Thursday, September 4, 2008

What is Technology?

A couple years ago, in one of my graduate school classes, I was assigned a paper where we were supposed to find and explain a metaphor for technology. In that paper I said that, "Technology is a Stick." I had in mind the opening scene to 2001 A Space Odyssey where the primitive man touches the monolith then begins using tools. My thinking at the time was that technology was a tool. However, I have been rethinking this lately and have come to a different conclusion.

Alan Kay says that technology is anything that was invented after you were born. This definition plays right into the same concept I held two years ago when I wrote that technology is a stick. Both of these definitions narrow the definition to objects (i.e. Computer, Cell Phone, Particle Collider, etc.). This definition is very practical and is easy to identify with. Shifting the onus of the term to the object removes individuals of necessary ownership of what truly lies within the term. It is empowering to say that you, your school, your town, your interest group, your professional organization, your country, etc. "has the technology." But does possessing tools constitute the possession of technology?

My dogs spend most of their time in my garage. In my garage I have numerous power tools, hand tools, an old computer, and a few machines (lawn mower, snow blower, etc.). According to the stick metaphor my dogs possess the technology to build pretty much anything. Do my dogs really possess this technology? I think not.

I have to admit that my summer indulgence were the TED Talks and taking my dogs on long evenings. Every week I would upload a new batch of talks to my iPod Nano and watch them on the go while exercising my dogs. Thus the way I have framed this idea. From these talks my mind has contracted quite a variety of memes and I think I finally have a definitive understanding of what technology really is.

When a foreign country says they possess the technology to build a nuclear weapon I don't think they mean that they have the materials. What they have is the knowledge and understanding needed to build one. And with this example I think I have solved the definition/metaphor problem. Technology is a meme, an idea, an understanding.

If technology is a meme then it can never really die or be destroyed. The only way we can loose our technology is if we forget how it works or how to use it. I think this notion helps explain a lot of behavior we see in schools. Try as we will, if a our students find a technology real useful they will find a way to use it even if it is banned or there are rules excluding its use. It also gets at the heart of a lot of tensions that can be observed between teachers and their students or one generation vs. another. It explains what is really missing from the digital native/digital immigrant depictions.

Technophobia is not the fear of new tools but rather the fear of not understanding. There is a nervousness that exists when those in a learning environment who are supposed to be subordinates are empowered with knowledge and understanding that those in authority positions lack. What it boils down to is technophobia is fear of loosing authority. It is not the tools that make the digital immigrant different from the digital native, it is the understanding of how they work and how they can be applied or the eagerness to learn new ways of understanding that makes this distinction. When we define technology as a tool we can say we have it but not know how it works or how to use it and we can easily just put it aside. If we see not the tool but the knowledge and understanding as the technology then for us to say we possess it means we must understand it. This is especially troubling in the field of education because educators are supposed to be inquisitive and celebrate knowledge, ideas, and understanding.

My job title at my full-time job is, "Technology Integration Curriculum Specialist." I am starting to see this as a bit of a misnomer given my new concept of what technology is. What I sense is expected of me by the educators I work with is that I am here to help them to bring new tools into their classroom and that is currently an accurate portrayal of what I do. However, am I integrating technology or am I integrating tools? If I were really to help teachers integrate technology my role should go beyond the tools and address understanding both of ideas and how they can be applied. This kind of integration transcends the tools and is much more about pedagogy than technical knowledge. That said, I still like playing around with new tools.

The following are some of the TED Talks that have influenced my thoughts recently on this matter:

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