Monday, November 3, 2008

Paradox of Technology

“In the end, what’s at stake is not only the quality of life our children might enjoy, but also the quality of the culture that they will inhabit.”
(Eisner, 1999)

In order to unpack the philosophy of technology, we need to have some knowledge of the past, consider where we are in the present and give thought to the future. It may be helpful to begin with a definition of technology. Some authors argue the term “technology” was not introduced until the 19th century when the term was added to names of prominent institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Prior to the 19th century people spoke of the “mechanic arts” or “invention” or “science” in contexts where they would use “technology” today. Others would argue technology can be dated back to the invention of stone tools or fire. When considering educational technologies, writing could be considered one of the first technologies.

The term “technology” is believed to come from Greek origins where “techne” referred to art or craft knowledge. The German term “technik” referred to tools, machines, systems and processes used in the practical arts and engineering and was replaced with the term “technology” as late as 1934. Today, the Merriam Dictionary defines technology as the practical application of knowledge especially in a particular area. The following include a few other definitions of technology beyond the standard instrumental view that technology is neutral and is neither inherently good nor bad:

Technology as a means to satisfy human needs
· “Technology” signifies all the intelligent techniques by which the energies of nature and man are directed and used in satisfaction of human needs. – John Dewey

Technology as an interdependency of tools and humans
· Technology defined in the following way acknowledges the interdependency of tools and humans; it also insists humans take responsibilities for their uses of technology: tool + intention + use = technology – Ursula Franklin

Technology as multi-stable with trajectories
· The structure of technologies is multi-stable with trajectories. Therefore, the philosopher of technology can attempt to understand these trajectories in their human significance and to adapt technical design to ethical norms. – Don Ihde

Technology as a medium and transformational
· Technology is the medium of daily life in modern societies. Every major technical change reverberates at many levels, economic, political, religious, and cultural. How we do things determines who and what we are. Technological development transforms what it is to be human. – Andrew Feenberg

Consider the quote from Phaedrus:
“Written words seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.” - Plato

In Phaedrus, we see the critical perspective to the medium of “writing” for its lack of two-way communication easily managed in oral dialogue. Plato was skeptical of writing and the impact on the quality of interactions especially between teacher and student. However, we know that print is no longer static and linear as it was when first introduced. New technologies are transforming the print medium into a more visual-aural communication space that is dynamic and multi-dimensional. Even though we are seeing this shift in communications there seems to be concern about “human contact.” For example, Lance Carlson, president of Alberta College of Art and Design was quoted in the Calgary Herald on Sunday, Oct.26/2008 as a believer in the human contact you get with that “firebrand” person talking to you. The article was about an “intellectual talks” series that will turn conversations, old-fashioned lectures into a night out and perhaps bring back the “human contact.” I wonder what Plato would think about the visual-aural communication space of today.

It is interesting to take into account some of the inventions that can be considered “technology” during different time periods throughout history. When considering each invention, it is fascinating to think about how the philosophy of technology contributes to contemporary Western thought and practices and is determining “Western Grand Narrative.” Ursula Franklin believes, “Once new technologies are introduced they seem to take on a momentum of their own and unforeseen changes that are difficult to predict and reverse.”

The printing press invented in 1450 by Johannes Gutenberg provided print material for the masses while creating unjust class divisions. The Microscope invented by Van Leewenhoek sometime between 1590-1610 was used to see very small things which led to surprising discoveries such as bacteria. The reflecting telescope invented by Galileo in 1609 allowed viewing distant objects which was seen as a benefit to the military. The moon was thought to be smooth and heavenly until it was discovered to be rough and full of cavities with the aid of the telescope. It was the invention of the telescope that provoked questions of common understanding such as the earth being the centre of the universe. The electric battery discovered in 1799 by Alessandro Volta provided a portable reservoir of electricity and was considered a great achievement even though there were uncertainties about the application of batteries.

The 19th century had numerous technological inventions including, the telephone, refrigerator, automobile, light bulb, power loom, and the assembly line to name a few. New technologies increased efficiency, for example, when textile manufacturers discovered they could lower costs by mechanizing and replacing skilled with unskilled labour – women replaced most men as weavers in the textile factories. The whole history of the Industrial Revolution is dominated by this strategy which led to a culture of compliance. As a result there were social consequences, such as, hierarchical management, fragmented work and the elimination of skilled labour.

In the 20th century computers were invented as early as 1936 and the first consumer computers were available in the 1970’s; however, computers did not become common household products until the 1980’s when used primarily for gaming and then the World Wide Web became prevalent in 1989. Technology was constructive, efficient and a communication medium that increased accessibility. At this time technology was also considered destructive, encouraging consumptive behaviour and therefore restructuring the social world, interfering with human communication, distancing reality and reducing individual involvement with nature and other human beings.

The 21st century has already amplified communication mediums of the past with the emergence of social software, e-learning opportunities and accessibility to virtual worlds. Technologies provide opportunities to interact and isolate; participate in a community and yet lose a sense of community; learn in a collaborative environment and potentially compromise the quality of learning; engage in productive explorations or choose destructive ways of living and working and it is certain that further possibilities and challenges will surface with each new technological development especially when considering educational technologies.

See a more detailed timeline created in Google Groups as a collaborative project– your input is welcome! Along with inventions and the dichotomy or dualism in consequences (possibilities and challenges) of the introduction to various technologies throughout history, the timeline correlates the authors contributing to the philosophy of technology during the same time periods. The authors are listed in chronological order by birth date (if known). There is also additional information about the authors/philosophers following the timeline.

McLuhan has a different view and I thought it would be important to consider his perspective as well. In the Global Village (1989), Marshall McLuhan posited every new technology has a “tetrad of media effects” or four simultaneous effects:

(1) enhances something;
(2) makes something obsolete;
(3) retrieves or brings back something; and
(4) when pushed to the limits, it reverses or turns into something else.

Consider a couple of my examples:
Example 1: online communications amplified connectivity throughout the world; made sending messages through postal service less utilized; brought back the value of text with digitized books; when pushed to the limit converted to text to downloadable audio books. Consider the “tetrad of media effects” with other examples.

Example 2: GPS is enhancing mapping capabilities; is making printed maps obsolete, is bringing back orienteering, and when pushed to the limit it converted to phone, camera, MP3 player, video, etc.

More Sites about the tetrad of effects:
Another link about tetrad – exploring the process of the tetrad
Interactive Tetrads
Application of tetrad to “Blogs”

What became clear when examining inventions through the passages of history is that with each emergent level, a new revelation of a paradox of technology evolved or as Feenberg describes the “methodological dualism” of technique and meaning. “On the one side, technology undermines traditional meanings or communicative action, while on the other side we are called to protect the integrity of a meaningful world.”

Perhaps, we need to combine McLuhan’s idea of the tetrad of effects and Feenberg’s dualism. I created a Tetrad of Effects template to demonstrate a possible combination of the ideas. Cut out the square shape, fold on the red lines first - this reveals the tetrad. Then fold each point away from the tetrad (symbolism: double-edged sword). When each fold is lifted it reveals both possibilities and challenges.

When considering a paradox of technology, one can also identify grand “shifts” that are occurring in our culture. For example, with the growth of social software we are seeing a surge in collective knowledge and universal communication. Communications have certainly evolved (or shifted) over time from the beginning of language and oral communication to what we could consider global or universal communications in the present. I choose to use the word “grand” because the shift to global communications extends humanity and provides opportunities for people to seamlessly interact and connect across space and time. At the same time, the plausible consequence or paradox of technology is that global communications can isolate, distance those it links or provide disposable experiences that can be turned on and off. I wonder how the Ihde’s “trajectory” of technology will continue in the future and if humanity will continue to automatically look for plausible consequences when faced with new inventions.