down and reform.
The shift in 1991 from a bipolar to a unipolar world order – marked by the collapse of the Soviet Union – provided the concrete example we began working on, once we left the Walrus and Carpenter behind. We began with Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 essay, “The End of History.” For the rest of the course, we would focus on the shifts that occurred between 1945 and what most observers agree is the trend towards a multipolar world.
As I noted above, the pretext of Carroll’s poem permitted me to introduce the AI question that, since the release a little more than a month earlier of ChatGPT, was now seriously troubling the academic community. I wanted the students to know that I was familiar with it, but also that I didn’t fear it. I could thus demonstrate how it could become a useful tool for beginning to explore issues, so long as one is aware that the limits were in its scope of reasoning.
Assessing the notion of multipolarity
One of the key messages I had for the class at the very beginning of the course was that, although geopolitics is clearly about events and trends in history, this was not a history course. It was a course essentially focused on tuning into the sense of historical shifts, particularly the ones that were playing out before our very eyes. To underline this idea, I displayed a quote from India’s Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar: “A world order which is still very, very deeply Western is being hurried out of existence by the impact of the war in Ukraine, to be replaced by a world of ‘multi-alignment’ where countries will choose their own particular policies and preferences and interests.”
What this meant is that every student in this group of essentially twenty-year-olds had a personal stake in the subject matter of the course. We are witnessing the birth of a “new world order” (or possibly disorder) in which these students will have an active part to play. Not every generation has this opportunity. To underline the fact that while studying the past and present we should be focused on the move into the future, I assigned an essay that, aimed at imagining – just as Fukuyama had done in 1989 – the direction the world was moving towards. I insisted that they should think of it as an imagination exercise. I told them they had free rein to imagine how the future would play out.
With such an open objective, their production was predictably variable. The assignment was meant to be an experiment, with little impact on grades. It was my chance to discover who they were and what their “voice” sounded like. This would be useful for the other classwork they would be doing.I specifically told them to think how the world, which was already evolving, might appear after the end of the Ukraine war, irrespective of the winners or losers of the war.
Despite my instruction to minimize the role of the Ukraine conflict, most of them felt constrained by the reference to it and focused on their reading of the dynamics of that war. Some used that analysis to hint at new power relationships in a changed world, but few let their imaginations run wild. I should have realized that one of the terrible effects of a war is that dwelling on it inhibits any form of creative thinking. Much of this inhibition is the result of the black and white ideas and tropes produced by propaganda on all sides.
ChatGPT becomes an initially intrusive member of the class
Of the twenty submissions, two of them stood out from the rest, not in terms of quality but in the stye of the writing. As soon as I read two sentences, I recognized the inimitable style of my newest friend, ChatGPT. I refer to the tool as a friend because that was just about the time I decided on the metaphor of breakfast conversations with Chad (ChatGPT) as a regular feature on Fair Observer. It shouldn’t take long for anyone trained in the literary arts to understand that this very competent “large language model” had an apparent personality and style that could be described quite literally as an absence of personality and style. It had no center of gravity other than an anodyne correctness of vocabulary and a standardized mode of reasoning.
While correcting the copy submitted in the form of a Google doc, I left a comment for both of these students that I suspected ChatGPT to be the source and requested a private meeting to talk to each of them individually. I presume they feared the worst, but once we were seated face to face and I enquired about their source, both admitted without hesitation that they had used ChatGPT.
At this point, I could have objected not only to the fact that their admission amounted to a confession of cheating, but that it was a particularly stupid decision to use AI for an assignment described as focused on imagination and personal vision. Instead, despite a clear expression of disappointment, I thanked both of them for anticipating what I had resolved to ask all the students to do in the next assignment. It was, after all, the implicit message behind my initial demonstration of ChatGPT to situate the debate on Carroll’s poem.
The two students were reassured, even if humbled for being found out. Both of them asked me how I could tell it was ChatGPD. It gave me the opportunity to inform them that some skills go beyond the usual academic practice of focusing on facts and material evidence. Such skills of discernment constitute a major component of what we call competence, which is the result of human intelligence that interacts with the environment it inhabits. At university, students should be cultivating those skills, possibly even above the more material ones. Sensitivity to style and the ability to create a personal perspective are perhaps the core of those skills.
Alas, schools and universities long ago abandoned any interest in such skills, perhaps for lack of time, but there may be other reasons related to our ideas of what constitutes knowledge. In any case, that lack of interest may help to explain why plagiarism became rampant, requiring the creation of anti-plagiarism tools in an attempt to enforce honesty. Part of the drama surrounding ChatGPT lay in the fact that, confronted with generative large language models, those expensive tools developed to check for plagiarism had no power over the original production of an AI algorithm.
I told the two guilty students I was disappointed that they failed to identify their source even while encouraging them to use it. Both had added a personal touch or supplementary information and had not simply copy and pasted ChatGPT’s text. I acknowledged that and told them that I was personally grateful for the examples they provided, to the extent that it helped me elaborate a strategy for the group’s final assignment, for which I would require their not only using ChatGPT but also finding a way to engage with it.
How AI may transform educational methodologies and revive ancient traditions
Towards the end of the course, I informed the students precisely of my new expectations/ that for the final assignment they would have to use ChatGPT, not as a tool to produce their own text but as a well informed personality with whom they would need to engage in dialogue. I asked them to think about this disembodied voice as that of another student taking the course with whom they can mutually explore information and ideas, including by challenging one another.
My aim was to change their thinking even about what AI is or can be. By Identifying the AI tool as a fallible person in the group rather than as an infallible authority reframed their view of the learning process and learning objectives. It put the emphasis not on faithful reproduction of existing knowledge, but on the exploration of context leading to a combined effort of research coupled with critical and creative thinking. Because there would be two voices in their production, their own voice would have to emerge and become distinct. It was on the quality of their voice, including the reasoning and style of its discourse, that they would be judged, not merely on the supposedly factual input provided by ChatGPT or indeed any other source.
The implications of this change of perspective that seeks the integration of AI into our teaching and learning strategies goes beyond the methodology of research and personal expression. It may mark a new turning point in educational history. After centuries of losing its way thanks largely to the industrial revolution and the emergence of the consumer society, educational practice may at last find a way of returning to its most productive historical roots. The true origins of constructive, creative learning take us back in history to practices that have long since been abandoned. These include the dialogue form favored not only famously by Socrates thanks to Plato’s dialogues, but also to Plato’s pupil, Aristotle the peripatetic, who was thus called because he conducted his teaching in active discussion while walking around the grounds of his Lyceum.
In Europe the tradition of dialogue continued throughout the Middle Ages thanks to the adoption of the creative dialectics of disputatio, raising objections to philosophical or theological statements to specify their meaning and application. It was disputatio that famously allowed philosophers and theologians to speculate on the meaning of space and spiritual concepts by considering the question of how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Far from being ridiculous this example was closer to Einstein’s famous thought experiments than it was to later critics’ accusation of belonging to the world of medieval superstition. Disputatio as a methodology for exploring ideas reigned throughout the Middle Ages and ultimately enriched the thinking of both Hegel and Marx, who embraced the idea of dialectics. And what would the Enlightenment have been without the Paris salons, in which independent spirits exchanged and critiqued ideas new and old?
In Asia, over several millennia, the guru–shishya tradition – which thrived as a relationship rather than a program of curriculum – defined the meaning and style of learning. At the same time, traditional African education emphasized – alongside a variety of physical and pragmatic activities – “poetry, reasoning, riddles, proverbs, storytelling and story relays.” Everywhere in the world, throughout most of human history, education has been about human intelligences talking to one another, exploring problems and expanding understanding, transmitting but also critiquing the bases of their dynamic cultures.
Correcting the errors of the industrial age
Industrialization and the emergence of the consumer society turned education on its head, precisely by putting all its emphasis on the brain as a supposed container of knowledge? This ultimately gave us that wonderful modern concept, “standardization,” and the ideal tool facilitating the accurate measurement of intelligence: the multiple choice question. If politics could be managed by manufacturing consent (to use Edward Bernays’ expression repeated by Noam Chomsky) then education could focus on one thing alone: manufacturing content. This endowed education with its essential industrial vocation. It has brought us to where we are today: producing the commodity known as a diploma, a supposed, but not always valid ticket for employment. It has also produced in at least one powerful nation, the United States, generations of willingly standardized former students now permanently saddled with crushing debt from the student loans that allowed them to pay the ticket price on their coveted diplomas. That what happens when education is no longer about learning, but about earning.
At one point towards the last part of the course, my friend and colleague, Frederick Coolidge, a psychologist and specialist of the evolution of the human brain, offered to present to the class his thesis on how humans developed and exploited the faculty of empathy. He proposed to explain the neurological and cognitive bases of diplomacy. According to Fred, during the middle and upper paleolithic the brain of homo sapiens acquired the ability to trade and negotiate thanks to what he calls “allocentric perceptions,” or the ability to understand and resonate with the perception of others. Once this became established as the means of conducting business by constructing fields of understanding not just between individuals but also groups, homo sapiens acquired a distinct and perhaps decisive advantage over neanderthals, who appeared to be confined to modes of egocentric perception.
I have simplified Fred’s insights immensely, which he backed up with archeological evidence, but I consider the point important in a more modern sense than the rivalry between homo sapiens and neanderthals. As homo sapiens, we have retrained our capacity for allocentric perception. I have no doubt that a generation of coders will try to find a way of duplicating its logic for future iterations of AI. But we have to ask ourselves whether this is even possible. Human perception is much more than the data our technologies are capable of capturing.
Thanks to ChatGPT everyone has become aware of a kind of public battle or rivalry between human and artificial intelligence. Is it a new cold war? The original cold war avoided degenerating into a hot war because politicians at the time – the example of John Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev stands out – had built at least something from their capacity for allocentric perception into their policy. Today, when people are evoking a new cold war, we have to wonder whether that allocentric perception is still present in their brains. Adhering to principles is fine, but using them to defeat perception is risky.
As for the other cold war – the one between human and artificial intelligence – we may be running the same risk. It is perfectly possible that we humans could learn to understand and feel for the motivation of the AI we program to emulate our own intelligence. But that requires a certain transparency concerning the algorithms. Algorithms are now sources of power for those who own and operate them. Given the way people who possess power are conditioned to protect their possessions by keeping others, even eventual imitators, in the dark, the utility of our allocentric instincts may count for nothing.
So, are we moving towards a new cold war – not between the US and China or Russia this time around – but between human intelligence and artificial intelligence? It is sad to observe that our geopolitical culture seems slightly less allocentric than in the past. The Ukraine war, declared by at least one of its proponents to last “as long as it takes,” demonstrates that the culture has veered towards an obsession with the kind of absolute and incompatible competition and ideological hubris that may remind us of the quandary Rudyard Kipling once summed up in his famous lines: “East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” Kipling’s “East” is now commonly referred to as the “Global South,” which appears to be drifting away from its moorings on the West’s “rules-based order.”
In the other cold war, between human intelligence and artificial intelligence, the West owns the artificial tools for the moment but the East is catching up in the technology race. Humanity itself has not yet abandoned the powerful toolbox of its allocentric intelligence. But if the battle continues, who will prevail? Education will play a vital role in determining that victory.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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