2.3: The Non-Neutrality of Technology
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Human bodies are well-adapted to communicate with other humans, but that communication is limited. Successful human communication requires the individuals be close enough to hear or see each other, they share a language, and the message be sufficiently noise-free that it can pass between the individuals. If the spoken message is perceived, then it can enter the recipient’s memory, resulting in two copies; one in the sender’s brain and one in the recipient’s brain. We know through experience and experiment those memories are faulty and fading, which makes communication incomplete and inconsistent.
Humans have created many technologies to mediate communication. Our capacity to use sophisticated language allows humans to encode complex ideas in words, and we have invented many technologies to encode those words in memory systems that are more reliable than the human brain. Prior to writing, these technologies included the repetitive patterns in epic poems, communal call and response songs and tales, and quipas, which were knotted strings used by people living in the Andes Mountains in South America (Wright, 2007). In Western societies, we mark the beginning of print as the dominant information technology from Gutenberg and his press in the middle of the 15th century, but printing presses were in use in Europe and Asia centuries earlier. The electronic digital computers found on students’ desks (and in their pockets) are the latest in a long series of devices invented to encode, store, and transport information in a manner more resilient and far-reaching than the human brain and body.
Walter Ong studied the effects of information technologies on societies, and was one of the first to detail the social influences of information technology. Ong (1982) observed “Writing, print, and computers are all ways of technologizing the word. Once the word is technologized, there is no way to criticize what has been done without the aid of the highest technology possible” p. 80); once new technologies emerged, they are used to identify the deficiencies of the previous information technology and judge it adversely compared to the new technology. The conflicts that were noted when comparing Plato’s and Hobbes’ perceptions of writing as well as the conflicts we see in classroom as teachers struggle to adapt to new technologies are examples of those Ong predicts will be observed when one technology replaces another. He attributed these conflicts to the social and cognitive effects of the new technologies. If the new technology caused no changes, Ong reasoned, there would be no conflict. “Neutral” is the term used to describe things and actions that do not change the state of a system. Because there are changes in human cognition and communication that are associated with information technology, scholars and practitioners refer to the “non-neutrality of technology” to capture the active effects of technology on human interactions.
Not all scholars have recognized the non-neutrality of information technologies, however. For much of the 20th century, the discoveries necessary to design and develop computer and information technologies were made by a group of researchers who perceived technology as a pipeline for accessing information. For these information theorists, the experience of using information was the same regardless of the technology used to deliver it. In his seminal 1945 article “As We May Think,” Vannavar Bush, suggested computers were going to improve the efficiency of communication, and he even predicted the invention of the memex (a device that would operate much as the Internet does), but he did not predict any changes in how humans learn with the arrival of digital computers.
More recently, scholars have continued to develop the concept of non-neutrality of technology and they have added to Ong’s (1982) observations. The phenomenon can be observed at three levels. The structure and function of individuals’ brains are affected by the information technology they experience, especially though their adolescent years. The characteristics of humans’ social organizations are affected by information technology; and a society’s norms are influenced by the nature of the information technology available.
Effects on People
Brains and the sense organs sending signals into the brains are used by humans to perceive the world and to react and respond to it. Neuroscience researchers are elucidating the nature and details of neural changes when we learn, as well as the details of how memories are recalled. Neuroscience is basic research, so the discoveries are not immediately useful or relevant to educators (Antonenko, van Gog, & Paas, 2014), but discoveries are clearly contributing to educators’ understanding of how the environment and its information technology influence developing brains.
Neuroscience has confirmed that the brain is somewhat modular, so different parts of the brain are active when it is processing different types of information (Antonenko, Paas, Grabner, & van Gog, 2010). Since the 1990’s, studies have confirmed the dual coding theory (Clark & Paivio, 1991); this theory posits information presented as text and information presented as images is processed in different parts of the brain. There is further evidence that information presented in video format is processed in a third area of the brain (Gerě, & Jaušcvec, 1999). There is evidence that five hours of exposure to information on screens can change the areas in the brain that are used to process information (Small & Vorgan, 2008).
In addition to affecting brain structure and function, the information technology to which one is exposed affects his or her behavior. Those born since about 1990—those who entered school about when the World Wide Web arrived in schools—have been labeled the iGeneration (Rosen, 2010), and those generations have been widely studied by many research groups (Dijk, 2012; Montgomery, 2007; Palfrey & Gasser, 2016; Tapscott, 2009). While each research group attributes slightly different characteristics of these generations to the influences of digital information, there are several observations upon which they seem to concur:
- Individuals in these generations have a proclivity to use digital technology and they consume vast amounts of media.
- These individuals tend to create content and share details of their lives online.
- They are heavy users of social media and they use it to establish and control relationships.
While young people have always consumed large amounts of media (especially recorded music and television), the tendencies to create digital content and share it over social media along with the availability of vast amounts of digital content from other providers is a new aspect of media associated with digital technologies (Rideout, Foehr, & Roberts, 2010). The sharing perceived to be excessive (and disconcerting) by older generations, but natural by the iGenerations, is conflict that can reasonably be interpreted as another example of that which Ong (1982) attributed to the non-neutrality of technology.
It is also clear that individuals in the iGenerations are actively learning when online, and interests and friendships motivate this learning. Indeed, Ito and her colleagues (2010) suggested that youth are developing greater expertise in learning in the digital landscape than adults. For perhaps the first time in human history, there is an information technology skill inversion, as individuals in the younger generations appear to be more skilled than the older generations in using the dominant information technology. This leads Ito (2010) to conclude, “Given the centrality of youth-defined agendas in [interest and friendship-driven learning], the challenge is to build roles for productive adult participation that respect youth expertise, autonomy, and initiative” (pp. 340-1).
Ample research supports the conclusion that brains change depending on the information technology, and research also suggests that humans adapt their behavior to the nature of the information they encounter. Mark Deuze (2006), a media and journalism researcher, concluded digital media demands that we participate in the creation of media as we consume it, that we remediate digital information as we become responsible for navigating and assessing the vast information landscape, and that we discover and invent new and unintended uses of information and technologies through bricolage. In these ways, we live in a media landscape that is much more participatory than the print-dominated landscape of previous generations. We see, as well, that information technology affects both the nature of human brains and the nature of human behaviors.
In her 2017 book, iGen, psychologist Jean Twenge attributed the extreme access to digital devices and social networks to a number of trends observed in younger people who were born after 1995. This generation appears to be delaying driving, romantic relationships, and other adult activities compared to previous generations; many report they never attended a party without adults present by the time they graduated from high school. Twenge also attributes greater levels of depression and other concerning mental health trends in this generation to their use of digital devices. She concludes, “The devices they hold in their hands have both extended their childhoods and isolated them from true human interaction” (p. 312).
Effects on Organizations
Humans, we know, are social creatures; the organizations and associations they form are an important part of life in the 21st century. Students leave school to join organizations and businesses after they graduate, and the success of schools is determined by the degree to which graduates are able to function in those organizations. In the same way that individuals in digital landscapes are more active creators and consumers of information than individuals in print landscapes, organizations are becoming more flexible and dynamic in both the internal organizational structures and management practices as well as the nature of interactions with clients and customers.
Olumuyiwa Asaolu (2006), a scholar in industrial and information engineering, applied the label “Fordist (Old)” to organizations that are structured in a manner that reflects industrial technologies. These organizations tend to consume energy to produce standardized products using standardized methods, and they tend to rely on individuals with specialized skills who are managed through hierarchical systems. Asaolu concludes Fordist (Old) organizations are being replaced with those he labels “ICT (New)” which reflect modern information technology. These organizations use information to create customized services through flexible and innovative products. These organizations leverage broad skills held by employees whose work is managed through horizontal structures.
Among the factors contributing to the replacement of Fordist (Old) organizations with ICT (New) organizations is the rapid evolution of IT and the global communication that it supports (Miller, 2011). This creates new problems and new opportunities for organizations, and those that adopt ICT (New) characteristics appear to be abler than Fordist (Old) to adapt to those opportunities that require innovative solutions. The assets and social norms that support innovation are self-creating and self-supporting and they develop organically within ICT (NEW) organizations. Fordist (Old) organizations tend to be highly controlled by the management, but innovative thinking can be neither imposed nor mandated nor can it be standardized, thus Fordist organizations at a disadvantage in situation where flexibility, innovation, and other ICT (New) approaches are necessary.
Manuel Castels, a sociologist who has held positions in both North America and Europe has studied the wide-ranging effects of computer networks on society, especially on economic organizations. Commenting on the role of digital information and computer networks in the rejuvenation of many businesses and industries late in the 20th century, Castells (1996) noted, “Technological innovation and organizational change, focusing on flexibility and adaptability, were absolutely critical in ensuring the speed and efficiency of restructuring” (p. 19). Castels goes on to argue that human cognitive power to process abstract symbols, which is much enhanced by the digital electronic computers, is the basis for our capacity as a species to survive. Further, he posits that while technology is largely shaped by social influences, “the availability of new communication networks and information systems prepared the ground for” (p. 53) new organizations and social structures.
Effects on Society
The effects of information technology on human life extends to society-wide characteristics as well. In preliterate cultures, communication is communal and loud (at least audible). For Plato to teach his students, they needed to be together and to speak and listen. Writing and print allowed communication to be solitary (writers and readers need not be together in time and space) and silent (with practice, reading can be done inside one’s head and writing is largely silent except for our writing tools and our attempts to break writers’ block by talking to ourselves). The manner in which social norms and values are remembered and interpreted in preliterate cultures is dynamic (updated through communal storytelling), and decisions in preliterate cultures are likely to depend on the specific circumstances of a situation rather than on reference to an abstract concept.
Once writing arrives in a society, ideas can be stored in a more permanent manner than they can be in preliterate cultures; abstract ideas enter the culture which allows for money, law and evidence, sacred books and monotheist religions to emerge. Further, those who have greater skill reading and writing tend to have greater political and economic power than those with lesser skills, and children are excluded from much of the information life in a literate society until they become readers and writers. The marginalization of individuals and groups based on lack of communications skill is largely absent from preliterate societies.
In the 20th century, electronic media entered the popular culture in the form of radio, movies, and television. These media again changed the nature of information creation and consumption in society where they were available. Compared to print media, radio and television tended to be consumed in isolation but at the same time (we watched alone, but everyone consumed the broadcast at the same time); this pattern is changing as digital video becomes more popular. While many legal documents are printed, electronic media has come to dominate almost every aspect of economic, political, and social life.
Perhaps the greatest change in information use in societies with digital electronic media compared to earlier electronic media is the degree to which individuals can participate in the global media. With the arrival of the World Wide Web, then web 2.0 technologies that afford users the ability to easily publish content (including multimedia content) to world-wide audiences, the nature of users’ interaction with information became more participatory. This access to publishing has contributed to the evolution of many traditional institutions, including journalism. The British Broadcasting Company (BBC), for example, has been active in both encouraging responsible reporting by amateur journalists, and it has developed formal processes for including information from amateur journalists in its reports (Belair-Gagnon, 2016).
Palfrey and Gasser (2016) used the term semiotic democracy to describe the effects of participatory content creation on society. They observed, “any citizen with the skills, time, and access to digital technologies to do so may reinterpret and reshape the stories of the day” (p. 233). Of course, this can threaten social and governmental institutions, and they observed that in times of social and political instability, governments can and do take the step of restricting or preventing citizens from accessing and participating in the technologies that make the semiotic democracy possible. Yochai Benkler (2016), a professor at Yale Law School, observed access to computers and information technology extends throughout society and he claimed, “the change brought about by the networked information environment is deep. It is structural. It goes to the very foundations of how liberal markets and liberal democracies have coevolved for almost two centuries” (p. 1).