Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Goldilocks moment, not too hard , not too soft

John Dron 23 November in Change11 mooc

What are technologies anyway?
Dron starts with eg of screwdriver or is it a paint-tin opener, or a stirrer or a backscratcher…its not a single technology

We have a tendency to think of it as one thing, but really its many; there are
an infinite number of possible ways it can be used

This is a very ANT (actor-network theory) conversation. To consider that we and they (others including things) are made in association. And reminds me of Latour talking about what a gun is; a weapon or an item of beauty to a collector.
As well as reminding me of Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler on what makes a woman...

And then he put a thought provoking question forward:
Do people learn better with screwdrivers or without them?
This is a nice way to introduce the implausability of the common question:
do students learn better with pencils, elearning, classroom, moocs….

And I would suggest a better ANt like question, what happens when these approaches are used rather than the dichotomies of good or bad.

There are limits though
More than one less than many as Annmarie mol would have said

Further definition of technology is useful in considering therefore the orchestration of phenomena for particular use,
It becomes different technology when used for different things
Its about organizing things in the world.

A soft technology, many have had this idea, but how and why a thhing is used a particular way and the limits on possibility, that is, the orchestration of a phenomenon

Pedagogies as technologies

Multiple blurred and overlapping meanings

Technologies don’t have to be embodied in the thing, but the ways in which we use it, organized, a thing that is in our heads
Very ant like again; for we are shaped and shaping in association. Akrich would have talked of this in terms of what is inscribed into an object

Soft is enacted
Hard technology is in bits bytes atoms physical stuff
Not embodied is an important aspect
Latourian take on this is that we are all socio-technical hybrids and Donna Haraway would have us named Cyborg, but Dron doesnt go this far.

We implemented this and they learned better as a result
But its really about an orchestration of things
Not that online better than face to face, its just the way it is done

All technological assemblies constituted in relation to other things around them. Eg a computer keyboard as a particular bunch of things in order to get some result

Soft technologies an active orchestration by individual people, something without meaning until we start using them. Knitting needles no purpose untill applied.
Now there's a technology that has many uses licit and otherwise, ....but would also have been interesting to consider technologies as more immersed with us and us in them...I am reminded of Sherry Turkle's evocative objects, things we think with.
In contrast knitting machines are hard, the usability constrained, embodied
A continuum nothing wholly hard or soft

Not just about machines, eg legal system is a hard human system
Its not about soft or hard software etc its about created in limited ways
(this is similar to psychology of hard and soft architecture)

The thing about hard technologies, they make some things easier possible, eg refrigerator. To cool food is difficult with a soft technology eg shifting into shade or fanning…
Reducing scope of possibility to make things easier we harden technologies in order to be more simple, regular, reliable

Hard technologies are brittle, stifle creativity, and that’s the point as choices are not needed,
(He made a reference here to "see a city is not a tree" but I am unclear as to why)

Soft gives flexibility, creativity, but a soft technology is hard to use, but you are having to orchestrate those possibilities to make them happen.
(Okay, the use of hard for difficult needs to be considered as it begins to get confusing)

Soft technologies need people, they are nothing without people, whereas a fridge will trundle on by itself, automated.

“We shape our buildings and after the buildings then shape us” (Winston Churchill)
But it’s a lot more iterative than this suggests, he comes back to this later in q and a’s

Hard and soft not good or bad of themselves…fridge not good or bad, pre made web design versus the slowness involved if i had to start from scratch with coding is so slow, I want things to be easier, the big question then becomes how hard or soft in any situation

Moocs too soft for most people, an lms such as blackboard too hard for many…but also complexity: whose good or bad, used by different people, teacher as an authoring tool, or for the student as a learning tool…
Intent and use and what’s the orchestrating intent matters,
The pedagogies pulling at each other, acting together and in tension, a tug of way, technologies that fight with us
Technologies that don’t fit together well are also easily done eg lecture driven classroom and add a discussion forum and then assess the discussion forum…doesn’t add up. We need to design so the assembled work together, it is really easy to make deeply incompatible combinations thoughtlessly.
that is, an electronic system and a pedagogy may be in conflict
Important to assemble them effectively

Hard technologies limit the range, they structure our spaces, we will bend our pedagogies easier than change a hard technology

Facebook kind of hard, everything about it channels in a particular direction
the softer things we want to do being filtered through a hard technology
kind of how a university works, the beaurocracy of learning objectives
This is what i've been trying to do how we shape those technologies and the balance between hard and soft at a particular time, I really don’t want to have to design a lms and would much rather have the one I want than one that doesn’t, balance of constraints with movement

Not too hard not too soft on a given moment, in a given application of technology being adapted to purpose: the Goldilocks moment

eg twitter, how we should be building egs of not too hard not too soft just right
It's about building assemblies that are just right, the assembly makes it possible, just to assemble is how to do it, different ways, to make a hard technology softer easiest way is to add on to it eg blackboard here's mcqs you have to choose….but automated…so solution is to allow some kind of dialogue to happen that it can then be changed overridden by the teacher on the basis of the student's sound we add to to make softer, so softer when we aggregate.
(Seems an incongruity with knitting machine versus knitting needles where that aggragation made it some assemblies I would say soften, and some harden. Latour would talk of the adding chains of connection that strengthen, this understanding might also be applied to what hardens. Again a very ANt/ Latourian argument presented yet ANt was never mentioned.)

eg initially twitter didn’t begin with @ or # and the smart people in twitter then automated it, and made the system softer, it did not limit it, but added to

So softer increased use, so it became hyperlinked….auto ...adding to doesn’t always make harder.
(I can also feel a Macluhan moment coming on where we addd and add and then there is a flipping pint where the new technology obsolesces)
We harden eg when I say I’ll give u some feedback, ill give you some feedback to a learning outcome, I'll grade it…each step a little harder. So it's important to see pedagogies also as harder or softer.
And all technologies grow on a past

It becomes important then to think about what kinds of systems support aggregation so its about malleability
A key thing in aggregation, does it make it softer hardier, easier more difficult, more or less open for possibilities and fitness for purpose as well as adaptabilities...
eg electrical plug adaptor that’s multi use across the world
to make technologies not too hard or too soft

The elephant in the room is its not the technology as much as the passion, artistry in order to make those technologies do wonderful things, to get to those points we need to be I would say thoughtful

This was a very actor-network congruent presentation

In Q&A
Cites Ursula Franklin, wholistic technologies that expand vs prescriptive technologies
Thinking of things as technologies gets us away from the kneejerk all technology bad, restrictive technologies terrible…they are not

To follow up, further reading: Dron has allso written a paper called any colour you like so long as it’s blackboard

How to make the just right Goldilocks moment, eg grsshapper in a mook, enabling aggregation, harness when its needed, useful to have technologies that can be hardened or softened by those using it.
Might just be the policies around the use that need softening...might be us that need to soften rather than the techy. Again I am reminded of Latour and also Peter Sloterdikt in how to make digital spaces suit our human needs, but this has given me a way in to lever that conversation in my thesis
A guided path option, with choices that soften or harden,
To be harder when we need them and softer when we don’t, having smaller optional hard pieces eg drop downs…but problem is can end up with millions of small pieces and it becomes difficult again…

Yes there are some good ideas in this for the thesis, both philosophically, and for the handling of current pragmatic difficulties associated with the practice I have investigated (use of SMS messaging for youth counselling).
Great presentation.

refs for where i am coming from
Franklin, U. (1999). The real world of technology (Revised ed.). Toronto, Canada: House of Anansi Press.
Latour, B., & Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Networks and spheres: Two ways to reinterpret globalization. Presentation to the Graduate School of Design [Video webcast]: Harvard University. Retrieved from
Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. London, England: Duke University Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Spheres theory: Talking to myself about the poetics of space. Harvard Design Magazine, 30, 126-137.


  1. Some great notes, thanks!

    ANT is indeed very congruent with my thinking, but I find it, especially in its Latourian guise, unnecessarily complex and obscure in describing something really quite straightforward. Mind you, its goals are very different. I'm not trying to address the whole socio-technical system here, just helping to make sense of a confusion that causes a lot of bad research and poor teaching (and working my way towards redefining technological literacy and finding what lies at the heart of techno-fear). But yes, I am highly sympathetic to the total systems-view that ANT employs.

    Funnily enough I gave a talk on Cyborgs the other day - see and the recording of the session at - but I have a slightly different take on it than Haraway. I think it's more that we are part of machines, not that they are part of us.

    Re knitting machines: they are assemblies that *replace* the soft technologies with hard ones. The original flexibility of the knitting needles is lost, at least in traditional factories, because they take the place of the things a human knitter does: the orchestration of phenomena is embedded in the machine. Actually, in real life nowadays it is more interesting. Modern computer-based knitting machines are arguably even softer than knitting needle-based technologies as they can knit practically anything imaginable that would be far too complex for a human knitter, but they have reached that point by *aggregating* other technologies with the automated machines, not via a direct path from knitting needles. That's the point - aggregation softens, replacement hardens. See my blog post from Thursday for an example of that in an educational context -

  2. Thanks for dropping by Jon and for commenting.
    I will follow up on the links.
    As I'm looking at cell phone use and the ways this gas ingratiated itself into a prosthetic that almost all of us are extended by, Im going to agree with Haraway, they are in us and us them :)

    Im also really interested in your point of difference to Latour. For Latour increasing the chain of alliances strengthens, and adds to permanence.
    For yourself, increasing this *aggregating* softens, and makes more amenable.

    An absolute contradiction.

    I think there's a bit more in this, if i use Latours reference to the artwork of
    Tomas Saraceno
    then its about points of tension, and of alliances formed as well as betrayed.
    Things held tightly or with movement being possible.

    1. maybe the aggregation i can red as adaptability and agility? Tangential movements...
      maybe pencil and paper were pretty soft, quite a lot of word processing a little harder....flexibility increases though with mobility and aggregation increased with added functions such as thesaurus, spelling, and softwares that redistribute and restructure what's written?

  3. What is of increasing importance is not the introduction of novel technologies and teaching patterns, but in discovering different ways of assembling what we already have in ways that match the needs of teachers and learners, giving them (rather than technology designers and maintainers) the control they need over their learning environments.
    Jon Dron
    Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2009). Lost in social space: Information retrieval issues in Web 1.5. Journal of Digital Information, 10(2).

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  5. Happening on this by chance after a couple of years or so and spotting your comment on the contradiction between ANT and my account. It's not a contradiction, as we are considering different things.
    *Aggregation* is a design pattern for softening a particular technology, especially when like is aggregated with like, or what is aggregated adds something new to what is already available. It is a means by which we can soften systems we use or build. *Assembly* (a broader concept) is neutral: it can either soften or harden any given technology. It can, notably, harden a technology when we *replace* soft technology with hard technology (e.g. replacing manual gear shift with automatic). It can also harden if it creates dependencies between assembled technologies, e.g. when the output of a soft technology is the input of a harder one.
    The ANT account, though, relates not to approaches to technology design but to ways that technologies become integrated into social systems, e.g. as supporting infrastructures are built to surround a technology or as we add courses to an LMS, train users, integrate them with practices. This can indeed embed them more firmly as socio-technical systems and make them hard to dislodge. The assembly of interdependent pieces leads to what Christensen calls sustaining technologies, each contributing to the overall durability and persistence of a technology. This matters greatly, but is not related directly to the softness or hardness of particular technologies involved. It is about the evolution of technologies in social systems. It does however indirectly relate back to my ideas because, if we build tools small and interoperable, we can reduce the risks of such embedding because it becomes easier to cut out one piece and replace it with another without disrupting the whole system. Small is good because it makes adaptation and evolution easier to achieve.