Saturday, January 12, 2008

Having my cake and eating it

I am in the process of taking two steps forward and one step back.
I am revisiting 'technology'.
This is harder than it should be.
I think back, or try to: but the past is a forgotten country and they/i do/did things differently there.
When i was about 12 or so, I think I had some glimmers of some personalised understanding of what technology was. Technology involved being able to do stuff in new ways with things that were new: A calculator involved technology, a radio didn't, a car didnt. A clock did when it involved flashy lights in digital form like the calculator. Seems i have this recovered memory where digital displays symbolised technology for me.
The automatic washing machine, the automatic timer for my oven. My cell phone.
A whiteboard that could be printed from- seems passe now- it has been surpassed.
A touchscreen, yes, a media display unit yes.
But I didnt used to think (I dont think) of tv as technology, but now i do???
It was new when i was young, it had tubes, was black and white...and flashed, sort of. But it was entertainment: it wasnt something i felt I could use to make things happen. But nor can a digital watch. There is something else here.
Despite my perceiving newness, maybe i was too young at about 6 or 7yrs to perceive tv as a new way (for me) of doing things.
Possibly the word took on new meaning in the 1960's. Similar to other words that developed a new fashioned meaning, maybe technology took on new understandings when the world moved from analogue to digital. (I do remember asking what analogue was, seems the term was needed to differentiate what was ubiquitous timetelling in the past. (The meaning of words is expanded on by Raymond Williams, maybe like 'community' there are fashionable new meanings or at least new projected meanings based on values, I need to see what he has to say on technology.)

According to Alan Kay "Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born."
How does a goldfish describe water?
What is perceived as technology by some is invisible to others. A generation gap is one quirk where what is perceived as new technology will be perceived by others as a norm.
Ursula Franklin (1999) deepens the meanings of technology for me:
She cites Kenneth Boulding suggesting that one might think of technology as ways of doing something. (p.6)
Looking at technology as practice has interesting consequences.
One is that it links technology directly to culture, because culture is a set of socially accepted practices and values. These practices develop a rut, they are seen as the convention, they are well laid down and accepted if not agreed upon practices.
This begins to define a group of people who have something in common because of the way they are doing things.
"Around here, that's how we do things" becomes a means of self identification.
Technology defined as practice shows the deep cultural links of technology.
As expressed by Franklin, it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake. Technology is part of the cake itself.
In my early recollections on technology it was the flashy lights, then that simplistic representation was replaced by one only slightly more cognitively developed: understandings based on the presence of a computer chip, the amount of RAM, bytes... but as discussed, this isnt enough.
Its not enough that its quirky or new; its how I am extended, what I do and can do.
A practiced understanding.

For those looking from the outside, technology can appear to be a very odd animal and is noticed particularly in 'odd moments': a teenager using a mobile for saying goodbye to dead friends...a videoconferenced tangi (funeral)... txt counselling... to read a book... or write a book... to do maths .... to learn... to teach...
Its that things are done differently that becomes the marker.
And we are in danger of using new technologies, new ways of doing things because they are new, because they have a semblance of bells, whistles, icing. The appearance of being the (next) real thing rather than being the real thing itself.

As written of by Alan Kay in an article on computers networks and education in Scientific American Special Issue on Communications, Computers and Networks 265(3) (September 1991) with education there is external mandate for a new "literacy", this is demonstrated in the demands that kids 'take computing'demonstrating a confusion between carrier and content. He expanded on how education may hinder learning and argues stronger ideas are needed to replace them before any teaching aid, be it a computer or pencil and paper, will be of more service.
For example the misconception that education is a bitter pill that can be made palatable with sugarcoating. Adding bells whistles, ppts with transitions...
Ouch; get back to what it is that students really need and want to know; use the technology because it takes teacher and learner there, not just because I can.

( Alan Kay is attributed with the invention of the mouse and the portable computer of the future: 'having wireless communications and being easy enough for a child to use'. He built a model in cardboard, filled with weights to check that it would be comfortable to carry around 'as weight is very much part of the user interface'. Seems an ANT savvy researcher: if only Apple in making the macbook pro had taken on board such practice oriented technology they might not have made a laptop too hot to put in your lap!)

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