Silicon Idol: tarnished or burnished?

As long ago as 1984, Michael Shallis was worrying about the social implications of the ‘micro revolution’, as he called it at the time. He warned of the ‘silicon idol’ that, were it to become the object of veneration that he predicted it might, would divest society of its humanity and its soul.

A computer-based society becomes a fragile society, easily disrupted, held in the grip of a small technical élite who would have enormous potential power.

Shallis had the foresight, at least, to  predict that power lay, not in the computer per se, but in the networks that connected computers together. His vision, shaped as it was before the internet threw up the World Wide Web, was based on a broadcast model of networks:

Spreading the computer network into every house, just as television has spread, appears to be bringing the power of computer and information systems to every corner of society. What it in fact does is to tighten the grip of a few on the many.

His vision of a technology that would transmit news, entertainment, information and services was far-sighted but incomplete. The current convergence of digital technologies – internet, television, radio, commerce, telephony – seems to concur with Shallis’s insight to the extent that the giants of capitalism and commerce are, it would appear, engaged in a war of attrition to control the provision of goods and services to us all across the Web and across the ether.

Shallis, however, in common with many commentators across the years, was unable to foresee that the technology could also empower the individual or group and could create the capacity for active production and sharing of data alongside the scope for the mere passive reception of data. Nonetheless, and despite its Luddite inflections, his diatribe against the extension of ‘technological dependence’ in society is one that has many voices raised still in its defence. Recent revelations about the all-encompassing reach of NSA (and GCHQ) surveillance of the Web, of email and most other types of Internet communications, as well as the extent to which the agencies of state have broken encryption protocols used across the Web, tends to offer credence to Shallis’s prediction.

Rightly, therefore, discussion and debate have raged down through the intervening years over the relative benefits and harm that digital technology and the networked society might bring about. The debate has raged with some particular vehemence in the field of education.

On this issue, some in education do indulge in flag-waving and throwing brickbats at each other. For many others, however, the argument has been and continues to be much more multifaceted and subtle, with many shades of grey across the continuum from unthinking Luddite to the undiscriminating techno-zealot. Seymour Papert, for instance, while leading the pro-computer vanguard, has taken great pains over the years to argue that a new pedagogy was needed if full advantage was to be taken of the new technologies in teaching and learning:

Nothing could be more absurd than an experiment in which computers are placed in a classroom where nothing else is changed.

Others have described this scenario as ‘gift wrapping’ or ‘window dressing’, i.e. using computer technology as a means of enabling existing practices and methodologies to persist. Anyone with an interest in the use of the new technologies in education, whatever your point of view, will recognise the situation in which computers are used simply to do what is already being done but slightly faster, or worse, simply more colourfully, i.e. using colour and sound and animation and video merely to prettify an existing teaching practice.

The search for that new pedagogy, of course, is very much still on. Those who argue that pedagogy always comes first are simply wrong. The fact is that developments in technology make new pedagogies not just possible but necessary – too many in education take a dogmatic stance against any hint of technological determinism, but, as Stephen Downes wrote a few years ago:

…if you’re using the same pedagogy with a stick and sand as you are using with a high-speed computer network, you really don’t understand teaching and learning.

At about the same time, I was writing on my old blog:

…the very nature of what it means to be literate, to be educated, is shifting around [us]. The deeply social nature of the technologies and digital platforms available today, an ever-expanding set of tools that continue to offer new possibilities for self-expression and for collective expression almost on a daily basis, already puts in question many of the long-held assumptions that have been part and parcel of schooling for so long. The nature of what it means to know, the role of the teacher in the learning process, the relationship between teacher and learner, the diminishing importance of prescribed content within curricula, the inadequacy…..of the school building as a self-contained place within which learning is supposed to happen, the questionable efficacy of arbitrary ’standards’ to be tested over and over again during a young person’s school career – all of these and many other issues mean that teachers today are faced with a stark choice between an outmoded reality that, if sustained, will render school increasingly irrelevant to most children most of the time, and the new reality, one that recognises the major shifts brought about by the developments in Web technology in recent years.

Shallis’s Silicon Idol is still, and will continue to be, demonized and evangelized in equal measure. But while the outliers in the debate square up constantly and pointlessly, the rest of us can get on with thinking through the implications in a thoroughly nuanced and logical and thoughtful way.