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You would think that on a course with over 40,000 registered students, the experience of participation would seem something other than solitary. Yet, this is how it has been for me: snooping in voyeuristically upon snippets of twitter conversation, trying out and rejecting the Google+ stream, or casting about the coursera pages. Even the Google hangout, which I watched as an embedded YouTube feed, felt like an hour watching five people giving presentations, podcast-style, to an internet audience with some random pickup from the twitter hashtag. This isn’t to criticise: the feeds, hangout and other official pages have been useful in getting me focused on the task of engaging with the course.
Block 1 of the course is concerned with how digital culture or digital education can be viewed as utopian or dystopian. Information Technology is described in these views as having built-in properties which are either democratising or de-democratising. This influence of technology is seen as driving social structure and cultural values: further, technology has been said to develop along predictable paths with society organising itself to support and develop the technology once introduced. The film Bendito Machine III characterises this view of technological determinism within the setting that the technology is provided by some higher power: it is as if the technology is something divine or other-worldly. I am reminded of Arthur C Clarke’s third law of prediction:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
Whereas Bendito Machine III acknowledged the erosion of social interactions caused by the introduction of new technologies, the second film, Inbox, celebrates that new interactions are made possible by new channels of communication. These channels seem to lend themselves to serendipitous meetings and, despite the occasional tech failure (the ripping of the bag – it had to be the boy, didn’t it?), a happy ending is had. This utopian view of the development of communication is what makes me appreciate the age I live in: the channels are rich and manifold and I can choose to participate in them or not. When I do, my life is often (although not always) enriched.
Technology is different, or a natural development?
The third film Thursday, depicts a couple living in a technologically dominated world but I can’t help feeling that it isn’t the technology itself that represents the “differentness” from nature. For me, the technology is just one aspect or manifestation of a more general urbanisation, itself a product of the evolution of our species and its habits. When we moved from being hunter-gatherers to settlements and the adaptation of the environment instead of adaptation to the environment, did we establish the behaviours of natural adaptation that lead inevitably to the development of technologies like the iPhone? The final film of four, New Media, looks like the opening sequence to a film like “War of the Worlds” about conflict on Earth with superior aliens and their machines of (our) destruction. The nightmare cameo of the alien pipe connected into the human figure is evocative but no less so than the plume of smoke which for me heralded the beginning of man’s fight back against the superior power – maybe I’ve seen too many of these. I look for Thunderchild.
The reading by Daniel Chandler is a kind of idiot guide to Technological Determinism and I think it told me a lot more about social science (and why Brian Cox suggests that social science is an oxymoron) than it did anything else. A couple of examples will illustrate my take on this.
Nature vs Nurture
I’ve been reading articles on nature vs nurture for over thirty years now, since I joined Mensa – a vanity society of people who know what shape comes next. I think it’s a populist media habit to try and stir up the passion (increasing circulation) by offering two “opposing” choices and nature and nurture have been favourites for those choices for a long time. The argument is evidently false and oversimplistic: in trying to decide which of genetic or environmental is a deterministic cause of influence, the combination of these two is ignored as an invalid choice. Consider, however, the device on which you are reading this: is it the hardware (what it’s made of physically – its nature) or the software (the programmed instructions it is following – how it has learned to behave) that decides how well it works for you?
This interesting “hypothesis” (it never was such a thing) is said to assert that thinking itself is restricted by the language of the thinker. I have no problem with this idea if the linguistic processes represent how the brain is programmed, including the semantics and structure, grammar and resolution of the language. In exactly the same way a different operating system can dramatically affect what a computing device can do – take your old Dell laptop and replace Windows with Ubuntu to see what I mean.
If technology push is evolution, then demand pull is Intelligent Design. I prefer the former as a model, although design improvements can be market-driven (but demand is not synonymous with market here). Demand all you like, there’s no technology going to iron your shirts for you. In describing reductionism, Chandler suggests that technological determinism focuses on causality – whether is it mono-causal or “independent variable” suggests that there is something scientific in this argument but this isn’t science: it’s scientific method, yes, but that’s a different thing from science.
So, is technological determinism a “thing”? I think it’s a phenomenon, something that we can describe and define in human terms without actually making it real, in the same way as we can define evolution. These are constructs that allow us to talk about them – features of our language, only.
Free will and the quantum
Hydrogen is a colorless, odorless gas which, given enough time, turns into people (H. Hiebert)
Adaptation and evolution is the manifestation of random variation in subatomic phenomena. They are inherent in the physics of the universe. Technology, like urbanisation, is the manifestation of our continuing evolution as a species. The truly amazing thing to notice is that man is not the only species doing it, and with 17 billion Earth-sized exoplanets just in our own Galaxy, the possibilities are beyond imagination.
Perhaps a consideration in a narrower context: education.