Can We Stop Software From Eating School?

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In 2011, Marc Andreessen, venture capitalist and co-founder of the venerable Netscape, noted that “software is eating the world”. His observation was intended to reflect the way that computers, and the software they run, were flipping the business world on its head. Nine years on, and Andreessen’s words ring truer than ever. If anything, it seems that he understated the shifts we were seeing and feeling. In 2020, you could reasonably look at the changes of the past decade and say that “software has eaten our culture”.

“Software is eating the world” — Marc Andreessen

Picking up on this thread, Michael Harris’s The End of Absence takes a long look at the peculiar, and revolutionary time, in which we live. It draws our attention to the fact that there will never be another time like this: one in which adults have experienced the world both with and without the Internet. Our current observations, he notes, offer a final glimpse into a world that will soon be forgotten. If this sounds like hyperbole, then just consider how much time you spend thinking about life before Gutenberg’s printing press, which was the 15th century’s own version of the Internet. In the same way that we have, as a culture, forgotten what it was like to be pre-literate, we’ll soon forget what it was like to be pre-digital.

What will we fail to miss most, asks Harris? Absence is his answer.

If you are over the age of 35, you will probably remember a childhood and adolescence filled with absence: the absence of stimulation, fun and company. It was, for many of us, a time with ample opportunities to be alone, to think, to ponder, to be creative, to read deeply, to be bored. These activities, although we did not always relish them, forged the minds we carry around with us today. They enabled a culture in which deep thought was valued and valuable.

Unless we are very careful, the intrusion of devices and software into our lives will mean that our children will never have these experiences. Which will mean that by the time we are grandparents, these thoughts and feelings will seem old-fashioned, musty and dull. And then, in a flash, they’ll be gone.

Harris is far from alone in voicing these concerns. Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together, discerned the corroding effects of digital dependency almost a decade ago. More recently Adam Atler, William Powers, Andrew Keen and many others have all written compellingly about the changes we are undergoing. Richard Louv and Lenore Skenazy demonstrate how these shifts play out in the lived experience of our children.

Social network, circa 1980

If you remain unconvinced, then perhaps this short read by Benjamin Conlon, focusing on how childhood has changed, might help you to imagine how difficult it must be for our children to daydream, imagine, create and get lost.

Given all of this, it might be fair to say that we are set on a path which leads to software eating everything. Whilst this will have sounded excitingly disruptive to venture capitalists in 2011, it should, today, strike us as alarming.

It might not be surprising then, that for all of the energy schools are pouring into software, there is a growing concern among educators about where we are heading. As Conlon observes:

In many districts teachers are encouraged to employ Twitter and Instagram for classroom updates. This is a bad thing. It normalizes the process of posting content without consent and teaches children that everything exciting is best viewed through a recording iPhone. It also reinforces the notion that ‘likes’ determine value. Rather than reading tweets from your child’s teacher, talk to your children each day. Ask what’s going on in school. They’ll appreciate it.

This thinking represents a distinct change of tack. It represents schools pushing back against the ascendancy of big tech. It suggests that swimming downstream through the dominant culture might not be the right thing to do.

Swimming upstream instead of down?

It was with all of this in mind that Toby Newton (Head of School at ICHK Secondary) and I spent a sunny autumn day in 2018 sketching the outlines of a new ICT policy. By this point, it had become clear to us that our existing structures, which were based on the techno-utopian thinking prevalent at the time of their writing, were no longer fit for purpose. It was also apparent that drastic change was needed, and that it would not be easy to pull off.

What followed was 9 months of intense discussion, drafting, consultation, introspection and iterative improvement. The whole process relied on exactly the kind of solitary deep focus that software seemed to be imperiling, coupled to short bursts of intense collaboration. Almost all of the work was kept hidden from students, as we asked ourselves how we could orchestrate a sea change, without coming across as a bunch of old, irrelevant reactionary Luddites.

The resulting policy was introduced to students in June 2019, via a series of unannounced simulations and presentations. Its aim was no less than reclaiming for students some of the quiet space commandeered by digital technology. The primary vehicle for this was a set of protocols that would invite students to put away their own mobile phones, whilst refocusing teacher attention on how we use laptops for learning.

ICHK Secondary’s new ICT Policy

Although I find our students to be very attentive and engaged, launch day was the most striking example I’ve seen of having their undivided attention. A handful of individuals, those most tethered to their devices, had felt the tremors approaching, but most were caught unawares.

Where I had, during some dark sleepless night, feared a visceral backlash of phone-deprived adolescent rage, we saw a remarkable degree of thoughtfulness. There were many good questions, the odd wounded look, and a range of very sensible suggestions for making the new policy more workable.

School life, as it will, marched on. But the culture had been distinctly altered. Where, at break, we previously saw growing numbers of students conspicuously using mobile devices, we now see playing cards, games around whiteboards, students talking and playing. There are more students playing sports on the playground, and the old primary school favourite, foursquare, has enjoyed an unexpected resurgence among older students. During class time we’ve seen the near total disappearance of mobile phones, and the distraction that attends them. Our senior students, who have more leeway, have proven reliable role models, in carrying their devices but using them discreetly. Students no longer wait for class to begin by playing with their laptops. Teachers are more aware of their own role in modelling positive digital behaviour.

Given the danger of newly-bored and untethered students, we worked to create a physical and social environment that supports socialisation and playfulness, introducing giant board games, installing more seating and putting on lunch time activities. Phone lockers, now installed in every form room, offer a structural change that allows students to use one material technology to control another. All of this builds on our ongoing work in offering students an epistemic apprenticeship, in which they learn positive habits and skills that will serve them throughout their adult lives. The foundations of our school remain choice, adult-adult conversations and an absence of traditional school behaviour management.

Ultimately, whilst we might want to blame children for not controlling their device use, it is not really their fault at all. As Adam Alter (Irresistible) makes abundantly clear, it is adults, acting under contemporary economic pressures, who have deliberately designed the environment our students find themselves in. Having found a plausible and popular narrative, many schools have, under the tired banner of “21st century learning”, jumped on board the digital bandwagon. What has taken some time to become apparent, is the extent to which our biological imperatives to switch attention towards opportunities and threats have been hijacked. These “orienting responses” (Behave, Robert M Sapolsky), have been turned against us because it has become economically and culturally advantageous, and technically possible, to do so.

The hijacking of our orienting response

As educators it is imperative that we recognise these forces, and work to create an environment that guides students to be able to judge both the value and the costs of a wide range of human technologies. We cannot simply turn out backs on the many advantages that digital living offers, but neither can we remain complicit in the greatest heist of all time: the theft of our collective attention.

Phones in particular, for their many benefits, carry a massive set of interconnected costs. However, we, as educators and parents, can counter these through the use of other technologies, such as well thought out protocols and policies, phone lockers, the freedom to roam, the freedom to connect in person and dinner together as a family. During such times, we might stop and consider the extent to which words that once held meaning associated with face to face intimacy and organic emotional growth are now connected to a much less rich sense of what they could or should represent. For example, how many of our online “friends” serve the functions that a real friend ought to. Likewise for “community”, “contact”, “like”, “share” and a growing lexicon of repurposed words. It is in these shifts that we can divine the deconstruction of much that we ought to hold dear.

Of course, the best technology of all might just be adults who reliably role model a positive culture around device usage, and who revel in absence, spontaneity, exploration and fun. As Neil Postman notes, perhaps a little stridently, in Technopoly, “a family that does not or cannot control the information environment of its children is barely a family at all”. Our actions as adults, like it or not, form a large part of this very same information environment.

The changes we’ve experienced at ICHK Secondary over the past 18 months have been neither straightforward, nor pain free. However, we believe that when we draw firm boundaries against the encroachment of digital devices, we stand to gain tremendously. Along the way we have greatly appreciated the ongoing support of the many parents and educators who have voiced their joy at our new policy. We hope that, over time, yet more people will join us on this journey.


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