Saturday 2 February 2013

Educational Technology and Sociomateriality: An Aristotelian perspective

A friend of mine argued recently that “there’s no such thing as technology; there are only artefacts” I find this position very interesting for a number of reasons. First of all, we should consider what it is we talk about in e-learning if there is “no such thing as technology”. In fact, it challenges us to accept that there are many dimensions of things that interest us: changes in agency of learners and teachers  being one of the fundamental ones. Then we are interested in the technical dimensions of our ability to manipulate the material environment: much like an artist will look for new techniques to manipulate paint, wood or stone (new interoperability standards, new programming languages provide this kind of thing in e-learning). Taking the  position that “there’s no such thing as technology” means that the causal connection between what we do and what we observe happening is re-situated. We cannot say “it’s the technology that does this” because the 'technology' as an entity isn’t there; there's just an artefact. We might then ask ourselves why we would want to say that “the technology does this…” The answer, I’ve often encountered, is because we want to believe that the technology as a 'saleable commodity' has causal power. After all,  many other technological artefacts appear to have causal power.

Much educational technology discourse centres on the impact on agency from the creation of artefacts in the environment. New websites, textbooks, systems for recording attendance, giving feedback, coordinating activities, and other systemic interventions allowing for the seamless joining-up of existing system have material properties - the physicality of the computer, the light from the screen, etc. Their social properties, which may or may not emerge from their materiality include the power relationships which demand interaction with a new system, normative practices, expectations of others or social roles.

But surely, saying “there’s no such thing as technology” is ridiculous?! There are things like cars and telephones and wheels and houses. McLuhan would tell us about the 'extending' power of technologies: cars extend the feet, telephones extend the voice, etc. But is 'extension' merely a particular property of particular technologies? 

I think Aristotelian causal distinctions are useful here. If we are to distinguish between different kinds of technologies as artefacts, our distinctions take the form of examining formal, material and final causes. [See here for a quick guide to Aristotelian causality (] McLuhan's idea of 'extension' is an articulation of a final cause - the purpose of something. McLuhan tends to see technology as teleological - i.e. for a purpose. Not all artefacts are purposeful in this way (for example, a painting). But teleological thinking can cause us problems - after all, purpose for whom?!

Artistotle's distinctions can help us make a deeper analysis of artefacts that we think of as technologies. A car is an artefact with a formal cause (being car-shaped with wheels, an engine and seats), a material cause (paper cars never really caught on!), an efficient cause (you need a car industry, and industrialists to make a car) and a final cause (it extends my feet). But something interesting happens here: the final cause is linked to the efficient cause (the economy); the material cause of the car is dependent on other efficient causes (mining industries, for example); the formal cause is connected to the final cause which influences the efficient cause... and so on. Aristotle's distinctions appear to create dynamic feedback patterns when we look at different artefacts.

If we see a £20 note lying on the road, it will have a particular effect on us. The urge to pick it up will be strong. Is this urge is the result of the presence and proximity of the artefact? Is it the result of the 'affordances' of the £20 note? I wonder if we can do better than "affordance". Picking it up is a transformation of agency in response to a material intervention. Something happens in us which drives us. We can first of all think about the questions which we might ask: “who dropped it? What can I do with it? Could I take it? Will someone else take it?” and so on. In essence, picking it up is a decision. The question is “how is the decision reached?”. These are questions about causality. Can we then make a connection between the dynamics between the causes of an artefact and the decision-making process of people encountering it?

I have recently argued that decisions are reached through what is not thinkable, rather than through what is thinkable. An artefact may create unthinkabilities. It may be that the unthinkabilities are related to the causal properties of the artefact. The artefact of money is interesting because the final cause is normative and related to the efficient cause. That everyone understands this means that everyone has a similar experience in the presence of the artefact of money. Because everyone has a similar experience, so everyone may be drawn to a similar way of acting, and similar decisions will be made. In turn this creates the efficient conditions for the reproduction of money. This would not be the case if we saw an abandoned car, for example. There would be far more differentiation in peoples' reactions.

I wonder if many technological artefacts aspire to the condition of money. And I wonder if the dynamics of self-perpetuation (autopoiesis?) are fundamental in our distinguishing 'technologies' from other artefacts.

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