Technological Determinism: A Critique Based On Several Readings in Adult Education

In this paper I will examine how the different readings in Unit 4: Technology and Adult Education support, question or refute the idea of technological determinism. I will also examine in the readings the different nuanced ways in which the idea of technological determinism can be interpreted in the context of adult education.

Definition Of and Support For Technological Determinism

Technological determinism is, quite simply, the idea that technology shapes and alters basic things about behavior and society like the way we think and act, the way we conduct our interpersonal relationships, our values, and the way we learn. “Technology” includes such things as basic tools, codes and structures for interpersonal behaviors and social institutions, and modern computer and Internet technologies. In essence, it “includes the whole of our material culture” (Chandler, 2000).
Neil Postman is a prominent technological determinist, urging much caution in the adoption of new technologies, and arguing that we make a “Faustian bargain” (Neil Postman, 1995) with every new technology we introduce and use in our society. Essentially, though we may be gaining something (some new ability or convenience), we are inevitably giving something up too (often in the form of healthy relationships or cognitive abilities). He suggests we ask the following questions when adopting any new technology:

  1. What is the benefit of the technology?
  2. Whom does it benefit?
  3. What are we giving up in order to gain this new benefit?

It is important to note that usually, technological determinists do not judge the value of technology itself, but rather its effects on society. Technology to the technological determinist is a “two-sided phenomenon”:

…on the one hand there is the operator, on the other the object. Where both operator and object are human beings, technical action is an exercise of power. Where, further, society is organized around technology, technological power is the principle form of power in the society. Because that power is essentially impersonal, governed by technically rational procedures rather than whims or even interests in the usual sense of the term, it appears to lie beyond good and evil. This is its dystopian aspect (Feenberg, 2000).

Criticism and Alternative Views
Criticisms of the technological determinist viewpoint range from those who take the view that technology is fundamentally good for society (sometimes called “evangelists”) to those who take a middle ground, arguing that technological determinism is an oversimplification of sociological phenomena that can be attributable to many things. It is in examining this range of viewpoints that the adult educator can arrive at the stance making the most sense in his or her situation, either by confirming or by changing previously held viewpoints. (I’ll examine the intersection between technical determinist thought and adult education more fully in the next section of this paper.)
Andrew Feenberg (2000) takes a near-evangelist stance in his view of the power of the Internet in society: “The real revolution occurred when the Internet became a medium for personal communication.” However, Feenberg also acknowledges the often dystopian aspect of technology, so his admiration for Internet technology in particular is something to take note of. Essentially he suggests that Internet communications are democratized, and points out that people are not just consumers of information (or entertainment) on the Internet, but also producers. When approaching the Internet, people should “cease the rearguard resistance to technology and, embracing it once and for all, give its further development a benign direction.” Let’s hope that the impending new Net Neutrality rules help the Internet retain the principles of democracy that Feenberg so admires about it (Kang, 2010).
Chandler (2000) offers another criticism of technological determinism, which rests on the idea that determinism necessarily puts technology in a position of absolute power over society, and that this belief can lead people to feel helpless to change any perceived direction in which technology is driving society. Technological determinism thus becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Chandler also argues that there are plenty of other issues besides just technology that drive a society’s direction, including “political control, class interests, economic pressures, geographical access, educational background and general attitudes.”  He argues that technological determinists are taking a “reductionist” approach in trying to isolate cause and effect, when, in fact, reductionism is never a good approach in examining social phenomena. Rather, only holistic approaches that take into account all possible factors can explain these phenomena.

Interpretation in the Adult Education Context

It is impossible to discuss adult education completely without a discussion of technology’s integration with and impact on the field. Thinking about technological determinism in the adult education context means considering whether what we learn and the way we learn it are inevitably shaped by technology. The answer, for better or for worse, is that technology (in particular computer and Internet technology) is deeply rooted in today’s adult education. The challenge, then, for adult educators is to try to shape the societal impact of technology by helping to manipulate the methods and the goals of technology in educational programs (Thompson, 2010).
The most important idea we encountered and discussed in the Unit 4 readings was that of the digital divide. The digital divide refers to the inequities in access to education brought on by either financial disadvantage (can’t afford access to new technologies), cognitive shortfalls (little or no ability to work with new technologies), or other cultural or social barriers such as race (Norris & Conciecau, 2004). Selwyn (2002) points out that the digital divide refers to the threat of ICT “exacerbating existing educational inequalities in the age of ‘e-learning’.” Tait (1999) emphasizes that “the increasing emphasis through converging systems of the home as a place of study serves to exclude the homeless and the overcrowded, both of which categories have increased. (p. 146)” The Minerva project described by Miller (2001) provided computers and Internet access to learners in poverty-stricken communities but emphasized another aspect of the digital divide, that of technology’s delicate interplay with interpersonal relations and the misunderstandings that can result when the two don’t work well together. “[Adult educators] … need to recognize that technologies are neither neutral nor separate from the social structures within which they are designed and used” (p. 203).
Finally, it should be noted that a common criticism aimed at computer technology in adult education has been its historical application in the delivery of rote content on the screen, prompting the learner to interact only with on-screen textual or graphical prompts with no interaction with a teacher or other learners. This criticism is to a large degree unfounded today given online education’s use of more advanced communications technologies, allowing for real feedback from other humans and enabling the essential social aspect of adult learning. “Networked learning can be based on the computer’s relational rather than its representational capacities” (Hamilton & Feenberg, 2005).

Conclusion

Technological determinism in its strictest interpretation is an extreme theory which does not offer much to those attempting to understand complex sociological forces, nor especially to the adult educator. However, understanding technological determinism’s many degrees of interpretation, and its criticisms, is important for the adult educator trying to make meaning of today’s complex array of issues that can affect adult learning situations.

References

Chandler, D. (2000). Technological or Media Determinism. Aberystwyth University. Retrieved December 1, 2010, from http://www.aber.ac.uk/media/Documents/tecdet/tecdet.html
Feenberg, A. (2000). Looking Backward, Looking Forward: Reflections on the 20th Century. Presented at the The 20th Century—Dreams and Realities, Hitotsubashi University. Retrieved from http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/feenberg/hit1ck.htm
Hamilton, E., & Feenberg, A. (2005). The Technical Codes of Online Education. Techn�: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 9(1). Retrieved from http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v9n1/hamilton.html
Kang, C. (2010, December 7). FCC net neutrality plan gets picked apart from all sides. The Washington Post. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://voices.washingtonpost.com/posttech/2010/12/a_net_neutrality_regulation_pr.html
Miller, N. (2001). The Politics of Access and Communication. In R. M. Cervero & A. L. Wilson (Eds.), Power in Practice: Adult Education and the Struggle for Knowledge and Power in Society (pp. 187-205). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Neil Postman on Cyberspace. (1995). Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=49rcVQ1vFAY&feature=youtube_gdata_player
Norris, D. T., & Conciecau, S. (2004). Narrowing the Digital Divide in Low-Income, Urban Communities. In L. G. Martin & E. E. Rogers (Eds.), Adult Education in an Urban Context (Vol. 101, pp. 69-81). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Selwyn, N. (2002). Rethinking the Digital Divide in Adult Education. Adults Learning, 13(10), 24-26.
Tait, A. (1999). The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education. In A. Tait & R. Mills (Eds.), The Convergence of Distance and Conventional Education: Patterns of Flexibility of the Individual Learner (pp. 141-149). New York: Routledge.
Thompson, M. (2010, in publication). Adult Education in a Technological Society.