The Deceit of Silicon

The main theme of the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian revolves around the Enigma of Steel. Conan must answer the Enigma of Steel or he will be cast out of Valhalla by Crom. In the beginning of the film, Conan's father states:

The secret of steel has always carried with it a mystery. You must learn its riddle, Conan. You must learn its discipline. For no one - no one in this world can you trust. Not men, not women, not beasts. This you can trust.

The exact riddle and answer are never explicitly stated. The implied answer, from the movie and Nietzsche quote that opens the film, is that the will forged through overcoming hardship is stronger than steel. The demonstration of forging a sword through fire and hammering in the opening credits makes this plain. The movie depicts Conan surviving in his early life when others do not. Conan loses his life and love before finally defeating Thulsa Doom in the climactic battle. The final victory comes when Conan overcomes Doom's hypnosis in a battle of will.

(The fact that the solution is never stated aloud fits the theme. My interpretation is that Crom will judge the person's actions rather than accept a verbal answer.)

The opposite of the Enigma of Steel is the Deceit of Silicon. Where an enigma is a truth hidden in a mystery, a deceit is a lie hidden in apparent truth. When heated, steel becomes stronger. When silicon is heated, it becomes brittle glass. Wielding a sword requires skill and strength. Using a silicon-based processor requires a few swipes or key presses. Steel makes no promises other than to be heavy and make you work. Silicon tempts you with algorithms to make you famous and deliver the world to your doorstep, if you submit to its will.

As an teacher, I repeatedly fall for the Deceit of Silicon. As education moves further away from in-person classes, it is easy to think of my classes as a chance to show the world my genius as an math communicator. In reality, I plan my lessons on how they affect my YouTube analytics instead of how students learn best. Getting a new subscriber or two only adds to my false conviction that I am one the right path. My many students would disagree.

(I realize that some of this is due to ADHD symptoms that I will have to address at the end of the semester.)

Students need to be aware of this phenomenon too. There are cell phone apps and YouTube videos that will help them get through a math class. This may get them through today's homework assignment, but that is putting off the reckoning until the next day. Many current college students finished high school math during COVID. It was easy to believe they were learning by getting passing grades. However, the day they have to show mastery is now.

If this sounds like you, then do not worry. Make peace with the fact you have some gaps in your math preparation and make plans to fill them. College professors will not be as forgiving as your high school teachers, so there is no avoiding it. Just know that, like Conan, the extra effort will not kill you. It will make you stronger as a student.

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