British educational leader advocates The Matrix

The Telegraph yesterday ran with an article, Brain downloads ‘will make lessons pointless,’ about some comments made by Chris Parry, former Rear Admiral and the CEO of the Independent Schools Council. Parry believe that ‘”Matrix-style” technology would render traditional lessons obsolete,’ because we’ll soon be beaming knowledge into kids brains. Parry told the Times Educational Supplement: “It’s a very short route from wireless technology to actually getting the electrical connections in your brain to absorb that knowledge.”

Okay, you all need to help me: do I feel this under ‘hokum,’ ‘malarky,’ or ‘balderdash’? Rear Admiral Parry, sir, will the wireless technology use the brain’s Bluetooth or WiFi receptors? Which part of the brain’s RAM will you use when you install the new ‘human operating system’?

Okay, Admiral Parry, repeat after me: The brain is not a computer.

This kind of stuff is fun (‘and in the future we’ll have flying cars, and get beamed to other planets with Stargates, and eat coloured goo that comes out of tubes on the walls and tastes like anything we want, but it’ll be perfectly nutritionally balanced, and all the aliens will sort of look like us except they’ll have bumps on their noses or ears so they’re still kind of sexy…’).

I wouldn’t be irritated at all if the man was just a futurist crank or some science fiction writer, but the guy actually makes educational policy, and the ISAC involves 1300 schools which together teach half a million children, according to the story, who will be in for a rough ride over the next few years if Admiral Parry is plotting the ‘teaching technology’ plans for them. As the article continues:

He told the TES that the Keanu Reeves thriller may not look like science fiction in 30 years’ time.

“Within 30 years, sitting down and learning something will be a thing of the past,” Mr Parry said.

“I think people will be able to directly access, Matrix-style, all the vocabulary you need for a foreign language, leaving you just to clear up the grammar.”

Uhhh, Admiral Parry, do I have to have one of those big plugs in the back of my neck or live in a tank of fluid while the robots steal my body heat after we suffer enormous losses in the big robot-human war? And can I learn super-ninja-no-gravity-martial arts along with my foreign language programming? And if I do have to live in the tank, can I at least choose which virtual reality I get to live in because I don’t really want to move back to Chicago…

Someone needs to send Admiral Parry a copy of John Medina’s Brain Rules (which I will eventually review here). Or, for that matter, maybe he could sit in on Neurology 101 somewhere in the UK. How exactly does one get put in charge of an educational institution when one has NO CLUE how learning occurs? Everything from the way attention works, to the necessity of repetition for changes in neural patterns, to the need for compelling experiences to aid memory, to the fact that education is not ‘information’ but includes a host of other factors such as perceptual change, to the need for sleep…. We could go on and on.

I suppose people like Admiral Parry assume that we’re going to have memory ‘chips’ installed in our brains at some point. That’s entirely possible, I suppose, although I think there’s likely to be some serious issues involved, including not just ethical ones but also practical, neurological, and economic problems. Is he aware that the biggest challenges in schools are not the absence of technology or wireless connections to students’ brains, but lack of resources, social problems from outside the classroom affecting teaching, lackluster teaching, behavioural issues among students, and basic disagreements about what education is even supposed to accomplish (witness the problem with standardized testing)? And that’s not even touching on the fact that in the developing world, where most children are being educated, these problems are even more acute.

While I’m hardly opposed to thinking seriously about the ways technology might affect basic facets of our social lives and interactions (see, for example, Daniel’s post, Cellphones Save The World), I hope that the ISC that Parry now heads isn’t dumping its scarce resources into his ‘wireless brain programming’ plan just yet. I’m not usually the gambling type, but I’d be willing to bet good money against Matrix-style, wireless brain programming for foreign languages in our classrooms in thirty years, if Parry wants to put up a few pounds.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

3 thoughts on “British educational leader advocates The Matrix

  1. no, no, seriously it is true. aliens have been doing this for years, controlling people from their secret base on the moon, implanting thoughts, making kids forget their homework, heck they even made me come home late from work one night I sweartogod it was aliens I tell you, aliens and their mindcontrol implant ray thingy. honest.

    ok. don’t believe me. you’ll see. soon enough.

  2. Greg Downey – repeat after me – you should not believe eveything you read in the newspapers. The issue discussed was what technologies should be examined for the future and determining whether technologies such as wireless transmissions to the brain issue are likely to be ever viable. Journalists are not known for picking up the subtlety or depth of discussions about technologies and the future.

    Glad to read your excellent blog and input- keep up the good work.

  3. On comment #2. And if this is in fact Adm. Parry, nice to meet you sir. If there’s one lesson I’ve learned about being a blogger is that, like my mother told me, always be polite as you never know who’s listening. Every once in a while, I read something that really gets me completely wound up and I have to get snarky, and I usually live to regret it as the snark inevitably winds up on the wrong target. But I continue to do it as my ire overrides my memory of feeling chastened.

    It doesn’t surprise me to hear that reporters didn’t get this one right. As I discussed at length in ‘Bad brain science: Boobs caused subprime crisis,’ and we’ve just seen in the ‘uncontacted Indians’ story that’s circulating, bad science writing is responsible for a lot of the problems we have with popular science communication. There should be a special category of bad science writing around movie similes. The Matrix simile, while easy for the reporter to grasp onto and write about, clearly causes some of the trouble (and provoked me).

    It’s a timely reminder for me as I get ready for an on-camera interview on Tuesday morning here. Not only should I ‘not believe everything I read,’ but I should also try to be careful ‘not to say anything I don’t want to see in print out of context.’ No wonder our leaders end up repeating talking points; so much of what they say gets twisted, intentionally or unintentionally, until it only vaguely resembles what they said to start.

    But now I’ll put Snarky Greg back in his cage. He’s fun to listen to sometimes, but I inevitably regret letting him do the writing.

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