Se hace camino al andar: AI and the future of humanity

We Make the Road by Walking was the book title that Myles Horton and Paulo Freire adapted from a proverb by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado.

Daring to gloss a rich and multifaceted book with in a few words, I’d say that the path to social justice is not at all clear. Nevertheless, we must act, and that act will light the way,

Horton and Freire lived, as well as articulated, that insight, a version of learning by doing. It applies in many domains, but seems especially relevant to discussions about the new AI and its implications for ethical life.

I’d like to suggest three heuristics applicable to any new technology, but none more so than the new AI:

  • The path isn’t there until we make it.
  • Paradoxically, it’s already there.
  • We need to engage.


Much of the discourse around the new AI adopts a deterministic stance:

We’re confronted, against our desires, will, or knowledge with a new device. It acts independently of us and even the expects who built it. All we can do is watch as it upends medical care, environmental protection, racial justice, privacy, education, military preparedness, intellectual property, and democratic life, just for starters.

This is a discourse of inevitability. It portends a world that we don’t understand and can’t control. And, most of the scenarios are catastrophic. The fact that it might make shopping easier doesn’t count for much when the world’s about to end.

But is that future inevitable? Should we hunker down, or as many do, imagine possibilities more benign, even glorious?

Making the path: An Oppenheimer moment?

Robert Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the home of the Manhattan Project. He’s seen as the “father” of the atomic bomb. But he’s equally famous for his realization of the potential disaster his project had wrought. He famously quoted from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Two years after the Trinity explosion, he said “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

Are we facing a new Oppenheimer moment? Tristan Harris and Aza Raskin see that and call for action to address the “AI dilemma.” Some things in their video are already dated; it was made 11 days ago.

Regardless of whether we adopt the stance of Cassandra or that of Pollyanna, we will follow some path. But when we take one of the extremes, we’ll find that our path is defined by some corporation’s idea of how to maximize their profit or some government’s idea of how to control the populace,’

Horton and Freire would tell us that we need to engage in making that path ourselves.

It’s always-already there

Always-already is a widely used term in philosophy (Heidegger, Derrida, Althusser, etc.). Generally it means that the features of a phenomenon seem to precede any perception of it; they’re “always already” present. It’s related to the idea in hermeneutics that there’s no understanding free of presuppositions, or bias.

When we come to the impact of new technologies, such as the new AI, this always-already sense is very evident. For all the novelty of the technology and its impact, none of the disaster scenarios is entirely new.

For example, many people rightly worry about how AI chat programs based on large language models can be used to promote disinformation, including malicious attacks on individuals or groups, promotion of fascist ideologies, or incitement to war.

But disinformation has been a problem since the beginning of language, was exacerbated by writing and then the printing press, and already seems off the rails in the age of the web and social media. Could AI chat programs make that worse? Probably yes. But we always-already know much of what that could look like and much of what we could do about it, even as we often fail to act.

We could say similar things about employment, public health, democracy governance, and other arenas that the new AI may affect. We don’t know what will happen; but we can be sure that what does happen will be a product of both the technology per se and the way we as humans have responded in the past and present.

What, for example, is our response to disinformation already? Do we expand public radio and TV? Provide tools for citizens to examine claims that are made? Teach critical thinking? Promote civic discourse? Emphasize public education at all levels? Fund research?

Or, do we ban books, starve libraries and schools, treat rants of extremists as “news events”?

Characteristics of new technologies will make a difference, but less than our response to them.


Writing about an educational innovation, Quill, Andee Rubin and I said:

When an innovation that calls for significant changes in teacher practices meets an established classroom system, “something has to give.” Often, what gives is that the innovation is simply not used. Rarely is an innovation adopted in exactly the way the developers intended… the process of re-creation of the innovation is not only unavoidable, but a vital part of the process…. [The users’] role in the innovation process is as innovators, not as recipients of completed products.

Electronic Quills, p, 293

The re-creation process clearly applies to general prescriptions, such as “plan ahead.” But it also applies to the most solid, apparently immutable technologies.

For example, over the last century and a quarter automobiles have changed the world. We now have parking lots, suburbs, traffic laws and traffic deaths, carbon emissions, changes in sexual and family relations, and drive-in movies. But none of these were inevitable consequences of a four-wheeled vehicle with an internal combustion engine.

We could for example, value human life more and systematically restrict vehicle speed. Or, we could ban cars from urban areas, as some cities, especially in Europe, are beginning to do. We could have done many such things in the past and still could. Some would be good; some bad; some inconsequential.

The point is that how we engage is what matters in the end, not just the technology per se, if such a concept is even viable,

For the first Earth Day, in 1970, Walt Kelly made a poster pointing the finger at all of us, not just evil polluters or a few thoughtless individuals. He declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It’s useful to apply a critical view to new AI technologies. We should ask how they work and what their potential might be. But ultimately, we need to look at ourselves.

  • If we’re concerned about job loss from AI chatbots, then we ought to ask how we think of securing work with dignity for all, whether AI chat bots exist or not.
  • If we’re concerned about robots controlled by opaque, unregulated software, then we ought to ask questions about the control and use of any robots, even those controlled by opaque, unregulated humans.
  • If we’re frightened by the thought of nuclear war initiated by rogue AI, then we ought to work towards guaranteeing that that never happens due to rogue humans, regardless of how much they’re aided by AI.

One positive from the advent of the new AI is that people are beginning to ask questions about the camino (the path) that we’re on, questions that deserve better answers independent of the new AI. We need to realize that the path is one that we alone can make.

Life (and stories) in an Alaskan Eskimo village

In the early 1980’s, the Quill in Alaska project was a great adventure in learning about stories, writing, computers, classrooms, Alaska village life, bush travel, and much more. Although the temperatures were often -20˚F or below, stories from that time are burned deep in my brain. I learned that stories relate our lives, but that they also shape our lives, and create endless stories to follow.

One involved a kind of networking that shows the value of being there, even in our time of electronic communications. As I recall, on a cold, snowy day in March, I had boarded a De Havilland Beaver, similar to the one shown above, to fly from Chevak to Bethel, at the head of Kuskokwim Bay. I may have been the only passenger for that short nonstop flight.

Shortly after takeoff, the pilot announced that we’d be making an unscheduled stop to pick up passengers in Scammon Bay, a village on a point jutting out into the Bering Sea. The propellers had scarcely stopped spinning when a young couple boarded. We started talking. I shared some stories about my travels to small villages around Alaska and they told me why they were flying to Bethel. They had just married, and were on their honeymoon to the big city (pop. 3000).

I asked them whether they knew of Aylette Jenness. She’s a writer of children’s books, photographer, and anthropologist, and more, a good personal friend. In the 1960’s Aylette had lived in Alaska in their very village for a year and a half. Based on her experiences there, she wrote a wonderful book, Dwellers of the Tundra: Life in an Alaskan Eskimo Village, with beautiful photos by Jonathan Jenness.

They were too young to have met Aylette, but they knew of her, and they cherished the book she wrote about their village. The young man asked me whether I remembered a photo of a woman in the book holding a young child. I said yes, it was one of my favorites in the book. He then stunned me by saying: “That woman is my mother, and that baby is me.”

We talked the rest of the flight. When I returned to Cambridge, the first thing I had to do was to tell Aylette that story, about how the characters in her book had a continuing life and were now old enough to get married and fly to Bethel. She was fascinated and immediately said: “I have to go back!”

She soon returned to their village, one generation, and more than 20 years later. Being the writer and photographer she is, wrote a second book: In Two Worlds: A Yu’pik Eskimo Family (1989).

This time, the book was co-authored, with Alice Rivers, a Scammon Bay resident, shown on the left here with Aylette on the right. The change in authorship reflects both changes in the way we write about others and Aylette’s own deepening connection with the people there.

The title reflects changes, too. It uses the name Scammon Bay residents themselves use, Yu’pik, not just a broad category, like Eskimo, and everyone is more conscious of living in multiple worlds. The people and Scammon Bay are now identified by name. The books make vivid for me my time in Alaska, even though my stay in Scammon Bay itself was probably just 15 minutes.

And the photos are now by Aylette. They’re sharper than in the first book, less dreamy and more reflective of the many facets of life in modern, yet still traditional, Alaskan villages—the two worlds.

It’s now been another generation, and time for more stories and another Scammon Bay book. In the Introduction to In Two Worlds, Alice and Aylette ask: “maybe one of Alice’s daughters will write that one. Mattie? Sarah? How about it?”

I don’t think the books are still in print, but you can easily find good quality used copies online.

The Quill greenhouse project in Hartford

Tending the plants Tending plants in the greenhouse Writing at the one Apple II computer Writing at the one Apple II computer

The images here are from 25-year-old 35 mm slides, so they’re not very clear, but the story is still relevant.

In 1982-84 I did some work with the Mary Hooker elementary school in Hartford, CT. We had developed a computer program called Quill, which allowed children to write and send email. Our test classroom at the school was taught by Jim Aldridge, who learned a week before classes started that he was to teach 6th, not 3rd, grade, was to work with the local garden club on a greenhouse project, and was to be a test site for Quill.

Jim’s class had 35 students, all from Puerto Rican, Cuban, and African-American backgrounds. There was a high level of transiency. Some students spent large portions of the winter in Puerto Rico; others simply didn’t come to school. The school was under-resourced and had policies such as requiring students to specify in advance how many sheets of toilet paper they needed for a bathroom trip, since students weren’t trusted with full paper rolls.

As a fairly new teacher, Jim was naturally a bit concerned. We worked out a way to use the Quill Planner feature for students to do lab reports on the plants in the greenhouse. This at least made the innovations more manageable. As things settled down, we found that the greenhouse became a focal point for learning. Several students who were on the verge of dropping out stayed in the class so they could work with the greenhouse and the computer. Some of this work is described in Electronic Quills: A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers for Writing in Classrooms (B. C. Bruce & A. Rubin; pub: Erlbaum, 1993).

It’s exciting to see how far we’ve come with similar projects today, such as Urban Agriculture in the Context of Social Ecology at the Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Chicago, which exemplifies the idea of the school as social center.

Seed packets and Planner notes
Seed packets and Planner notes

Quill, revisited

Quill iLab As an experiment to test iLabs version 3, and also to satisfy a long-standing impulse of mine to resurrect Quill, I created a Quill iLab (click on the image to see more).

This iLab combines information that used to be on basic html pages regarding the book, Electronic Quills: A Situated Evaluation of Using Computers to Teach Writing, and new interactive features, which emulate what Quill did on Apple II computers many years ago. The example texts are taken directly from the book, and represent examples actually written by students during the Quill project.

I was pleased to see that iLabs could do much of what Quill did, and in a much easier way than writing in Pascal on the Apple, with its 64KB memory. I was also reminded that we had some good ideas for promoting writing and collaboration, even with that primitive equipment.

Check it out and let me know what you think. If you’d like to be authorized as a member so you can see how entering texts work, just let me know.

Electronic Quills: A situated evaluation of using computers for writing in classrooms

Quill bookQuill was a suite of software tools designed to foster an environment for literacy in classrooms. We wrote it in Pascal for the Apple II computer. The software, teacher’s guide, and workshops were used widely, including in village schools in Alaska, which I visited three times during the project in 1983-84. Carol Barnhardt played a major role in setting up that Alaska project and in helping us understand the history and context of schooling in Alaska.
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Quill teacher’s guide

Quill is a set of microcomputer programs that use the computer’s capabilities to help teachers teach writing. Students from third grade through high school have been successful with Quill, including gifted and talented, special education, and English as a second language students.

The Quill programs are tools for teachers and students. Teachers can use Quill to provide challenging, meaningful writing activities for students. Students can use the programs to practice various types of writing and produce finished products they can share with classmates and teachers. These are motivating, adaptable writing activities that supplement and enrich existing language arts curricula, and can be integrated into all content areas.