The Age of Evaluation

When I was a kid, I had to memorize the arithmetical tables, I had to remember important dates in history, and recall key cities in geography that were associated with industries such as coal, gold, manufacturing, tourism and politics. My teachers would inflict all sorts of punishments on me for faulty memory or lack of preparation if I stood up and said, “five times four is eighteen,” or “New York is the capital of the USA,” or “WWI ended in 1920.” Those punishments—not limited to caning, cracks on the knuckles with rulers, detention, standing in a corner with the dunce cap on, kneeling in the quadrangle, or writing repetitious lines after class—were sufficient to sear the data deep into my psyche, still to be remembered half a century later.

Today, we have Google, Wikipedia and a host of applications like calculators, world clocks, and satellite maps, all available on a smart phone, and robotic assistants named Siri, Bixby and Alexa to free our minds from having to store all this data. Just ask Siri to get it for you. Now we are free to simply evaluate the data out there. No longer do we argue about facts around the dinner table—just ask Google or one of his cronies for that— now let’s just argue about the machinations behind those facts. Let’s also question those facts, unlike in the old days when we took what came out of a book as gospel, for today we know that depending on how much you pay, some facts are favoured over others, and some facts may actually be suppressed for political expediency. The Age of Evaluation is upon us. And everyone now has an opinion, backed by oodles of “facts” appended to their dissertations.

I wonder whether this new form of Learning by Google is better than the Learning by Rote method we once endured, attended to by its various forms of torture. On the surface, today’s situation is more humane  and less onerous. Today looks like being served in a fancy restaurant, while yesterday looks like having to go and kill your meat and cook it by the campfire yourself.  But we know that hunters of yore were more adept at survival; their instincts were sharper lest they starved or ended up as meat for the very prey they hunted. And so, during our formative years, we expanded the hard drives in our brain by cramming data into it, and learned to pull the relevant pieces from storage when called upon, assembling this data in the RAM that was our intelligence, and voicing the results from our mouth or printing them on paper. Now, I wonder what fills young people’s minds? Blank space? After all, the data is now stored in the Cloud, or at Google and Associates! Is the blank mind an efficient one? Will it operate as designed when called upon, or does it need its inseparable buddy, the smart phone, in order to be cranked into life?

And what would academic examinations look like? Should the smart phone be allowed to enter the exam hall while all other text books and memory aids are banned? No more multiple choice questions would be allowed, as the smart phone would have all the answers, or know where to find them. Allow for only evaluative questions, questions that will test the limits of one’s expansive knowledge of the universe. Questions like, “What is your understanding of the origins of life?” “Prove that God exists, or doesn’t,” “Prove that post-modern literature is dead.”  Before preparing the exam, a thorough search of Google and Associates will have to be made to ensure no one has already posted answers or written treatises on these questions, otherwise we may end up with the same response from everyone in the exam hall! A mass “copy and paste” job. And once we are safe from Google and Associates having the answers, how do we score the exam papers that may produce a wide range of responses to the same question, each different from the other?

I’ve heard of algorithms that follow a student’s eyeballs over an online course, scoring him based on how much time he spends reading the material and how many revision questions he answers at the end of each lesson (and how many answers he gets right). I’ve heard of time-limited multiple choice exams, making it virtually impossible to take time-outs to refer to Google on the side without losing out to the clock. I am sure each new method comes with pros and cons. Some will be too shallow, others too narrow, but we will always…always…find a way to outsmart the system. And those proxy exam writers (a profession unheard of in my time, and which has morphed into an industry in some developing countries today) will rise to the fore and offer their services to write the online exam for you. Maybe, in this Age of Evaluation, exams should be eliminated. I wouldn’t miss them. I suffered more anxiety during those damned exams than during the entire forty years I spent in the business world. I don’t think we can go back in time—heck, Google and Associates won’t let us, for there is too much money to be made from data! And would you like to go back to being a hunter-gatherer after experiencing the fine dining restaurant? Nah! We have become data-lazy. So I have to content myself with the “facts” that are served up by search engines. And I try not to think about the masterminds behind those engines who are manipulating us by serving us only the facts they want us to see, and not all the facts, so help us God! For all I know, we have become lab rats, picking apart food for consumption, unaware whether it is nourishing or tainted, unaware of the man in the lab coat making detailed observations of our behaviour under different stimuli, research data he can sell to the highest bidder while we blissfully continue to read, like, share and evaluate at a furious pace. One side of me wishes for that crack on the knuckles with the ruler, waking me up from this dream that I am in a brave new Age of Evaluation.

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