Saturday, 22 February 2014

Technology and Thinking (Part 5 of a Short Introduction to Thinking about Education and Technology)

If there is a central theme to this introductory course in thinking about education and technology, it is 'constraint': the idea that our questioning about the worlds of education and technology are constrained by institutions, discourses, technologies and (frankly) other people.

In the first week, I asked you to think of a question, and then to think of all the questions around that question which give rise to you asking the question in the first place. This is not only a good exercise for thinking deeply and searchingly - it is also an exercise in the identification of constraints.

In week 2, I suggested an approach to reading which was similarly about identifying the constraints bearing upon other authors as they try articulate their ideas on paper. Writing is hard, and the PhD is fundamentally about writing. Writing is also shaped by constraints, and reading is very often about finding those authors (many of them dead) whose constraints relate to your own.

In week 3, the issue of writing itself was dealt with. The exercise here was to examine the process and experience of writing as something where ideas from the mind find externalised expression. Externalising things allows us to play with the things we create, and in doing this, we can improve our writing (moving sentences around, for example). It's in this process of rejigging of things that we become more aware of the constraints bearing upon us, and become more capable of thinking them through (I think as I write this; I write to think).

Last week, I focused on methodology and value. Methodologies are often represented as 'research recipes', but actually they are different world-views. World views themselves are dependent on the ways that the world constrains the way we look at it. If academics were deeply critical, they would never simply adopt a methodological recipe and call it 'research' (although so many do!). Instead, they would deeply examine their problem, using the different world-views of methodologies as ways of asking more penetrating questions until they find their own methodological synthesis.

Now it is time to examine one of the major constraints that bear upon us, shapes our world-views, blinds us to aspects of reality, and even changes the way we write and think - this is technology.

In this week's exercise, I want you to make a short (2 minutes) video of a space where you spend a lot of time.
  1. Identify those things around you that you consider to be technologies
  2. How are they important to you?
  3. What would your life be without them?
  4. What do you have around you which you don't consider to be technology?
The point in doing this is to highlight the extent to which lives are lived immersed in technologies. This presents lots of questions, which I discuss in my video. Technologies excite us, and as they do so, so we change the way we think. Our expectations of the world change when we see something really cool (like, for example, the Oculus Rift which I discuss in the video). There are challenges to understanding how this happens, and what its effects are.

We see dramatic social changes resulting from technological change: think about how everyone's head is stuck in a smartphone in waiting rooms or on public transport. Or how we all now use email. How did that happen? Do you remember people thinking "this will never catch on" a few years ago? Will it always be like this from now? What will be next?

The problem with social change produced by technology is that, unlike social change produced through politics, nobody votes for it. It just happens, and it changes our lives.

Some of the social changes produced by technology can be challenging for individuals and society. For example, think how many jobs now don't exist because they have been replaced with technologies. How many public services are cut-back for online services take their place? Is an online service the same as something face-to-face? Is the village store the same as How can the village store compete? Technologies encourage a kind of rationalising way of thinking where people appear to become more like cogs in the machine. Human beings become 'instrumentalised' in some grand design of a 'system'. In whose interests is this done?

The philosopher Martin Heidegger worried about this aspect of technology. He argued that living with technology was the dominant way of being in the modern world. He called it "enframing". He worried that technological thinking was a way of thinking whereby the real world was only viewed through a frame which showed the resources that could be exploited by technology. The Cybernetician Heinz von Foerster expressed this concern quite neatly when he said: "we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve."

Heidegger believed that the only people who do not think in this way are artists, and poets in particular. Is he right? As a musician I think about this a lot: musical instruments are among the earliest of human technologies. Do they enframe?

But what we have today seems new. The fact that all the data from the use of online tools gets fed back to global corporations to be aggregated and analysed is a new development in society. What does that mean for democracy and politics? Whose interests are served by these technologies? Who wins? Who loses? These are hard questions, and perhaps our greatest current challenge is that we lack the intellectual means to be able to probe them effectively. Our technologies are so complex that whilst we know we are constrained and manipulated by them, we struggle to articulate exactly how this happens, which leaves us powerless in the face of technology's inexorable "progress".

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