Connected Learning: Getting Beyond Technological Determinism

Life lately has felt like one of those dreams where you’re in a cab with your third-grade teacher on the way to a conference presentation you forgot to prepare for and then suddenly the cab morphs into a giant recycling plant and everything is spinning and…

What? You don’t have those dreams?

I have them when things get busy. It’s like a grand exercise in convergence: everything blurs together.

From the midst of the blur, though, there’s a thread I want to try to untangle from the early weeks of #etmooc (Educational Technology and Media, a collaboratively-hosted connectivist MOOC) and #edcmooc (E-learning and Digital Cultures, my first Coursera effort, offered through the University of Edinburgh). I’m taking both at once, in admittedly a bit of a peripheral way.

But the ideas are starting to bounce off each other and amplify…and then weave back together around this thread of technological determinism. Or, as I like to call it, the spectre haunting networked culture.

Technological Determinism 101
We live in a culture saturated with the idea that technologies are, effectively, things in themselves, in spite of the fact that they arise from and are utilized and therefore given meaning within particular social and cultural contexts. We tend to see technologies in terms of their “thingness” – their shiny gadget glory – rather than in terms of the affordances or action possibilities they enable in different societal situations. This separation of thing from context and possibility leads  to determinism, or the belief that machines have the capacity to act on us and do things to us in and of themselves.

Determinism has a long and fairly star-studded history: from Socrates’ laments about what writing would do to memory through Marshall McLuhan and down to Nicholas Carr’s present-day ideas about Google making us stupid, lots of smart and famous people have forwarded rather deterministic views of the technologies of their times, during those times. Determinism tends towards answers in times of change. Could be why it’s popular?

Now, I’m not saying all determinist conclusions about technologies are wrong. What I am saying is that the way determinism gets to them creates problems. Determinism tends towards a reductionist view of what technologies are and do, assuming direct cause-effect relationships between technologies and what they make possible. Determinism also tends to attribute social phenomena that occur around given technologies to the technologies themselves, rather than what they stand for or enable or afford. Therefore, it renders the perspective on those phenomena forever skewed and tech-focused, so long as the determinist lens is still in place.

What’s wrong with that? Lots.

Technologies Don’t Connect People: Networked Relationships Connect People
The current American gun control debate is perhaps the most dramatic lens through which to illustrate the ways in which technological determinism makes for stupid arguments. On both sides of the fence.

Determinism is, in effect, a world view; one that reduces societal phenomena to “technology x did thing y.” The rest of the factors involved in the conversation get obscured or intentionally dismissed: the power of the technology to act is assumed, even when the determinist is arguing against the statement being put forward. Thus the anti-gun-control maxim “guns don’t kill people; people kill people” isn’t knee-jerk anti-determinism but actually determinism at work. It effectively controls and reduces the conversation to an assertion that guns get up by themselves and commit murder, and then smacks that down.

Now, maybe some people actually believe guns act like the brooms in Fantasia, multiplying and sweeping all by themselves. Most arguments for gun control and gun bans don’t actually operate that way, though. Those that do are determinist, and not very convincing, IMO. Guns and their availability absolutely DO lead to increased numbers of deaths, but no, generally not without people to pull the triggers.

What determinism does, though, is keep the conversation focused around a simple if specious cause-effect assertion and away from the whole host of demographic factors and identity factors and cultural factors that put people at risk from guns and support the arguments for restricted access. Determinism dismisses complexity and reinforces the idea that societal equations are simple, even when it’s pressed into service against simple equations few people are actually making. Culturally, we are trained and conditioned to accept technological determinism as common sense. So the very presence of determinism makes an important conversation hard to have, because effectively…the parties aren’t IN the same conversation, much of the time.

What does this have to do with networks and the admittedly less urgent issues around connected learning and the MOOCs I’m hanging out in? I think determinism and its prevalence as a cultural worldview are a very big part of what make the whole purpose and point of networking essentially invisible to those who aren’t immersed in it.

And I have #edcmooc and #etmooc to thank for converging to point that out to me.

Tech Utopias and Tech Dystopias are All Determinism
The very first week of #etcmooc boldly opened the conversation about digital cultures from an exploration of both Utopian and Dystopian perspectives on digital technologies within cultures, as well as a great foundational reading arguing against determinism. Part of me is tickled by this, because it’s making for great imagination fodder in the tweets and discussion, but I also note that the flights of (really artistically compelling) determinism represented by the best Dystopias and Utopias tend to reinforce the same worldview . Like the “guns don’t kill people” mantra, Dystopian and Utopian narratives frame thinking about technologies in their own binary good/bad terms. So it’ll be interesting to see if and how the class actually breaks down those binaries as we carry on, or if we get stuck there, endlessly debating whether digital culture is Utopic or Dystopic.

For my part, I think digital culture – and particularly networked culture – is neither. It has elements of good and bad, but good or bad is, from my non-determinist’s lens, the wrong question to even be asking.

But I do think determinism gets in the way of many of the conversations I try to have about networked culture, as a teacher and a scholar and a blogger whose work is largely about framing this complex set of practices within various non-networked contexts.

How the Add-On Perspective Misses the Point
I saw this again last night, when I tuned into George Couros‘ #etmooc discussion of connected leadership. George is an actively networked Division Principal who shares his learning and his educational practice, and who advocates for encouraging this type of connection across educational communities and between stakeholders.

In the backchannel chat on Collaborate, there was a lot of anecdotal discussion of the differences connection – ie building networked professional profiles via social media – has made for many of us, as well as a particularly skeptical response from one participant who kept saying things along the lines of, “but we didn’t have social networking sites when I was a kid, and I turned out fine.”

In my life outside of MOOCs, I meet a lot of people with these kinds of positions on social media. Many of them are my loved ones, my good friends, my colleagues and teachers. Many of them have also never really tried the things they dismiss so easily, so kudos to the dude in the #etmooc chat for being willing to engage in the networked environment of the MOOC long enough to make the point, at least.

But it is a point that tends to miss the point. It’s a point that assumes social networks are an add-on, an extra…essentially a tech toy or a diversion from the “real” work or “real” sociality that makes the world go round. This is digital dualism, but it’s also determinism at work. It hears all this enthusiasm about connection as about the social networking platforms themselves – “yay blog!’ or “yay Twitter!” – and not about the connections and actions and forms of identity that those networked environments make possible.

Determinism reduces conversation about social networks to a conversation about platforms and tech, not about people and the ways in which they intersect with those platforms and tech to create new possibilities. It effectively mutes those latter parts of the conversation; refuses them admittance. It insists that a conversation about technologies’ effects is a conversation about the technologies themselves.

Twitter is not a Ferrari
Subtle distinction, maybe. And one that we’ve been acculturated to miss: enthusiasm related to technologies WAS mostly about the tech platform itself, back in the mechanical and even early digital ages. If I’m excited about driving a Ferrari, for instance, it’s likely not the fact that I’m off to see Grandma or wide open spaces that is actually the focus of my excitement, but rather the Ferrari itself.

Now, Twitter is no Ferrari, but early – and pervasive – geek culture stereotypes tend to perpetuate this narrative of the hard-on for the thing in itself rather than what it affords. And those of us who don’t self-identify as geeks – I’m one, for all my immersion in the digitally networked sphere – are trained to recognize this narrative as Other and thus reject it.

Thus to those who’ve never really used a social network other than FB, where you’re pretty much talking to people you know, the chatter about how marvellous being a connected educator or scholar or simply human can be probably sounds a lot like “yay Twitter!” They look at us, and think, “man, those people get TOO excited about 140-character-limits on expression” and we all go about our merry business still completely misunderstanding each other.

Does Connection Minimize Technological Determinism?
The narratives we have around technologies and society and their intersections aren’t hugely visible to most of us. And they tend to shift with use: I have yet to see anyone deeply embedded within networked culture – whether as an educator or a momblogger or a poet – who has a determinist view of technologies. This isn’t a matter of chicken-egg…over nearly seven years, I’ve watched even people who started out quite convinced that their online lives were an add-on utterly separate from their real lives and that blog platforms were fun in and of themselves move to deeply embedded networked identities.

But many don’t start. And I’m thinking maybe being able to recognize technological determinism and address it directly might give those of us who find value in networked connections and connected learning an important tool for building better conversations about this, and therefore better connections.

16 Comments Connected Learning: Getting Beyond Technological Determinism

  1. Kay O

    Wow – what a fantastic, and succinct piece of writing, that not only sums up the technological determinism debate, but explores how it applies and impacts upon our progress in developing a networked culture. I look forward to reading more of your blog!

  2. Alan Smith

    Terrific. Enjoyed it immensely. YES I DO HAVE THISE DREAMS! I have worked in the ed tech field long enough to see the shiny ‘thingyness’ and the social context that makes them shine. In themselves they ARE often dreamy even inspiring but turning that into something that helps learning along in a predictable manner is the point. Randomness is already a given. THANKS


  3. Vanessa Vaile

    Yes, very much on my mind, spending way too much time as I do both caught between extremes and online.

    Now I’m taking U Edinburgh’s Intro to Philosophy as well ~ also peripherally, often very much so. Add what is the meaning of ______ to the mix. A philosophical lens as it were, hard to manage when sleep is creeping up me.

    No telling what kind of dreams that will lead to, which, in turn, makes me think of Goya’s Caprichos. I also find myself thinking about connections, not just those forged online but IRL personal one that are stronger, better maintained over time and distance because of online communication.

    1. bon

      i think of it as a way of keeping touch with people…a way that shapes the relationships, to be sure, coaxing particular types of engagements, but still with people on the other end.

      think i’ll write a bit soon about social shaping concepts of technologies (as opposed to determinism) and how this gets messy when you think about MOOCs.

  4. Pascal Venier

    A lot of this may well have to the choice of vocabulary. All this involves primarily involves creating an eco-system using technology, yet the emphasis seems to be systematically placed on technology and technological metaphores.
    When it comes to academia, there is perhaps an underlying perversity in the way a given speciality can gain access to funding. Present your field as involving so called hard science or technology and money will be almost endlessly flowing. Present it as involved soft skills and social interaction and you will be starved from such funding.
    Some of the best social media practionners I know and have seen giving giving keynote presentations, have been able to do what they do best without technology at all, for they talent resides not in their mastery of technology but in their ability to design and stimulate human interaction.

    1. bon

      Really interesting point, Pascal. You’re right that STEM fields have access to funds (within research circles) that other fields don’t, flat out. Still, I’m not talking about an issue restricted to academia, so I’d say the linguistic emphasis on technology as a thing-in-itself bleeds into academia and funding structures from the outside, rather than originating in the ivory tower.

      It’s like a cultural habit we’ve fallen into. I don’t know how to stem it, but it reinforces all kinds of reductionist ideas around technologies, which I think are getting in the way of productive conversations we need to have.

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  6. Neil

    But I always thought that the “medium is the message.” While I agree with what you say, I think you might be sweeping the validity of the counterargument under the run, especially when you try to equate the internet tools with… guns. Unlike guns, the internet is available to everyone, young and old, and it is foolish to think that the tools are not molding us. I love Twitter, Facebook, etc. — but whatever the forces that be — these things are changing me, and how I interact with the world. I am on Twitter all the time, but in reality, I don’t like it at all. I HATE the 140 character limit, but I go there because it is what is available. And if I go to another social media outlet that I prefer, I won’t know anyone (Google+). Just like the printing press, the radio, the television, changed us — so with the tools that are offered to us. Granted, the network connections drive us, but there is a bit of determinism — or rather a technological norm pushing us to interact in one way rather than another. I don’t call anyone anymore on the phone. I email them. Is that because I want it that way, or because technology is having a certain determined effect on how we all do things. We all complain about how evil Facebook is, particularly with privacy, but most of us stay there, because it is our only option.

    1. bon

      Ah, Neil…fair enough on all the practices you’re talking about, but saying tech has an effect on us isn’t determinism.

      Absolutely the tech molds us. I’m not saying it doesn’t. I’m saying it doesn’t mold us in inevitable ways entirely outside of our (collective if not individual) control: that’s determinism. Determinism says “yep, medium is the message” (McLuhan was a media determinist) and concludes you go to Twitter because of something about Twitter itself, not because of the fact that your network is there and you want to connect. Yes, being there changes the way you connect. But the ways we connect also affects how we understand Twitter and what our collective network ends up thinking it *is*. And determinism doesn’t allow for that. It frames technology as a force entirely outside of our social forces.

      Like I said, it’s a subtle distinction. But it matters. Whether the technology is Twitter or guns, keeping the conversation complex is the only way to represent the multiple interests and forces actually operating around it. Determinism reduces the whole conversation – whichever one it is – to simple cause=effect.

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  8. Scott Johnson

    When our street was paved all us kids switched from foot power to anything with wheels attached. Conversations switched from shoes lost in the mud hole at the bottom of the street to failed cotter pins, lubricating oils and the collective acreage of road rash in relation to the cruel realities of gravity, mass, velocity and pot holes known and only imagined. Wheels changed our world and our activities soon adapted to different understandings of movement, rose bushes and dogs that shouldered you into them, but never to thoughts of wheels being anything other than part of the whole.

    We take things apart, completely detached from former assemblies but still name them with powers they no longer have. It’s all in how we use things and not them themselves.

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