Thursday, September 16, 2010

No such thing as being technology agnostic

A small group at my place of work have been jousting the ages old (but ultimately quite shallow) debate about free software vs commercial software in education. While I'm looking forward to the possible fall out of a Richard Stallman talk in Canberra next month (more likely an ignored flash in the pan), a relatively new phrase has been used in this discussion, "to be platform agnostic" which seems to me to be a way of dismissing or exiting the conversation on the ethics of technology use in education, let alone the ethics of education itself!

At the same time I've been participating in the Learning Analytics email group, where people are discussing various forms of data collection and analysis for education. Earlier this month however, Brent Simpson quoted Illich, introducing very much an ethical consideration around technology. Brent's thread didn't get very far, with very few responses, and perhaps even a fairly serious misunderstanding that drew the potential of the discussion to a close.

For back up and for blog content, here's my recent post to Brent's thread in the Learning Analytics email forum:
Tools for ConvivialityStill thinking about the ethical dimension that Brent tried to introduce via a quote from Illich's Tools for Conviviality.

In short, Illich called for more thoughtfulness on the selection and use of tools.. tools in the broadest sense of the word, including institutions. He wanted us to select and use tools that had in built affordance for maintaining people's self determination, rather than leading us into a dependency with many forms of loss. The quote Brent used, at first seemed to confuse that argument with an interpretation by both myself and George that Illich didn't properly distinguish the difference between information and knowledge, but we were wrong.

That quote again:
"The world does not contain any information. It is as it is. Information about it is created in the organism through its interaction with the world. To speak about storage of information outside the human body is to fall into a semantic trap. Books or computers are part of the world. They can yield information when they are looked upon. We move the problem of learning and of cognition nicely into the blind spot of our intellectual vision if we confuse vehicles for potential information with information itself. We do the same when we confuse data for potential decision with decision itself." Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality Part 4 Recovery: The Demythologization of Science (1974)
Certain tools extract certain types of information, leading us to certain types of limited knowledge. This is a common critique of the scientific method of research.. something like, two scientists in a dark room with an elephant. One has hold of the tail, the other has hold of the trunk. They both agree they are holding a snake. (Does anyone have the source for that analogy?)

Understanding Media: The Extensions of ManI misunderstood the Illich quote, and thought Marshall MacLuhan's famous text, The Medium is the Message was a strong contradiction to what Illich appeared to be saying. But another famous MacLuhan quote reaffirms Illich's true meaning,

"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us" Understanding Media (1964)

Some people in the Learning Analytics email group have asked questions of an ethical dimension, such as Who are analytics for? Who controls them? Who switches them on/off? Aside from Brent's attempt to bring some body to those faint concerns, we really haven't gone far with it. This is a common problem in the educational technology network, and has been for quite some time. The impracticality of media ethics.

Recently, Richard Hall in the UK has been blogging a deeper ethical reflection on technology in education, hitting my radar when he posted Open Education: The Need for a Critique. Some of his work, combined with the historical theorists he refers to, and the few others in the present educational technology network who are asking some challenging and perhaps unanswerable questions, is what I hope might be included in the Learning Analytics forum or conference at some stage.

13 comments:

Joss Winn said...

"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us" Understanding Media (1964)

I haven't yet read much about technological determinism vs. the social construction of technology, but recently started reading Noble's book, Forces of Production, which is very much about this. Also, I see the work of Bijker come up a lot and his book, Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs

Should be useful to you. Noble's work on Digital Diploma Mills will also be of interest to you, I think.

Leigh Blackall said...

Many thanks Joss. Off to the Library with me. Just finished reading your Marxist critique of MIT OCW.. warming up a challenge to it, along the lines that Wikimedia Foundation is bigger and more exploitative than MIT. Bigger than both combined is of course the Intenet - the greatest OER of any, so if we consider the Internet as the platform, the individual is rewarded for their labor based on individual presence, rather than subsumed by the institutional presence like MIT OCW, even WMF...

Leigh Blackall said...

Already started reading Of Bicycles, Bakelites, and Bulbs. Just what the doctor ordered.

Joss Winn said...

Oh, good :-) Ping me @josswinn when you've posted your WMF thoughts. I'm prone to missing stuff via my RSS reader.

By the way, have you seen the recent paper from the University of Utopia, too?

Keith Lyons said...

Leigh

I enjoyed reading this post and did so as one of the 'agnostics'. I apologise that I have not explained my position well enough to you in our conversations.

I do assert that agnosticism is an ethical position that informs personal learning (as distinct from personalised learning). In my case agnosticism is a profound commitment to personal freedom.

I acknowledge the force of your argument and do not seek to impose any tyranny of terminology or practice.

Keith

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Keith, I respect your perspective very much, but struggle with post modern notions of relative truth at times. Ive drawn a long bow in linking platform agnosticism with the debate briefly had at uc recently. You're right, agnosticism is an ethical stance. I guess a key word you use is informs. Because free software, for example, claims to be a profound commitment to freedom, as do projects such as wikimedia foundation, yet the principle of freedom is conspicuously absent from HE discourse, let alone other ethical considerations. How does the position of agnostic belief in something unkowable, relate to something I assume is knowable - freedom? Does the platform agnostic position say that freedom, in terms of software, is unknowable?

Leigh Blackall said...

Change, "agnostic belief of something unknowable" to *agnostic position that something is unknowable*.

Leigh Blackall said...

Keith, I really like your last sentence. Do universities in their provision of software platforms and hardware, impose a practice? I reckon the free software position is a tyranny of terminology no more than the terminology imposed by universities. "Enterprise ready, real cost of ownership, industry standard, and ubiquity or market dominance". The free software movement has a word for such terminology, FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt). The key word you use is inform. Imposed restrictions on practice, whether it be university service provision, or monopolistic market cornering (apple), restricts people ability and willingness to be more informed.

Keith Lyons said...

Leigh

Thanks for your responses. Perhaps it is my naivety but I tend not to be affected by hype. All I see is an opportunity to engage in a function of communication rather than its form. Free tools do this for me and I realise that in using these tools for a function I must be vigilant. I have written about these issues and with your prompting I will continue to do so.

Thanks for a thought-provoking exchange.

Keith

Chris Harvey said...

These discussions always annoy me how the term "free software" isnt used the way I know it. How does the free software movement get lumped in with a debate about gratis software vs commercial software. "Free Software is a matter of freedom not price". The opposite of "free software" is proprietary software.

The word platform is interesting too.

"What we have are things we call platforms? The word platform, like cloud, doesn't inherently mean anything. Thrown around a lot in business talk, but basically what 'platform' means is places you can't leave, stuff your stuck to, things that don't let you off...." - Eben Moglen Highlights of Eben Moglen's Freedom in the Cloud Talk

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks for the links and clarification Chris.

kavita said...

Hi Leigh

Your post was very thoughtful - thank-you. My neighbor and poet recently inspired me to take a more literal approach to the debate and we came up with a short film.

Free Pixels

Kind regards

Kavita

Leigh Blackall said...

Nice film. :) not sure if I should take it literally or not? Enjoyed it though, even if it did leave me feeling like a "platform agnostic" just left the room.