digital implications

The X is dead test, or why you shouldn’t trust simple answers


Many of you will be familiar with the (itself overhyped) Gartner Hype curve. I'm not going to get into its scientific validity here, but I think it has resonance as people recognise their own relationship with technology in it. There are more sophisticated technology adoption theories, but let's go with this one for now. 

Back when we used to use the term 'web 2.0' without embarrassment, many of us were hyping it up. I'm guilty of this as much as anyone. At the time, the combination of user generated content, wide connnectivity, social networking, mobile devices seemed to open up possibilities. I still find it amazing that I have such a rich, global network of peers, all of whom are smarter than me, and most of whom I haven't met. I would arguse that this optimism, and slight discarding of critical powers we felt wasn't a failing however, it was a necessity. By engaging in this new world whole-heartedly one could really get the benefits and also potentially shape the possible futures we were envisaging.

Inevitably some of that glossy holiday romance wears off. This isn't a bad thing – as Clay Shirky is fond of saying, a technology becomes really interesting when it becomes invisible. Social networks, user generated content – all these things are more interesting in social terms now they're part of everyday life than when they were a niche club. But our attitudes shift also, and it now becomes appropriate to have a more questioning stance, as these very tools become used by a much bigger audience and for different means. Gardner Campbell covers this in detail with his refrain "That is not what I meant at all"

What is now required from us educators is to tread a fine line. It is easy to become cynical, to dismiss all new innovations and bemoan the good old days when blogging was a really exciting, new world. The danger there is that we become the very people resistant to new ideas that we used to bemoan. And we miss genuine opportunities. On the contrary side, we need to avoid simple, easy solutions. We know that technology, education and society is more nuanced than simple slogans allow.

So, if anyone states any of the following now (ahem, I can let them off if they did it a while ago), they are revealing either that they are naive, or worse, a charlatan:

  • Specifying a particular technology is dead – actually technologies rarely die (some do, eg the fax), their monopoly is lost, and they become specialised, adapted, mutated. Think of radio, or books. Merely declaring something to be dead is usually a precursor to selling its replacement.
  • Disrupting education – I've moaned about the "education is broken" meme, and Audrey Waters has a thoughtful piece on the simplistic narrative around education has remained unchanged for 200 years. As Brian Lamb comments:

I think the next time I read about somebody "disrupting" education, I'm gonna throw a keg party in their office.
— Brian Lamb (@brlamb) November 5, 2012

  • There's nothing new here – the reverse of these is to dismiss everything. We've seen all this before, there's nothing new here so no need to change my approach.

So, I'll make a plea here – we like simple answers, we like people who give us simple answers. They're sexy. They're convenient. They're tweetable. But life isn't like that, and actually the messy, nuanced, complex picture is more interesting. Be suspicious of those oh so sweet tasting simple answers on either side of the technology divide.


  • Dougclow

    Technologies don’t rarely die, they never die. Or at least, almost never die. They might well reduce substantially in occurrence, but not vanish entirely. Kevin Kelly made the strong claim here (no species of technology has ever gone globally extinct), and someone challenged him – and he won handily.
    The fax is a good example. It’s not dead! There are at least two working faxes in our office right now. I had to send one just eighteen months ago. And I’m fairly confident they’re still in fairly widespread use in Japan.
    Dave – is your keg party an open one?

  • Drnickpearce

    Funnily enough i was recorded by a couple of guys who were producing a podcast for the ESRC, and they recorded onto a minidisk! i had thought the minidisk was dead, zombie technology, back from the grave 🙂


    The only thing that is every truly dead is saying that something is dead (and Dave Cormier’s snark is dead too).
    I am glad @Dougclaw mentioned Kevin Kelly’s quest to locate items from a random page in an 1989 Montgomery Ward catalog – the entire page of some pretty obscure items were still available somewhere in the world
    Down with slogans! Down with slogans! (repeat after me…)

  • mweller

    @Doug – you are quite right. I panicked trying to think of a dead technology! I suppose while it’s true you can always find one old lady in Wisconsin who still uses her 1902 technology X (you see I’m not even going to suggest one as you’ll tell me “actually 10 million people use that regularly in Bangladesh”), some technologies become practically dead. But yes, my wider point was exactly this, that technologies adapt. Analogue photography is a good example, a simplistic review would be analogue is dead, digital is now king (after all how many of us take a film in to be developed). But, as you know, there is a flourishing interest in analogue amongst photographers, and the polaroid type camera is also making a comeback.
    @Nick – wow, minidisk! Owen Stephens suggested floppy disk would have been a better dead example, but I bet there are some people who still cherish their pile of disks.
    @Alan – quite right, and great link, thanks. I should’ve been braver and said technology never dies. You are wrong in one respect though – when we are all long dead and gone, Dave Cormier’s snark will still patrol the internet…

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