Our Real World of Technology

By chance, Ursula Franklin’s book The Real World of Technology happened to fall into my grasp recently. In the book, she builds on observations about technology as practice and experience (hence the “Real World”), bringing and keeping context at the forefront of discussion.

Buried in one of the final four chapters that were added in 1999 to the original collection of lectures from ten years earlier, is a discussion on what she calls “the evolving destructuring by asynchronicity” of society (p.151). In the discussion she warns about the increasing prevalence of asynchronous activity in our lives, linking the synchronous/asynchronous divide to the concepts of organism and mechanism. A dominantly asynchronous society has more to do with being a mechanism rather than an organism, she suggests.

To touch on her discussion a bit more, technology is born from the world around us. Some of the first instances of technology came from the acts of recording the cycles and patterns of the moon, the stars, and the seasons in the sun. From these first stone etchings grew newer and newer asynchronous technologies – oral mnemonic devices, papyrus, paper, the printing press, radio, tv, electronic text, Smart phones, and now Smart-wristwatches that adequately impress onlookers. Each asynchronous development changed the established patterns and cycles that originated from nature, but these established patterns still existed as a base, or as the background, on which asynchronous technology developed.

Society has come to a point, thinks Franklin, where the prevalence of asynchronous activity is so dominant over synchronous activity that there is little reciprocity left between the two. Our human social world is becoming detached from the real-time context where it began and has always dwelled. These origins of technology also comprise the basis of our human identity, a common knowledge that unites us under the concept of ‘civilization’ as we know it. Without this external context, humanity is less like a living organism and more like a machine – ‘being’ is reduced to our transactions in and of an asynchronous world.

If there is only structure that is human, it seems to me what Franklin is trying to say, then we have no context. Humans become the phonemes of a dead language.

Compared to Franklin, my own narrative of the prevalence of asynchronicity has been a bit more optimistic, and perhaps a bit more naïve: Long ago, at some rather extended point, humans developed spoken language. This was and still is synchronous communication. Also long ago, humans looked at world around them (sun, moon, stars, etc) and recorded their activity. The technology of etchings on stone was about as asynchronous as it can get, if that makes sense – the recordings used minimally varied and simplistic symbols, they deteriorated easily, and they were not very transportable over distance. Since then, humans have been developing technologies that were either faster or that could travel over distance easier.

With the development of digital technology, the spectrum between these two extreme technologies – spoken language and etchings on stone – has been filling in much more rapidly, especially at the end towards the synchronous where we are approaching it closer and closer with very rapid and very durable, but still asynchronous technology. This spectrum of communication technology now provides humanity with a (nearly) full set of interaction options, or tools, removing the restraints of technology access and discarding idea of technology progress, for the better. I may choose to listen to Radio, for example, because Radio is not inherently better than the newer technologies of TV or YouTube, it just holds different communication obligations.

I like to think that the big picture here is not that asynchronous patterns replace other asynchronous patterns, but that the collection of asynchronous technology over time, with all of its varieties of communication frequency and durability, which is now fast filling in, gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact. It is not really a shift that we have been experiencing, but a liberation of technology progress. I still generally believe this narrative, however my thoughts are now tempered by this chance reading of Franklin’s ideas, also for the better.

The worries of Franklin are realized when the world is much more suited for technology progress over the progress of humanity. Evident in some newly forming foundational educational goals is the omission of our past. 21st Century Skill slogans like “prepare our children for their world, not ours” is a path that originates from today, a day defined by our asynchronous prowess. In attempting to recognize the multitude of options that future generations have the luxury of exploring, these options are unnecessarily limited when society answers the WHAT questions with the HOW of practice.

When we prioritize preparing our future generations, dominantly and from a young age, for the world of asynchronous technology we are feeding an environment that is structured for the development and well-being of technology rather than the development and well-being of humans. (p71, p84) This is what I imagine it means to be infatuated by technology.

If we want to keep our context relevant, at the forefront and in our foundations then it is not enough to not ignore the “real world,” our synchronous, non-human environment needs to be part of educational prescriptive technology. This is what Ursula Franklin seemed to understand in her own practice, in how she lived her life. People like her, writing at the dawn of the digital age but before the social media boom, provide a remarkable and rare perspective that can help our often much too short-sighted world today. They remind us that the human heartbeat is a pattern as much a part of nature and as recognizable as the sun, the moon, and the stars.

Talking ‘Bout Habitual Practice

One of the most famous sports quotes of the past few decades in former NBA basketball player Allen Iverson’s rant on practice. In a 2002 interview Iverson was asked by someone in the sports media about the suggestion that he participate in his team’s practice more often – his response was to question the concept of practice….20 times in a span of 2 minutes. (watch it here)

Language is an amazing thing. Here’s one word – practice – defined in completely opposite ways by different people in the same context. Iverson, easily one of the most talented players ever, was talking about practice as something you do apart from and to prepare for the real. Onlookers (at that time and since) understood practice as the way you conduct yourself in daily life. The irony of Iverson’s bewilderment that someone would question his practice probably explains a lot about why he, despite his talent, never won a championship and struggled during the second half of his career.

Two senses of the word, so opposite in meaning, yet so easily confused. I wonder about student mindsets when we use the word practice so often in Iverson’s sense – practice your handwriting, practice your speech, your presentation, the piano, for the game tomorrow. Especially for language learners, the practice of daily life means so much more than the practice of preparing in constructed environments.

I bring this up as a prelude to my next post. I recently wrote about Ursula Franklin, and one of my intentions in doing so was to try to encourage people to read her and learn about her life, as I recently have. In writing about her ideas and the ideas she sparked in me, I tried to point out the importance of our habitual, daily life when it comes to technology use. People who use technology, and pass along tech habits to younger generations have to be aware about how they practice even more so than about what they teach. For habitual tech use, there is much that we take for granted, that maybe we shouldn’t.

I’ve edited an original draft of my recent article that keeps the focus on Franklin, representing my thought process more directly to how it occurred, and to keep it a bit more brief. It provides a different slant than was posted at hybridpedagogy.com, which I want to preserve it for my own sake. (note: it’s not a full article, and not nearly as polished as the final piece)

Personal Choice and Moderation

In response to a comment left by @tornhalves on my Hybrid Pedagogy article (the comment is in italics at the front):

For those of us interested in Luddism this is a thought-provoking piece.

A quick suggestion: Perhaps you need to put these two fragments side by side: 1) “…gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact and what we interact about”, and 2) “The environment in which we live is much more structured for the well-being of technology.” Perhaps what drives the current system is a strange symbiosis between the insistence on a certain kind personal freedom and the taste for the technical. (See also Georg Simmel’s nice description of how the extremes of personalisation and impersonalisation develop in parallel in “The Philosophy of Money”.) If there is this symbiosis, it is not enough to point out the predominance of mechanisation, but also to critique the shallow understanding of personal freedom that keeps the whole mechanising-personalising show on the road.

You are absolutely right about the terrible predominance of the how over the what in current talk about education. But what is the what? You suggest it boils down to a choice between humanity and technology. But what if the issue is actually competing notions of freedom (personal vs something uber-personal)? And if that is the case, your last paragraph amounts to a bit of a shot in the foot – stressing the importance of personal choice and moderation in all things (a sort of stoic capitulation to fate). The most important education is not learning how to exercise our freedom with moderation, but reflecting on the untruth of the prevailing ideas about personal freedom – the very ideas that sustain what is experienced as an inhuman world.

Thanks for the suggestion of Simmel’s work, I’m intrigued and will check that out. Your point about personal freedom (shallowness of it, etc) is worthwhile. For one, I think there is a limit to length and to how much I can cover in an article like this. Also, I do think that the predominance of mechanism and the shallow understanding of freedom are separate points to consider (albeit related). One is a matter of presence, the other is a matter of degree.

I wonder to what degree is the current system a relationship of ‘symbiosis’ and to what degree is it ‘one embedded in another’. Both in the ideal and in practice. Am I right in thinking that any symbiosis can be thrown off balance when one side becomes too dominant? Perhaps this reflects one of the ideas of my essay – I hope so, at least.

I’m trying to work through your second paragraph, as I feel there’s a lot of good stuff there. I’d say that the ‘what’ currently seems to have boiled down to a choice between technology and everything else (including technology). And in this sense, maybe it’s like a personal/uber-personal split…which is a nice way to put it, and opens up a different perspective for me. I’m not sure I fully comprehend your last line, as I see the two ideas as very similar: When we don’t reflect on the untruth of prevailing ideas (when we’re bound by a set of ideas, culture, and in this case, a backdrop of asynchronous technology) then it’s very difficult to recognise and thus exercise a freedom. Even if that freedom includes delegation to fate or circumstance. It’s the idea of ‘infatuation’ here that blocks any ability to explore/exercise competing notions of freedom.

I think there is something to the idea of ‘fate’, which was included in an original draft of my paper – however, I couldn’t quite develop the idea. I would never use the line “in all things” concerned with fate/chance, especially when choice about what to give up to fate precedes it. It is something necessary, otherwise we’re striving towards a purely prescriptive world. Key to my value placed on fate/chance is delegation.

Please follow up and/or expand when you can, as you’ve given me a lot to think about. I don’t feel I’ve fully developed my thoughts in response to your comments, nor fully grasped the depth of what you’re trying to say. Digital Counter Revolution is a fantastic blog and has influenced me in the short time I’ve been following it.

Exploring Complexity

The Complexity Explorer course is a free course offered by the Santa Fe institute, providing a thorough presentation of the concept of Complexity. I just finished this course and thought I would post a link to my notes here. I also have two quick thoughts about the course.

  • I think it is interesting to note how I participated in this course, I engaged with the course content (readings, videos, tutorials) over 2 or 3 offerings of the course. This is an example of maybe one of the less talked about, but very useful attributes of Open Online Course. Learning about complexity and game theory is a hobby of mine – I’ve read several books, participated in several courses, however I simply don’t have enough time in my life, nor is the subject matter directly relevant to my work enough to make it a higher priority. (In the long-run, I feel that learning about complexity is important). Open-courses like these are invaluable to me. Without the open nature of this course, I wouldn’t really have the option to learn from this fantastic resource. Flexibility of access is a characteristic of open learning that doesn’t get much mention in critiques (at least not as much as the topic of drop-out rates, which I probably would have skewed).
  • Melanie (the course’s host) asks each of the guest speakers (Guest Speakers for each unit are one of the best features of Complexity Explorer) a series of set questions about their work with Complexity. One of the last questions is always What advice would you give to someone wanting to get involved in the field of Complexity? Several times (if not most of the time?) the guest speaker included in their answer the advice that such a person should specialize and base them self in a separate field first, before applying and researching concepts of complexity to that field. I thought this was great advice (like I would know…but seems like great advice) and I actually think this is useful advice for the field of educational technology, as well. To me, it just makes more sense that someone have an area of application before applying edtech practices- since, much like complexity, the questions and answers of application are so heavily reliant on subject matter.

The High Speed of EdTech

I can’t help but feel that the onus, at least right now, is on the field of educational technology to slow down and listen a bit more, if edtech hopes to enhance areas of study other than itself.
 

 

Having a finger in educational technology, in addition to other fields of practice (mainly language learning & cultural issues, in my case) creates an interesting view of the field of edtech itself. I often wonder, in fact, if it’s even a worthwhile field to refer to, separate from subject matter context. The thought of an exclusive edtech themed conference is kind of strange to me – when I was involved in the national language teacher’s association in Japan, edtech (in the form of CALL) was a special interest group of the organization, and this seemed about right. So many practical questions of technology (devices, platforms, methods…) use can only be answered by first asking: What subject are you communicating in?

MOOCs provide a good example of this. First came MOOCs. They emerged out of online learning affordances (basically what MOOCs are, online learning – but this is not a MOOC definition post). They were used initially in successful cases (it’s worth nothing and relevant that initial MOOC subject matter was almost solely educational technology related subjects). They generated interest. They became popular. They became even more popular. Influential people tried to use them is certain ways. MOOC became a buzzword. Educators mocked and shunned their popularity. Educators mocked and shunned their popular representations. People discussed and critiqued them, both in response to their essence and in response to the popular notion of them. They became tired, old cliches. They became memes. They needed to be rebranded. Now, they sit, hopefully, in familiar terms with educators, ready as another option, like other forms of instructional design.  And, all of this within a few years. You could even appropriately use months as a measurement. The progress has been nothing short of astounding, when looking at it from the outside. (It all reminds me of Homer progressing through the five stages of death anxiety.)

Like many fruits of edtech, when I bring up the subject of MOOCs with people in the language field, the strong majority are apprehensive of the concept. Either that or they’re still at the “Sooooo, what’s a MOOC?” stage. Or, they’re both. Based on the speed at which edtech ideas progress apart from context, it’s easy to understand why. From my experience, diving in to tech use for existing educational practice (institutionally and individually) is often intimidating and impractical. I’m guessing this is true for many other fields beside language learning.

Innovation won’t happen from hydroplaning across the surface of learning. Practitioners will need to take innovative ideas and mold them to suit content, and they’ll need the edtech specialists to bridge that gap with the same respect that Research and Practice needs bridging. But, what can we realistically expect when edtech pushes pedal to the metal, seemingly targeted to the high-volume user. This is my impression, looking at it from within and from without.

As a side note – an analogy that I started thinking about lately is how the field of linguistics relates to other such fields as language learning and literature. They both share the commonality of language, and you would think that linguistics would be a direct feed for either, but somehow this connections is not as strong one (or at least I) would think. Linguistic materials aren’t the easiest nor the most practice  oriented materials to engage with. Certainly linguistics is a distinct field, and maybe it’s just an undeveloped thought – but I feel there something there in the analogy between linguistics and edtech. It’s one I’ll be thinking about.

Learning to What Degree Automation Suits

There’s a nice little rant about driverless cars up at the Worthwhile Canadian Initiative (economic blog) today, not that I feel the same as the author about driverless cars (Me? Love highway driving; Hate city driving) but there are a couple of good discussion points coming out of it. One, as I mentioned in the comments of the post, is a bigger question about when technology progresses to a point when it detaches from any kind of ‘naturalness’. This is a question I’ve thought about often lately (which is probably why I see it in places like this driverless car rant) – but I also think is a transcendent question of our times. As some of the commenters note – there are similarities in comparing the progression from horse drawn carriage to automobile vs the progression from automobiles to driverless cars. However, there’s also the point of emergence. The change from horse to car (or any other previous progression) may be distinctly different from the car to driverless car because of significantly less reliance on physical restrictions such as ankle movements, arm movements, and hand-eye coordination. There’s a detachment involved with the driverless car.

Another point that the author brought up in the comments was the nice little line about First World Problems not necessarily being a put-down, but a bit of insight, or a category (as I take it) of problem that is more detail oriented or situation/personally specific. Driverless cars are a good platform for showing this – it’s easy to imagine people not liking them, it’s easy to imagine people loving them, both for reasons of detachment. It’s context specific, and it’s perhaps not the biggest concern for everyone, but might matter a lot for some.

This second point ties in with my first – an emerging skill in education (and the networked world) is learning to what degree automation suits yourself and in which situations, no matter how small the detail. Because small details matter and detachment from the physical world matters.

A Synchronous Definition

I’ve been writing something of late, and much of it hinges on the definition of the word synchronous, or better yet, how the word is used.

When we use technologies like skype, google hangouts, and even telephones, these are generally referred to as synchronous communication. They have synchronous abilities in them however they also have several asynchronous functions that can override the synchronous features. In skype, we can shut off video or audio and use chat that can even expand communication over a period of days or weeks. Ditto with Google Hangouts, except this is more integrated to all of google services, I guess. With telephones, we can hang-up on people, effectively ending our presence in a conversation. And, with all such asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-communication, there are elements of body language, delay, facial expression, and accepted norms that do not translate from face-to-face synchronous into digital synchronous.

Something about the asynchronously-enhanced-synchronous-medium amplifies the spoken word – my language students have always commented about how much more challenging it is to use target language over a telephone than it is to use over a table.

This would appear to be a recent distinction, because individual access to real-time media has emerged only in the past few decades. Is it that the common vocabulary just hasn’t caught up with technology? Or, are there two kinds of variables at play here (a sync/asyn divide and an analog/digital divide)? Or, is it something else?

I tend to think that the asynchronous-enhanced-synchronous-communication isn’t actually synchronous communication, but rather approaching synchronous while still being asynchronous.

It may seem like a small matter, but such small things matter these days. Distinctions of kind are not distinctions of degree.