13 April 2010

"Invisible Technology"?

Technology must be like oxygen: ubiquitous, necessary, and invisible.” - Chris Lehmann
Twitter led me to a blog discussing this concept. And the quote confused me. I thought back to the opening sequence of the film 2001, A Space Odyssey, and wondered, were the tools - the technology - introduced there really supposed to be perceived by humans as oxygen is perceived? If that were true, humans would no more adapt and improve their tools than they adapt and improve their oxygen, and that seems like a very bad idea - especially a very bad idea for "education" to embrace.

I'm not picking on Chris Lehmann who I see as one of the great educators of our time - but - I have heard this “invisible technology” argument many, many times, especially since the iPad announcement (as Cory Doctorow discusses brilliantly on boingboing), and it troubles me, and baffles me.

I guess because when I argue with schools that certain technologies need not be explicitly learned "at all costs," I am typically told, by educators, how wrong I am.

So, perhaps I'm just looking for consistency of argument, or perhaps I think that we do owe our students some solid sense of how tools are constructed, how they operate, and how they are chosen.

If I walk into a school today, what I will see is this: Though we live in a time when one can very easily absorb “written” information without knowing any of the alphabetic or phonological coding embedded in text, the schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of the alphabet and phonics. Though we live in a time when simply speaking out loud can create text in many forms, schools schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of writing and keyboarding. Though we live in a time of easy to use, solar powered calculators, schools seem extremely committed to the teaching of the explicit technologies of on-paper mathematical calculation. I have even seen teachers explaining to students the proper handling of the explicit technology of books - don't tear the pages, don't leave the books out in the rain, etc.

These are all explicit technologies for utilizing certain forms of information and communication, as Chris Lehmann's student demonstrates here:

different technologies operate different ways - that is important to understand

We spend years and years of school time teaching one specific set of technologies. Reading ink-on-paper as the ancient Hebrews did, writing as scribes did thousands of years ago, keyboarding as 19th century secretaries did, cyphering just as Bob Cratchit did in Scrooge's counting house. Then, when we get to all the contemporary technologies, we suddenly want "invisibility." See an operating system or a file system? No thanks, that's too confusing. Understand why a computer or a phone does something when we tell it to? Not important, that's over our heads. Be able to change the interface, the way a computer or phone works, in order to adapt to your needs and preferences? Crazy, that's so geeky.

Let me quote Doctorow as he discusses the iPad:
"Then there's the device itself: clearly there's a lot of thoughtfulness and smarts that went into the design. But there's also a palpable contempt for the owner. I believe -- really believe -- in the stirring words of the Maker Manifesto: if you can't open it, you don't own it. Screws not glue. The original Apple ][+ came with schematics for the circuit boards, and birthed a generation of hardware and software hackers who upended the world for the better. If you wanted your kid to grow up to be a confident, entrepreneurial, and firmly in the camp that believes that you should forever be rearranging the world to make it better, you bought her an Apple ][+.
"But with the iPad, it seems like Apple's model customer is that same stupid stereotype of a technophobic, timid, scatterbrained mother as appears in a billion renditions of "that's too complicated for my mom" (listen to the pundits extol the virtues of the iPad and time how long it takes for them to explain that here, finally, is something that isn't too complicated for their poor old mothers)."
"The way you improve your iPad isn't to figure out how it works and making it better. The way you improve the iPad is to buy iApps. Buying an iPad for your kids isn't a means of jump-starting the realization that the world is yours to take apart and reassemble; it's a way of telling your offspring that even changing the batteries is something you have to leave to the professionals."
And I think Doctorow is right. I think we must offer these opportunities to understand, choose, and use tools, because that is both what makes us human and what enables progress. 

In 1880 you may not have needed to know all the details of steam locomotive technology, but it was still important for students to know the difference between a train and a trolley and renting a horse at the livery stable, and how these all operated – at least passenger interface-wise – if you needed to get somewhere. And the more you actually knew, the more choices you had in life.

important to know in 1880? maybe - but how to read a timetable, how to buy a ticket, how to behave on a train, how to be comfortable on a train - all pretty essential

"Technology" is - quite definably - not "oxygen." Technology is the art of manipulating the world. Technology is, specifically, manipulating the world for our benefit. And, as Heidegger always pointed out, the technologies we live with not only give us control, they themselves structure the way we see things - the way our world is not only perceived, but actually operates.

The gun's existence literally means that the human replaces the big cat at the top of the on-land food chain, for example, which alters not only our view of large sections of the planet but how we view night and sleep as well. The existence of the alphabet not only enables a certain form of reading, it constructs many of our organization systems. The development of numbers and numbering alters fundamental concepts of society.

So, even if I can not actually read alphabetical text, it really helps to know how it works. Even I can't subtract a 2-digit number from a 2-digit number on paper (and I typically cannot), it helps me to have an idea of how that happens. And even if you are not a computer programmer it would help if you could see the file system on the iPad, so you might grow up to be the kind of person who could design a better file system.

Thus I don't want technology to be invisible at all, especially not in schools. Right now we spend years teaching kids about the functional technologies of our past, and, whether we continue that or not, we need to teach them something about the functional technologies of their future.

Remember, "invisible" is "unknown." And "unknown" can not really be our goal in education, can it?

- Ira Socol


Nina Simon said...

This post makes me think of my friend who is an engineer who designs large scale magic tricks. As an exhibit designer, I always aspired to make exhibits that were like the most beautiful magic tricks--a wow with completely hidden technology.

But of course, magic tricks are meant to deceive and impress. Making them is an incredible learning experience; consuming them is not. For many people, magic tricks are frustrating and unpleasant because they dictate a controlling power relationship.

I think we need a combination in this world--some magic artworks and experiences that blow us away, and then lots of tools so we can make our own stuff.

Wm Chamberlain said...

I think most people, especially non-educators, don't think or want to think about the issues you bring up. They simply want a tool that does the job they want it to do. I know Doctorow means what he writes, but I don't think it matters when someone wants to use the iPad to watch a video or surf the net. What is wrong with easy?

Often educators look at issues, ideas, things through the eyes of learning or teaching. Maybe we need to expand our outlook.

Clint Buhs said...

There's a point in this debate that I think is overlooked: For every learning scenario,there will be a limit to what technology can (or should) currently be understood. It would create an infinite comprehension loop if we were to try and evaluate every learning tool we use.

For example, say a teacher uses a device to pass media to her students. Should the student automatically be expected to understand the device's operation? What about the components with the device? Microchips would require a microscope and chemistry lab to examine. Should we then research the making of the glass elements of the microscope and its other workings?

There's always a cap where technology becomes invisible. It's not a choice, but a function of limited time and resources. At some point, we use a tool to understand another tool one level below it. The top-level tool is often transparent in its functionality out of pure necessity.

I'm not sure anyone has made the argument that no attempt should be made to understand technology, but that some tools must remain invisible within a given learning environment in order for the primary teaching objective to be achieved.

Clint Buhs said...

My previous example wasn't ideal. Let me suggest this one instead: I've seen interactive whiteboards in use by talented math teachers. They bring to life concepts and approaches to learning that I couldn't have imagined in my schooling. There's no doubt in my mind that they enhance learning of the subject at hand.

However, in the math classroom, during a math lesson, the IWB shouldn't be noticed. It should be invisible in order for the math lesson to be as effective as possible.

Rather than thinking of technology as a "thing in schools", it should be considered in isolated scenarios, with the prime learning objective of the moment in front of our minds. Of course there should be opportunities for students to learn the details of IWB design, manufacture, and function, but not in that math class at that moment.

narrator said...

These are all great comments, and I'm wondering if Nina's somehow goes with Clint's: There is a time for magic.

But let me bring a couple of things up. We all know that "current" classroom technology is only "invisible" to those who are good at it. Which is like Windows feeling somewhat invisible to me, or xhtml feeling invisible to my son who is a programmer. For all the kids who struggle with reading, or holding a pen correctly, or sitting "still" in a classroom chair, or tolerating an hour long class session, these are incredibly obvious technologies - and one of the reasons I feel teachers don't know how to deal with any of this is that they have been taught to pretend that those aren't really technologies - in other words - that those technologies are invisible.

So, yes, Clint has a point, after teaching kids the technologies of math communication for five years, we can focus on that technology in the classroom instead of the display technology, and that is a good thing in some ways. But to never discuss the display technologies seems absurd. And when schools say, iPads will replace laptops, that's what they are suggesting.

And WmChamberlain is right too. There is nothing wrong with easy, but as I said to him on Twitter, I've seen too many destroyed screw heads created by terrible driver choice, to really believe that "even a bad tool gets the job done."

So here's the thing - and maybe especially in Clint's math class. I want students to use the technologies but also know enough about them to choose well, and enough about them to adapt these technologies and future technologies to their needs if they want to express their math knowledge down the road. And if you can't figure out how to bring the IWB technology itself into a math class - or the technology of the book into a history or English class - you're not really trying, are you?

- Ira Socol

Dean Shareski said...

In many ways the technology that has already moved even more quickly towards "invisibility" is the automobile. Consider a car 30 years ago. Almost everyone knew how to tinker and had fairly basic understandings of the engine. Today, cars are made in such a way that only people with the very specialized equipment can tinker, even then it's not really possible.

For most of us, that's fine. I only see a car as a place to transport me. I'm not one who would spend extra for design, I only want reliability. The choice is about design and performance. But no one "owns" their car like they did 30 years ago. Most of us aren't complaining. We want our cars to be invisible.

I think computers are moving in the same direction. I don't know if that's good or bad but as I think about vehicles, I'm okay with it.

I get what you're saying but increased automation of these technologies are, for the most part good. I don't want to go back to a standard transmission.

A Faire Alchemist said...

Since at least the 19th century, technology hasn't been about what everyday folks can "do", it's about what they can "use". Whether that's a car, book, iPhone. Sure, you can "do" stuff with all these things, but you have to "use" the device to "do" it.

I argue that the only retort to this is intense customization, personalization, improvisation, and anti-Essentialism. And all that stuff is the stuff that's really going to direct and re-direct culture in the digital age.


narrator said...


I'm working on this - you've challenged some key things. I think two things have happened with cars. They've gotten to be digital - which, of course, we don't understand, and schools have dropped auto shop, which, 30 years ago was something every 8th grade boy took.

So now we pay $150 to replace spark plugs instead of spending 8 minutes on that task. This is only easier if you have the extra $150.

But still, if we're smart, we pick our cars carefully, looking at our needs. We know how to adjust the seats, the steering wheel, the mirrors, we know when to change the oil, we understand how to apply the brakes in different situations. I'd argue that we still understand a great deal about how our automotive technology works.

But then, learning systems seem far more important to me - in terms of personalization needs - than transportation systems - simply because of the complexity of the human brain. And perhaps "easiest" and "pre-packaged" is not always a good.

I think we've had 500 years to observe what is wrong with an unchallenged, opaque, information delivery technology. The book was so simple, the technology so "invisible" in our hands, that we never noticed how much the technology controlled not just the delivery, but the forms of communication, and how it determined the kinds of thinking society prized (linear) and who was smart (good alphabetic decoders) and even how story-telling was formed (the novel).

There's always a two-way push in our culture. We like easy, but millions watch the Food Network every day to see cooking being complex, controllable, and difficult. We have people who'll do our whole interiors for us but DIY big box stores do very well because lots of people want to know how so they have control and power. And we have the iPad for a certain 2 million people, and Linux for 10 million others.

But school, in my mind, should be about curiosity, discovery, challenge. So I don't like pre-packaged history and I don't like pre-packaged technology.

However, despite my love of shifting the gears in automobiles, I'm glad I have that automatic, and the ability to drive one-legged, these days.

- Ira Socol

Chris Fritz said...

I think a place where we can draw the line is where not being deeply familiar with technology causes daily anxiety and considerable inefficiency, because this will, in the long run, lead to a decrease in students' well-being.

This doesn't just go for technology in the sense I'm sure you're thinking of now, but really every kind of tool necessary for life. Here's an example with cooking. I was trying to make my own Pad Thai last night with my neighbor. He cooks tremendous meals as a hobby, so I asked him to stop by not only for his delightful company, but also to help make sure I don't screw things up too badly. I think cooking is an important part of life, but to be honest, my fiancee usually does most of it and I've been taking her for granted (just like the clueless mother, I'm sure, will take advantage of her likely more tech-savvy children). So while cooking last night, I cut things really slowly and dangerously, had substantial problems with timing, and even burned my neighbor - all causing a lot of unnecessary stress. So my neighbor taught me a few tricks, like for cutting things more efficiently and safely, and told me more about the food I was cooking, warning me, for example, that my shallots would start turning golden-brown in the frying pan rather suddenly.

When I asked my neighbor how he learned all of these tricks, he just said, "Well, I wanted to know, so I looked up some videos of professional chefs on YouTube." Cooking and other "tech" is pretty simple to learn - the only thing that stops us is anxiety and pride. So I'm going to try to learn more about cooking now and it will improve my life. Others may still always look for the convenient meal that can help them stay ignorant, but that's why these new generations are supposed to live shorter than their parents - poor diet.

I agree one hundred percent with Ira - we don't need more convenient tech as much as we need more empowering and hackable tech.