Gutenberg's press Gutenberg's press: consider its effect on the practice of storytelling.

Practical exercises in tech citizenship

How does technology connect and disconnect us?

Educators and students can do practical exercises in technological citizenship (how technology conditions our participation in civic and social life) that don´t require a computer lab.

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To understand technology it’s important to ask, “How does the technology connect and disconnect us?” For example, by doing away with much of the work involved in food preparation, the microwave oven allows us to connect meal times with our hectic schedules, free time and personal interests.

But as it allows members of the family to eat whenever they want, it tends to disconnect us from the traditional family dinner, where different generations gather to share the table and enjoy the food, conversation and commentary on the latest news.

Research has shown a clear relationship between eating together as a family and academic performance of children in school. What do we gain, and what do we lose with each new technology? (Jason Ohler, Digital Community, Digital Citizen, 2010)

The connections that technologies provide us are immediately visible and appreciable, but the disconnections they provoke are often not understood except with the passage of time, unless we develop the capacity to predict the future impacts of new technologies.

How does the technology connect us and disconnect us? With this essential question, teachers and parents can involve learners in the analysis of “the personal, social, and environmental impacts of every technology and media application they use” without the need to have an elaborate digital platform available in the classroom.

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Instead of adding analysis of technology to the curriculum (“What? Another curricular objective? As if we had time to cover it all as is!”), Jason Ohler recommends that it work as a “cross-curricular thematic perspective that doesn’t always require a separate, focused assignment,” particularly when considering topics related to new technologies throughout history.

He suggests that the educator get students to be a part of the (imaginary) STA, or Science and Technology Administration, in charge of determining potential impacts of new technologies before approving their sale to the public. The STA would be similar to the FDA, Food and Drug Administration, which approves new foods and drugs for public consumption.

These are not attempts at censorship of new gadgets, but exercises with students intended to better see our technology, as fish might see the water around them.

Gutenberg and the printing press? We know that it connected men and women directly to the world beyond the village of their birth, to the accumulated store of human knowledge, to scientific innovations, to literature, and to the word of God through the holy scriptures.

We seldom consider that the printing press disconnected our ancestors from the age-old tradition of storytellers and chroniclers that kept the histories and mythology of local families alive in their memories going back 10s of generations. People were disconnected from using their memories and dramatic voices to tell stories, and from having to get together in groups to enjoy them.

Reading is more of a solitary than a community activity. As more people could own and read the bible, little by little the printing press disconnected the community from depending exclusively on the parish priest to tell and interpret bible stories.

Electric lighting? It’s easy to see the connections and benefits. But what about the disruption of humanity’s traditional sleeping patterns and erstwhile deep connection with the stars, moon and planets of the night sky?

Along with the connections and disconnections (impacts) of new technologies, the STA (the students) might analyze the following questions (Ohler, 2010, p.228):

  • Physical characteristics—how is the technology made, what is it made of, how is it used?
  • Enhancements/reductions—how does it amplify and diminish us?
  • Predecessors/next steps—what did it replace, and what does it imply?
  • Social contexts—what are the social expectations that produced our desire to have it?
  • Biases—who does it favor, and who gets left out?
  • Benefits—what are the qualities of this technology that drive its creation and adoption?

Analyzing our technology raises consciousness. Like fish don’t see the water in which they swim, we often don’t see our technology or we forget that it exists until suddenly it breaks down. As McLuhan observed, a simple way to analyze the effects of a technology is to imagine ourselves without it.

With these simple exercises in technological citizenship, educators can guide students in adopting technology with eyes wide open to its possible impacts. Learners can consciously observe, manipulate and use technology — not just live with the vague feeling that the technology observes, manipulates and uses them.

The writer is an educator with many years of experience in the administration of schools in North and South America. He lives in Pachuca, Hidalgo.

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