Lecture 2 – Technological Determinism

In the second lecture of my media technologies module, we focused on how technology and society relate to one another – are they separate entities or do developments in one affect the other. Is technology autonomous or does society play a part in how technology evolves? Technological determinism is one of the most crucial ongoing questions within the realms of media and communications. Is it that, as a collective group, technology has nothing to with us and develops and improves of its own accord or rather does society dictate what advances are needed within technology. Would we be the same as a society without technology?

It’s vital to understand technology, to see the part, it plays and how it affects us – socially, politically and economically. We are then able to liberate ourselves from the control of technology through raising awareness in ourselves and others. Do we use technology and understand what we want to do with it and how to do so or does technology itself dictate what we do? For example, the on-going ‘Stop Phubbing’, campaign highlights the fact that we often tend to blame certain technologies for trends in our society. Do we believe that without mobile phones we would be more social when in public/amongst friends? Or would mobile phones simply be replaced by another trend?

Although these seem like simple questions, it’s very interesting to consider the implications of technology, as it’s not a topic I’ve looked at in much detail before. It’s important however, not to stop there. Instead of simply focusing on the perceived connection between our society and the development of technologies, it’s important to ask how these connections are articulated. If we imagine that each person or machine is an ‘actor’ inside a vast network that represents the system of our modern world, how does each ‘actor’ effect this network? How do the various elements within the network affect each other?

It’s tempting to ask leading questions like ‘Is the iPad good for education?’. However, since there are too many varying factors within this question, any conclusion we might come to is irrelevant. Whether an iPad can add another dimension to education depends on many aspects of teaching, for example, the teacher, the specific subject and topic, the purpose of the iPad in relation to the specific task, the structure of the class etc. Specific teaching methods also depend heavily on the society, which only further highlights the connection between technology and society.

It is clear to see here how this idea of a vast network of actors works. In a classroom environment, the students, teachers, iPads, timetable, subject, specific topic etc. are all actors within this network. What would happen if one element were removed? How are the various elements connected to allow co-existence rather than confusion or chaos?

Seymour Papert

I should really create a separate post about this remarkable man, because I could talk about him for hours. He was a keen advocate of how technology can enhance learning and education. He understood that although certain teaching methods had been in use for hundreds of years, they were not always effective and developed theories about how children could be taught things like mathematics through ‘learning by doing’.

In the 1960’s Papert met Professor Marvin Minsky, who co-founded the artificial intelligence group at MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Both were keen to utilise the resources available at MIT and provide a centre for children and adults to learn, create and invent. Along with Nicholas Negroponte, the pair founded the MIT Media Lab in 1985 which took part in many social and educational projects such as OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and Scratch. The Media Lab is based on a playful, creative style of learning and teaching and is still based on the ideas of Papert.

In this fantastic video, you can see clips from Papert himself, as well as footage of the Media Lab, what is does, how it began and what a difference it makes to the lives of those connected to it. Mitch Resnik (creator of Scratch) worked with Papert and the Lego Company in the 1980’s to bring programming and coding to children as a fun and educational interest. Resnik now runs a project at the Media Lab called Lifelong Kindergarten where children can invent, experiment and learn in a fun, safe environment.

One particular clip in the video really spoke to me. It showed how the children learnt to code and programme in such a way that allowed them to create a video game controller out of anything. By using simple wires to connect the various elements, the children could create a literal Nintendo controller out of a piece of wood and some clay. This reminded me slightly of my IT classes at secondary school, where we would use coding to programme a miniature set of traffic lights or a traffic barrier.

I’m looking forward to discussing Papert and this theoretical ‘network’ of actors in the seminar class!


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