There is No Such Thing as Technology
(thanks to WikiCommons)
Educational institutions spend a lot of time talking about technology. Often they're reactive conversations, states of semi-panic as people in these organisations observe trends in wider society and wonder whether they're being left behind.
There are probably two main ways these conversations tend to pan out. Or maybe 3.
1. The gee whiz conversation. Sometimes called technological determinism, technology as the Great White Hope. It seems to be popular and working somewhere else, so let's have it here and that will be our experience as well. Technology as value-neutral and free-floating, reproducible in any situation.
2. The critical, evaluative conversation. "Technology is just a tool, it's what we do with it that is important." Technology is still a fairly neutral player, able to be adopted and used in a variety of ways, and what's important is deciding upon those ways.
3. The affordances conversation. Technology 'affords' various possibilities, and we should be aware of these. Technology is not neutral, it creates a set of possibilities that vary from one technology to another.
My own experience is that 2 is the dominant conversation in educational institutions, with 3 on the rise. 2 has historically been accompanied with a lot of sage head-nodding, a sort of demonstration that no way would educated people like us ever be sucked into the gee whiz conversation. Interestingly nearly 50 years ago McLuhan called number 2 "the current somnambulism". Whether you agree with him or not (and he was one of those rare thinkers almost a century before his time, and was therefore almost completely misunderstood), it's interesting that what is often taken as the mature, intelligent approach to understanding technology is open to criticism of being so retrograde.
For me all 3 conversations are more or less misguided. For the simple reason that they all assume there is some thing called 'technology'. As I wrote in the earlier iPad articles, technology shouldn't be a noun. It's a label we give to an always active network of things, some recognisably human or non-human, and some not. Unfortunately much of the theory of technology has been written by people with almost no experience of how something is designed, built or maintained. For example ours is often called a virtual age, of online life and work. As if life itself has become more and more disembodied, as opposed to more traditional 'face to face' interactions.
And yet the reality of the virtual world is the vast networks that make this world possible. Resolutely material, more so than at any other time in our history. Employing vast quantities of people, material and energy. Being online is not to be less in the world somehow, it is to be more engaged in the world, to be put into connection with a vastly larger number of people and resources than any face to face meeting could ever make possible.
But back to why technology doesn't exist. Technology is a label we give to some device, cut away from the entire context that both brought it into existence and maintains it there. It's an intellectual black box. We all know a bit about design, construction, marketing, maintenance, upgrading - all the necessary context of any technology, without which it is nothing. It's tempting to think of this whole network of context as 'support' for the technology, so that the technology is still technology, but let's make sure we don't forget about these support mechanisms (a bit like the grudging way many academic staff allow for the existence of 'support' staff - the real work is academic, but yes ok we maybe need these other people to make that work possible. But as few as possible).
But there is no core and no context. Every successful piece of technology is about marketing and finance and support, right down to every atom on every chip. When Apple builds one of its successful widgets, what sets it apart from most other companies is how much this entire supposed 'context' is woven into the very heart of even the most 'technical' design decision. It was slower to adopt 4G technology, for example, not because it didn't know how to build it, but because its assessment on a range of issues such as reliability and customer satisfaction told it to hold off. And dig a little deeper into any technology such as 4G and you'll find that every 'non-technical' decision is woven into the very technical fabric of the device, as Tracey Kidder beautifully shows in his "The Soul of a New Machine" (Kidder had the sense and courtesy to actually spend a lot of time with people who build machines).
Many think affordances are a way forward. A way of giving some agency back to the machinery, if you like. But whether it's perceptual psychology or industrial design or educational technology, affordances seem problematic, to me anyway. There's nothing wrong with saying a given technology makes certain actions or behaviours or learning possible, as Latour showed so beautifully in his article about hydraulic door-closers (how they presuppose a certain size and strength of the person using them, and many other conditions and pre-conditions). But much of the work on affordances assumes they somehow live or are embodied within the object or technology itself. So technology is still a thing here, a thing with affordances, rather than a continuously changing and active network of heterogeneous things.
Anybody who's seen The Gods Must Be Crazy must question the idea of affordances. Depending upon the context the affordances may be entirely different. A Coke bottle in our country will have a very different set of affordances to the same bottle accidentally dropped into remote Africa. Affordances theory struggles to describe whether all of these potential affordances are somehow embodied within the object or technology in some way, and it's here critics have a bit of a field day.
And when you think about it, any technology could theoretically have an infinite number of affordances. You could just as easily use a computer to chock up a wonky leg on a chair, to serve pizza on or crush cockroaches as for word processing or web surfing. That was the one-trick pony that made The Gods Must Be Crazy funny.
After 25 years of thinking actor-network theory is the key to understanding technology, I still don't see a reason to change that belief. It's making inroads into the mainstream now, and seems more like common sense every day. The world has changed, and those changes make its ideas seem absolutely bloody obvious.