Technology Changes Everything

I am reading Norm Friesen's E-Learning Myth #2: Technology Drives Educational Change. I still want to tease out exactly what the myth is, but I want first to present an argument I made last year in Regina.

Technology changes everything:

I believe nothing more needs to be said to establish this point.


  1. Stephen,

    Your pictures illustrate well the problem or myth that I'm trying to address: technology is a force that acts (basically independently) to "change everything" but it doesn't.

    Each of your pictures actually reveals something much more complicated:

    PRINTING: Moveable type printing was invented over 500 years before Gutenberg in China. But it didn't change everything. It took the renaissance, burgeoning capitalism, and a multitude of other factors for this to happen. Technology does not automatically change everything.

    GUNS: Guns and gunpowder were brought to Japan in the 16th century, and were widely copied and used during a period of significant warfare. But during the stability fo the shogunate, they were deemed unnecessary, and contrary to the honour of the samuri. For more than 200 years, this technology did not change anything in Japan.

    ATOMIC TECHNOLOGY: A similar refusal of atomic power occurred after 3 Mile Island and Chernobyl. No new atomic plants have been built in the west since. We all have to hope that something similar can happen to prevent "technology from changing everything" in the case of nuclear weapons. But Dick Cheney seems to have a different theory...

    KID & PALM: Remeber the Newton? Did it change everything?

  2. Some may feel that McLuhan is too deterministic in his work, but his laws of media ring true in many instances.

    Here's a snip from a comment on one of my posts about these laws, "The balancing act between electric orality and literacy of the printed word will be a profound challenge as we become more intensely immersed in the body electric surround."

    Technology does change everything, but not as many of us would expect.

  3. The sentence "All technologies change all things" is obvously false. Computers did not change Gengis Kahn. Ergo...

    So, nobody would claim such a thing. When I stated 'technology changes everything' I obviously did not mean this. At least, I hoped it was obvious. Then, on reflection, I realized it might not me. Hence I qualified my remark: "technology, taken as a whole, changes everything else, taken as a whole."

    You say this is weaker. No doubt. Anything would be weaker than the previous interpretation. But being weaker (as opposed to implying obviously false statements) is not necessarily bad.

    You also say it is vaguer. I disagree. But I can draw it out:

    When I say 'technology changes everything' I mean that there are some technologies that change forever the way we see the world - they have such an impact, they change our world view. The examples I gave - the printing press, the gun, the bomb, the palm - are examples of this.

    You respond by objecting that some of these technologies didn't change things right away, and didn't change things by themselves (for example, "Moveable type printing was invented over 500 years before Gutenberg in China. But it didn't change everything. It took the renaissance, burgeoning capitalism, and a multitude of other factors for this to happen"). But this isn't my claim.

    I put it to you this way: the bomb changed everything.

    Not: the bomb necessarily changed everything.

    Not: the bomb automatically changed everything.

    Not: the bomb changed things by itself.

    What I am saying is that we can identify two ways of seeing the world, one before the bomb, and one after.

    This, I think, is the point where we have our disagreement. You seem (it seems to me) to say that despite technology, the same old world goes on more or less the same. I say, when some technologies come along, it's no longer the same world. You can't say 'some non-tech feature X' remains constant, continues to have an impact, etc., because the non-tech feature X itself has changed.

  4. The problem may very well be one of context, and what you're not saying:
    1)You combine the short unqualified statement "Technology changes everything" with a sequence of photos (printing press, gun, a-bomb, kid & computing device).
    2) You go on to provide further illustrations.
    3) You do all of this for people supporting computers in schools.

    We live in a world saturated with advertising, and know about the combined power of pictures and words --and the importance of recognizing (and often resisting) the manipulation involved.

    On its own, the combination of words, pictures and context goes well beyond what you actually admit to be claiming: "technology, taken as a whole, changes everything else, taken as a whole –but "not automatically, necessarily or on its own." But that's not what I saw on your slides.

    Nor do you provide counter-examples from history generally or ed tech in particular –examples showing technology's "impact" is not necessary, automatic, or independently realized. [My qualifications re: the history of firearms, printing, LMS's etc. represent such counter-examples. They are intended to illustrate how technology does not act alone or inevitably --not arguments that "the same old world goes on more or less the same".]

    Instead, your presentation goes describe only how technology (on its own?) shapes things: generations, educational practice, institutions.

    All of this is important because people supporting education in schools frequently formulate predictions, plans, research models, etc. as if technological change is automatic, necessary and independent. And some of these people end up in difficulties as a result. My original "myth" piece provided examples of this.

    Finally, you also do not have presentation slides to show other aspects and dynamics of the relationship between technology and society. The most important thing about these dynamics is that they show the relationship between society and technology to be complex, multi-causal and to have mutual impacts. Simple assertions re: "technology changing everything" and "technological" impacts falsify this complexity. (falsify is used here in the sense that it's used in discussions of ideology, not logic).

    Technology does not emerge from some place outside of society and impact it like a meteorite. We should stop talking as if it does. It emerges and becomes a part of a society (is constructed and negotiated) through processes that are themselves social, many of which involve conflicting social interests and groups.

    At least a little bit of this complexity should be reflected (rather than hidden) in the way we talk about technology in education.

  5. Stephen,

    Let me distill my last response to a couple of points:

    1) Here's what you say to begin and frame your presentation or argument that we've been discussing: "technology changes everything". Your presentation depends on, reinforces and builds on the self-evidence of this basic claim ("nothing more needs to be said to establish this point").

    2) But here's what you're actually thinking: "technology, taken as a whole, changes everything else, taken as a whole" –but "not automatically, necessarily or on its own."

    3) Why the difference? Why not let your audience in on the ambivalence of your own thoughts?


  6. In the sort of half-framed response in my mind, I want to say something like: what I see mostly, and especially from educators, is the proposition that the technology doesn't change everything, that pedagogy and learning should drive education, etc., etc. Indeed, I hardly ever see the opposite - I hardly ever see the sort of technological determinism you are talking about.

    So my point with the photos is to respond, forcefully, to that. To convince educators that technology does intrude on their domain, and they can't do anything about it. That if someone prints up copies of the Bible, shoots up your classroom, blows up your city or introduces computers to children, you can't do much about it, and it won't be pedagogical considerations that carry the day. That learning, education, and pedagogy change when these things happen, and you can't do anything about it.

    There isn't an ambivalence in my thinking here - I was merely trying to forstall a straw man arguement before it got off the ground, the idea that showing that some technology did not cause change in some thing disproves what I'm saying. Because it doesn't. Drop an atomic bomb on Denver, and Denver teachers cannot look up and say, "But they closed down Three Mile Island!" Because it's irrelevant.

    This is what I want to say, more politely than this, which is what's causing the delay.

    I'm not trying to shield my audience from the ambivalence in my thoughts.

    I'm trying to shield my audience from my frustration, my irritation, and in some cases, my outright anger.

    Because - in my mind - saying that 'pedagogical concerns must be paramount' is a pretty damn stupid reason for denying education (or even food, for that matter - see my other ite, just posted) to children. But that's what a lot of this discussion amounts to.

    I don't want to be angry and irritable, especially with you, because you are fundamentally on the right side. But the myths play right into the arguments that deny learning to children.

    Anyhow, to me, your disagreement amounts to saying, "nuclear weapons did not change everything - they did not change how we look at the world, and they did not change education." And I just don't understand why you hold this, what the point of such an objection would be.

  7. Stephen,

    I'm not sure what to make of your last response.

    I actually think we agree on what we're debating: that questions of technological change are complicated yet important.

    I have explained my position 3 or 4 different ways, and it definitely does not add up your characterizations ("nuclear weapons do not change education"). I don't know how else to explain it. But it is also articulated in the sources I reference in my original piece on technological determinism and e-learning.

    I also have no idea why you would say that: "But the myths play right into the arguments that deny learning to children." This seems a harsh and unfair judgement.

    If it is part of an argument, there are a few steps missing in your argumentation, as far as I can tell.

    But here is what I would initially say (assuming I understand what you're getting at): The world of e-learning discussions tends to be polarized. I want emphasize things are more complex than a manichean "good versus evil." I don't accept the argument of "your for us or your against us." There's already enough of that going around.


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