(r)ather than acknowledge the inherent difficulty and imperfectability of the teaching-learning endeavor, rather than accept a sloppy pluralism that admits that different approaches work in different situations—and that no approach works perfectly all the time—educational theorists and policy makers seize upon one fashion after another and then try to find new arguments, or new mandates, that will promote widespread acceptance and conformity under the latest revolution.
As problematic as the "computer as panacea" approach is, it pales in comparison to the relativistic "computer as neutral tool" approach, the one that has people saying that any technology can be used for good or for evil. Burbules and Callister explain that:
this technocratic dream simply errs in the opposite direction from the first. Where the panacea perspective places too much faith in the technology itself, the tool perspective places too much faith in people's abilities to exercise foresight and restraint in how new technologies are put to use; it ignores the possibilities of unintended consequences or the ways in which technologies bring with them inherent limits to how and for what purposes they can be used. A computer is not just an electronic typewriter; the World Wide Web is not just an on-line encyclopedia. Any tool changes the user, especially, in this instance, in the way in which tools shape the conception of the purposes to which they can be put. As the old joke goes, if you give a kid a hammer they'll see everything as needing hammering.
They prefer a middle approach, which assumes that a simple cost-benefit analysis fails to account for the possibility that benefits and costs are highly dependent on perspective. They offer as proof the history of antibiotics, which through widespread use greatly decreased humanity's likelihood of dying from bacterial infection but in the process led to the emergence of drug-resistant forms of bacteria. ("That is a very bad thing," they write.)
Though it's fairly simplistic to compare new information technologies to antibiotics, I'll go with the analogy for now, mainly because I agree with the authors' effort to problematize attitudes toward new technologies. It's perhaps more accurate to consider the social effects of antibiotics: they have led to a general increase in life expectancy, but in the process have enabled imperialistic societies (cf. the United States) to effectively colonize cultures, communities, and countries worldwide. In the same way, new technologies offer unprecedented access to information, communities, and tools for mobilization, but they simultaneously support new forms of colonization, both across and regardless of national borders.
Which brings me to the metaphor of technologies as sleeping policemen.
The sleeping policeman: In America, we call it a "speedbump." It looks like this:
The speedbump's intended effect is to get drivers to slow the hell down, and it's commonly used in neighborhoods and suburban areas with lots of kids. And it does get people to slow the hell down, primarily because they have no choice. There are also tons of unintended effects: Parents feel more comfortable letting their kids play outside. And, as this post points out, kids playing outside tend to get to know each other better. They--and, by extension, their parents--connect with other neighborhood residents, and everybody feels more connected: "Parents come to know the nearby children. And, inevitably, they come to know those childrens’ parents. They begin trading favors like driving children around. They become neighborly."
There are potential negative effects, too. Using sleeping policemen to slow drivers down changes driving practices in unintended ways. When a driver hits the last speedbump, she hits the gas and jets on down the road. This might increase the risk of an accident just beyond the range of the speedbumps. Drivers may choose to avoid areas with speedbumps, thereby increasing traffic through other areas--even, potentially, nearby neighborhoods whose streets lack speedbumps. And when a driver is not forced to monitor her own driving practices, the decision to simply drive more slowly in neighborhoods is taken away from her, thereby increasing the possibility that she will not adopt slower driving as a general practice.
Still, I think we can all agree that the benefits outweigh the costs. Nobody sees the speedbump as a panacea, and I don't imagine many people see the speedbump as a neutral technology.
So why do we worry so much more about the emergence and increasing ubiquity of new media technologies than we do about sleeping policemen or antibiotics?
One reason is that it's easier to see new media technologies as actors that shape our practices than it is to see how speed bumps and antibiotics have shaped us.
Actors: Any person or tool that exerts force upon any other person or tool, thereby shaping its use or practice. In Actor-Network Theory, everything is a potential actor, everything a potential actant.
Speed bumps act upon cars, drivers, kids, parents, neighborhood dynamics. Antibiotics have acted upon people, policies, government spending, and attitudes. We live longer now. We therefore reshape our lives, our goals, and our relationships to others. It's all very chaotic and complicated, because our reshaped attitudes in turn act upon our use of antibiotics. Everything mediates everything.
Because new media technologies have emerged and been adopted so quickly, their role in reshaping thought and action--and even, it's becoming clear, physiology--is clear, even if the outline of how this reshaping is shaking out remains quite fuzzy. New technologies as sleeping policemen: They shape not only how we drive, but how we think about driving. We move them, we reshape them, we add more or take a few away, we develop cars with better suspension...and it goes on down the rabbit hole.