Technological enlightenment

or ‘Help! I think I’m a technological determinist!’

As readers of this blog may know, I often have a feeling that the significance of technology is underplayed. This arises from a fear of technology determinism, and being accused of this is like, well, calling a runner a jogger (to reference a previous post). Technology determinism is bad because it ignores the role of people in how technology is used. But in order to avoid being accused of it, and thus being cast out of the academic community, the reaction is to suggest that technology isn’t important at all. This is evidenced in oft-heard phrases such as ‘we shouldn’t place technology on a pedestal’, ‘there is nothing new in all this’, ‘pedagogy is important, not technology’, etc.

I’ve blogged about this before, when I said we should love technology more, but it came back to me again with a minor example, namely Google’s personalized maps, which many people have blogged on. Now, as soon as you see this as an educator, a number of possibilities come to mind – literature students mapping out the scenes in War and Peace, geography students sharing annotations of glacial features, language students adding in video clips from different locations, history students plotting the Lewis and Clark expedition, medical students showing the spread of disease, and so on.

Now all of the technology naysayers arguments apply here – particularly the ‘there’s nothing new here’ one, since maps are not exactly the new kid on the block. But this really misses several points about Google maps, which means you won’t take advantage of them. For a start, being able to share them with a dispersed and collaborative group adds great potential. Secondly, being able to embed different media formats makes them much richer. Thirdly, the quantity of freely accessible data (maps in this case) beats what you can do with a school library budget most times. And lastly they are operating in a context which many students find stimulating and familiar, ie working with the net. This last one is often dismissed too readily.

So, on to the technology determinism bit – when I heard Google was investing in maps technology a few years back I didn’t get it. Sure I liked maps (I used to spend a lot of time poring over maps, like Marlow in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness "when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.") but I didn’t see how they would be used. Let’s face it, did any of us really get how much a part of our lives Google Earth would become? Partly this was because I hadn’t appreciated the significance of the open API and what that meant for people taking them and doing what they liked with them.

But now when I see them, I can see all sorts of potential. It isn’t technological determinism, since that would ignore just how inventive people have been, but neither is it technology irrelevantism (sorry). So, let’s have another term which gives due recognition to the power of technology to awaken in us new ideas, which I’ll call Technology Enlightenment. Now, is that something we can sign up to, without it becoming the academic equivalent of saying ‘I think there’s something in this phlogiston theory…’

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