There is No Such Thing as Technology

The opening of Chaplin's Modern Times
(thanks to WikiCommons)

To be happily confused and conflated with a couple of specific posts on the iPad about two years ago, here and here.

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.


  1. It's a meaty one, there are a couple of arguments in there which all support quite detailed discussions however I suspect the motivating argument is that it is unhelpful to consider technology, especially that as complex, promising and confusing as tablet computers, online learning environments and enterprise information systems as manifestations of lists of desired affordances, or in other unidimensional ways. Such technology requires context if you want to come towards an understanding of them.

    Philosophically I would like to extend the argument beyond ANT into complex systems theory with reference to Paul Ormerod and his work on applying network theories to Success and Failure. More pragmatically however I feel that technology has been defined to broadly in this piece.

    To take the iPad example I think it is more useful to think of the iPad as both technology and product. As a technology it owes it's existence and success to a variety of prior technologies, such as radio communication, semiconductors, batteries, lcd displays, materials science, operating systems theory. Important to the iPad's success as a product are marketing, logistics chains, accounting (a serious problem for Apple, they must be running out of pockets in which to stuff that ridiculous wad of money :) )

    The decision to choose an older technology over a newer one in order to obtain specific performance parameters is about as technical as they come, though it probably doesn't relate so much to the iPad as a technology as much as it does the commodification of the technology, non-functional design, such as chamfer angles bear more directly on product success.

    Running against the iPad are the many technologies which have failed, despite alleged benefits, VHS vs Betamax, the Segway, Virtual reality (80's style), the Apple G4 cube. Many represent great technology, but came out of time, or where marketed poorly, or simply answered a question nobody asked. Some of these provided the basis for products that where later successful (such as VR leading to graphics acceleration, which is so important to your iPad flicking so smoothly from screen to screen)

    The iPad is technology in the same way that a clinical trial is Science and an excavation is History. Attempting to understand technology (or deny it's existence) through the lens of successful products is ultimately as ill-fated as trying to attempting to deduce Science from a packet of aspirin and a video of koala reproduction.

    This however leaves the most important question open, how do we understand technology, how do we understand what we need to understand about technology, and how can we ensure that people make good decisions when embarking on a technology project, which I suspect will have to be teased out over lunch :)

    1. Thanks Tim! We discussed this yesterday a bit, and I feel that Ormerod's approach potentially treats technology as a thing, which the 'social' world (or whatever term) then does more or less useful things with. Whereas the ANT appraoch doesn't separate the two - there's as much 'society' in the technical design as there is in use of a device. But we can discuss further!

  2. Hi Nick,

    I enjoyed your post - and the previous ones about the iPad. My two cents on the use of the term technology - I don't see technology as an object, it is a continuum of thought that grows and builds upon itself. My favourite explanation of the technology debate comes from Bill Rankin at ACU in Texas where he discusses the transition from the scroll to the codex. When we went from linear to random access and things just got smaller, lighter faster.

    In that light, I have to say I fall into the third category quite a lot. I accept that devices, hardware and software all have affordances, they afford new opportunities and open new doors and windows. Affordances change and so does context, in fact new and emerging technology often bring about these changes. That's all great but the key and deciding factor is USE, real world use.

    You points about Apple and 4G are particularly relevant - those decisions were never made based on technology - they were made about use. And when we discuss educational technology or technology in education it has to be about use - not affordance.

    To me the iPad is quite special as it represents a device full of affordances - embodying not a single technology, but multiple technologies. It was built agnostically - the device formed the base, you add a layer of functionality through apps and you have a device that can conform in multiple contexts. The last step then is working out how to use it - and that's where the discussion should be.

    In the CSU's mLearn project thats what we are doing - running small pilots across multiple areas to see how it can be used. The affordances are listed in the tech specs - but how does it react, respond and function in the real world?

    It's definitely an interesting space :)

    1. I think the problem with affordances with compound technologies is that it poorly explains emergent behaviour, Shazam affords a human interactor the ability to identify a song, it is beyond my memory of affordance but I would imagine you could only say that the iPad / iPhone affords the ability to install Shazam, alternatively, an {iPad with Shazam installed} affords the {ability to recognise a song}. In this case, while nothing has physically changed about the technology other than a-few microscopic charges, affordance theory is no longer able to reconcile {iPad} to {iPad with Shazam installed}.

      As a note, a decision to delay implementation of a technology 4G because it currently doesn't meet expected performance, or usability goals (or indeed, that the company doesn't have a workable solution yet, or that it wasn't even on the product road-map, I'm pretty sure there isn't any official comment on the issue, and apple commentators are less accurate than weathermen during a la ninia) is a functional design issue, it's quite definitely technical, perhaps a better example would be the decision to stratify pricing based on arbitrary storage sizes

    2. Sorry Tim S, didn't see this comment the first time!

      Agree with your affordances example.

      The 4G example though, I think one of the stated reasons Apple hasn't implemented it until now is not just market or use-based. It was also because the technology wasn't technically ready to fulfil the functions they wanted it to perform. And so when that new technical functionality comes online, it will be the planned use that will have been the core reason for it being developed, technically, in this way (capacitance UI is another good example). Which is why I say even if you take a component technology as an example, if you track it back its very invention was part of a full context, including use. You can't separate the bits and bytes from the use - the context may be a lab or a research program, but it's still a context.

  3. Thanks Tim.

    From my own perspective multiplying it to become technologies rather than technology is still saying there is some circumscribed thing called 'technology', that is in some way separate from the context of use. For me 'use' is inseparable from the 'technical' - you don't have the technical side of things and then people using these technical things in different ways. Something like 4G, for example - try to define what 4G actually IS without defining the context in which it will be used.

    The problem with affordances for me is that it's still technology as a thing, but now with some affordances added. As if affordances are actual properties of the object/device. I'm all for what Latour calls "prescription", where a device is part of a network that includes its possible uses. But those uses then determine evertything about the object, including its technical characteristics. Without that network an object can actually have an infinite number of affordances - you could use any device in an infinite number of ways.


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