Wednesday, August 26, 2009

why I am a technological determinist

I'm fascinated by danah boyd's recent post intended for the New Media Consortium's upcoming Symposium for the Future. In her post, she cautions new media theorists to avoid what she labels "technological determinism." She explains:

Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. It's really easy to get in the habit of seeing a new shiny piece of technology and just assume that we can dump it into an educational setting and !voila! miracles will happen. Yet, we also know that the field of dreams is merely that, a dream. Dumping laptops into a classroom does no good if a teacher doesn't know how to leverage the technology for educational purposes. Building virtual worlds serves no educational purpose without curricula that connects a lesson plan with the affordances of the technology. Without educators, technology in the classroom is useless.

boyd's point is well taken, though I'd be hard pressed to find a single new media scholar who embraces the kind of technological determinism she describes in the above passage. There may have been a time when the "if we build it, they will come" mindset was commonplace, but virtually no serious thinker I have encountered, either in person or in text, actually believes that new media technologies can or should offer quick fixes to society's ills.

The problem, as I see it, is a two-part one. The first issue is one of terminology: Increasingly, we talk about "technology" as this set of tools, platforms, and communication devices that have emerged from the rise of the internet. This is useful insofar as it allows new media thinkers to converge as members of a field (typically labeled something like digital media and learning or the like), but it does so at the expense of the deep, complicated and deeply intertwined history of technologies and what we call "human progress." In truth, social media platforms are an extension of communications technologies that reach back to the beginning of human development--before computers, television, motion pictures, radio, before word processing equipment, to telegraphs, typewriters, Morse code, pencils, paper, the printing press...all the way back to the very first communication technology, language itself.

"Technology" is not a monolith, and there is a distinct danger in presenting it as such, as boyd does in her final paragraph:

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

The second problem is a rhetorical one. New media theorists have found themselves engaged in a mutually antagonistic dance with those who prefer to focus on what they see as the negative cultural effects of digital technologies. For better or worse, people engaged directly in this dance find themselves coming down more firmly than they might otherwise in one of these camps and, because the best defense is a good offense, staking out a more strident position than they might take in private or among more like-minded thinkers. Thus, those who dislike Twitter feign disdain, repulsion, or fear and are labeled (or label themselves) luddites; and those who like Twitter find themselves arguing for its astronomical revolutionary potential and are labeled (or label themselves) uncritical utopianists.

In fact, media theorists have been targets of the "technological determinism" accusation for so long that they refuse to acknowledge that technologies actually can and often do determine practice. Homeric verse took the structure it did because the cadences were easy for pre-literate poets and orators to remember. The sentences of Hemingway, Faulkner, and many of their literary contemporaries shortened up because they needed to be sent by telegraph--leading to a key characteristic of the Modernist movement. The emergence of wikis (especially, let's face it, Wikipedia) has led to a change in how we think about information, encyclopedias, knowledge, and expertise.

A more accurate--but more complex and therefore more fraught--way to think about the relationship between humans and their technologies is that each acts on the other: We design technologies that help us to communicate, which in turn impact how we communicate, and when, and why, and with whom. Then we design new technologies to meet our changing communications needs.

Again, virtually no media theorist that I know of would really disagree with this characterization of our relationship to technologies--yet say it too loudly in mixed company, and you're likely to get slapped with the technological determinism label. I say this as someone who has been accused more than once, and in my view wrongly, of technological determinism.

Overly deterministic or not, however, I agree with boyd that technologies do not offer a panacea. More importantly, she argues against the use of terms like "digital natives" and, presumably, its complement, "digital immigrants." These are easy terms that let us off the hook: people under 30 get something that people over 30 will never understand, and there's nothing you can do about this divide. As boyd explains,

Just because many of today's youth are growing up in a society dripping with technology does not mean that they inherently know how to use it. They don't. Most of you have a better sense of how to get information from Google than the average youth. Most of you know how to navigate privacy settings of a social media tool better than the average teen. Understanding technology requires learning. Sure, there are countless youth engaged in informal learning every day when they go online. But what about all of the youth who lack access? Or who live in a community where learning how to use technology is not valued? Or who tries to engage alone? There's an ever-increasing participation gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. What distinguishes the groups is not just a question of access, although that is an issue; it's also a question of community and education and opportunities for exploration. Youth learn through active participation, but phrases like "digital natives" obscure the considerable learning that occurs to enable some youth to be technologically fluent while others fail to engage.

The key question on the minds of researchers in digital media and learning is not (or should not be) how we can get computers in the hands of every student but how we can support participation in the valued practices, mindsets, and skillsets that go along with a networked, digital society. To get this question answered right requires an ability to engage in the complex, thorny, and socially charged issues that boyd and others have identified in their research and writings. It requires development of a common language within the broad digital media and learning community and an ability to communicate that language to the vast range of stakeholders who are paying attention to what we say and how we say it.

Related posts by other writers:

danah boyd: Some thoughts on technophilia
Kevin Kelly: Technophilia

1 comment:

Scott Ellington said...

"Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain, you have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man who sits behind a counter who says,
"All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.
Madam, you may vote, but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder puff or your petticoat.
Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline."
Perhaps you recognize this speech which was beautifully delivered by Spencer Tracy in the role of Henry Drummond (or Clarence Darrow) in Inherit the Wind.
I think the speech is meant to suggest that our relationship with Progress based in technology is necessarily a negotiation, a battery of compromises. It's a point of view that has long been ignored, but I believe it suggests a search for balance between the luddite/utopian binary you indicate.
If this comment passes blogspot muster, I should mention that Lakeview Terrace performed more admirably than outraged reports suggest District 9 did in fomenting and facilitating conversations regarding institutional blindspots, various forms of racism, protectionism and irrational fixations on missions that backfire.


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