Technology v. People, or When Can Technology Become Too Much? Part II

I started reading Thackara's In the Bubble today, and while the first part isn't necessarily about teaching and learning or education, the author does have some interesting things to say about technology. The basic premise of the book is that while technology plays a central part in our current world, we sometimes lose sight of the function that it plays. Or in other words, we often push technology for the sake of technology, it has become an end in itself while it should be a means to an end.

In addition, we should seriously reconsider what the impact of all of this technology is on our society, and Thackara focuses particularly on environmental and social aspects. For example often forget that the environmental impact of a piece of technology goes way beyond the device itself, and includes the resources that we consume to design, produce, ship, and actually use the product, in addition to the impact it has once it is discarded when it's no longer of value to us. For example, it takes:

  • 1.7 kilograms of materials to make a chip with 32mb of RAM, or 630 times its own weight;
  • 15 to 19 tons of energy and materials to produce one desktop computer;
  • Ethernets caused an eightfold increase in the use of paper, because it enabled computers and printers to talk to each other;
  • Electronic products often have very short service lives, because of ever-shorter innovation cycles (think of handhelds and cell phones in the past couple of years, or even more so, iPods);
  • Information networks consume vast amounts of energy, especially server farms.

Thackara's solutions focus on the premise that if we can design our way into this kind of trouble, we can design ourselves out of it, and provides examples of some innovative designers, mostly in Europe. In addition, he notes that small actions (such as getting rid of your answering machine and using an online answering service instead), can have big effects, especially when they happen on a large scale.

The lessons I'm taking away from this book so far are that we need to be more environmentally conscious when it comes to the design and consumption of products and services, especially technology. Moreover, as much of a proponent of technology as I am, I really like Thackara's argument that in this day and age we tend to overemphasize technology, and focus too much on speed and acceleration (think about ever-shortening innovation cycles), to the point where we are beginning to run into physical limits as far as what the planet can handle. Instead, he insists that we should focus more on the human aspect, and the fact that there are many things that humans will always do better than technology. We should also make sure that "we need to change the innovation agenda in such a way that people come before tech" (p. 4). This doesn't mean that we should reject technology. Instead, we should be more critical of it, and try to find a better balance between people and technology.; technology should CHANGE the ways in which we do things, not ADD to what we already do.

What does this mean for education? I think the analogies are pretty obvious:

  • we shouldn't automatically see teachers and administrators as obstacles to technology implementation;
  • technology should play an important part in teaching and learning, but should not be an end in itself (a recent quote I read in another blog really hits home here and was something along the lines of "I blog as part of my day, not in addition to my day";
  • we need to find a balance between people (i.e. teachers and students) and technology.

One response to “Technology v. People, or When Can Technology Become Too Much? Part II

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