Technological Determinism and the Key to the Gates

Howard Gardner, speaking in a video on the DML Central site:

I don’t believe for a moment in technological determinism. I believe any technology can be used benignly and malignantly. You can use a pen to write beautiful poetry. You can also use a pen to poke peoples’ eyes out.

Gardner doesn’t ‘believe’ in technological determinism, in the same way that someone might choose not to believe in a deity or the existence of Santa Claus. Fair enough. However, the example he gives to support his unbelief is not only misleadingly simplistic but also specious. A pen used to poke an eye out is not being used as a pen and is therefore not a pen at that moment in time. It is merely a pointy stick. If he had said that the same pen can be used to write beautiful poetry and also to sign the death warrant of an innocent person, his argument would have been a little more cogent, but still only within the somewhat narrow limits to which he chooses to restrict his notion of technological determinism.

We expect better from a Harvard professor.

This much we can agree on: technology is only technology when it is being put to use. Otherwise, it is merely passive artefact. At the level of the instrument (such as the pen), technology can be used for good or ill. But that is not a condition unique to technology; it can be posited for virtually every product of the human hand or mind. Richard Feynman put it succinctly when he quoted a buddhist proverb:

To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven. The same key opens the gates of hell.

I made that point in a post back in 2006 when I compared certain characteristics shared by education and technology: they are both instruments that can be put to good and bad uses; they are both instruments that can be truly transformative or deeply destructive. Given those shared attributes, I used that post to appeal for care in how we choose to bring about their conjunction. But these are attributes that bear no relation to whether or not technology is deterministic; hence the problem with Gardner’s position.

If we want to see how truly deterministic technology can be, and is, we must elevate our point of view so that we can see beyond the individual instrument and allow ourselves to comprehend the broad vista of the technology landscape within which that single instrument is utilised. Whether a pen can write beautiful poetry or consign a person to their death really tells us nothing about how, at a much broader level, systemic shifts in the underlying nature of technology undoubtedly do influence societal interactions and, quite simply, how we do certain things, amongst them, education. To try to pretend, for instance, as Gardner must inevitably do with his ‘unbelief’ in technological determinism, that the way we learn – or for that matter, the way we teach – can remain the same in the digital era as it has been for centuries of print is just naive.

Karl Marx, writing in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847, understood that better than the good professor obviously does today.

The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.

The digital era – the computer, the network, the Internet, the Web, social technology, universal search, and so much more – changes radically all of the relationships that are critical to how we learn and how we teach: the relationship between teacher and learner; the relationship between the learner and information; the relationship we all have with the concept of learned authority; and the social relationships between ourselves and the rest of the human race. It is of course a hugely complex process of determination, with nuance layered on nuance, but it is undoubtedly true that broad global shifts in technology, such as that between print and digital, determine how learning can happen and therefore should (and inevitably will) determine what it means to teach.