📓 Technology is a System

Responding to yet another school shooting, Audrey Watters pushes back on those who argue that guns are not ‘ed-tech’. Instead she argues that what we define as ‘technology’ is the problem. She provides a quote from Ursula Franklin’s 1989 CBC Massey Lectures that captures this thinking:

Technology is not the sum of the artefacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters. Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

Watters explains that this includes many elements within schools and should not be merely reduced to ‘computers’. In a second post, she explains that:

“Hardening schools” is an education technology endeavor, whether or not we take seriously anyone’s suggestions about giving teachers guns. For now, “hardening schools” explicitly calls for hardware like those items listed by Governor Scott: metal detectors and bulletproof windows, as well as surveillance cameras and various sensors that can detect gunfire. It also implies software – social media monitoring and predictive analytics tools, for example, that claim they can identify students “at risk” of violence or political extremism.

Coming at this problem from a different perspective, Genevieve Bell responded to questions of data and ‘neutrality’ in the Q&A associated with her Boyer Lectures. Given the example of the supposed innocence of a train timetable, she explained how Amazon use variables such as timetables to continually adjust the price of goods.

Discussing Game of Thrones, Zeynep Tufekci explains how technology is more than a story about a group of individuals:

That’s a story much bigger than Zuckerberg, Dorsey, Schmidt, Sandberg, Brin who-have-you. It’s also a story of Wall Street and increasing financialization of the world; it’s a story of what people are calling neoliberalism that’s been underway for decades. It is also a technical story: of machine learning and data surveillance, and our current inability deal with the implications of the whole technological stack as it is composed: hardware firmware mostly manufactured in China. Software everywhere that I’ve previously compared to building skyscrapers on swampy land. Our fundamentally insecure designs. Perhaps, more importantly our lack of functioning, sustainable alternatives that respect us, rather than act as extensions of their true owners.source

Inspired by Neil Postman, David Truss argues that technology changes everything.

Technology doesn’t just change our relationship to the tool, it changes the relationship to our environment.

Responding to the The Social Dilemma, Niall Docherty argues that we will never understand the problem until we understand technology as a set of relations.

it is necessary to re-frame social media as something more than a mere “tool”. Rather than simply leave it to former tech industry insiders to spell out the ills of social media in documentaries like The Social Dilemma, we must engage with thinkers from a diverse range of backgrounds to look to the historical conditions of social media’s origins, while always questioning the economics and cultural politics of its global dissemination.  We must personally examine how our own thoughts and actions are subtly shaped by social media’s design, while taking time to listen to marginalized individuals and communities who are impacted the most by the violence produced through social media today. And by seeing technology as a relation, by sharing responsibility in this way, we lift the burden of fixing the problem from the individual user alone, and discard the moralizing discourses such a burden brings.

Yuk Hui suggests that rather than technology is a system that we are in a system which technology is a part of.

The unilateral globalization that has come to an end is being succeeded by the competition of technological acceleration and the allures of war, technological singularity, and transhumanist (pipe) dreams. The Anthropocene is a global axis of time and synchronization that is sustained by this view of technological progress towards the singularity. To reopen the question of technology is to refuse this homogeneous technological future that is presented to us as the only option.

Listened 2017 Boyer Lectures: Fast, Smart and Connected: What is it to be Human, and Australian, in a Digital World by Genevieve Bell from ABC Boyer Lecture

Thirty years ago, Professor Genevieve Bell left Australia to study anthropology in America. That journey took her to the heart of Silicon Valley, where she pioneered futurist research at Intel, looking at how different cultures use technology.

Now she’s returned home with an urgent conversation about the role of technology in building our future, and what it means to be human, and Australian, in a digital world.

Since 1959, the ABC has supported the Boyer Lectures to spark conversation. 2017’s series featured Genevieve Bell discussing our fast, smart and connected world:

01 | Fast, smart and connected: Where it all began

Bell begins by setting the context associated with technology for herself and Australia in general. She discusses her journey to Silicon Valley via a PhD in Anthropology. This serves as the starting point of a conversation about what it means to be human in a digital world:

We are not just passive by-standers in this digital world – we have been active creators of it. So it is time for another conversation, about our possible digital and human futures, and about the world we might want to make together.

She begins the story about technology by going beyond the usual story of Ada Lovelace, Bletchley Park and the human computers. She instead discusses the early computers in Australia – CSIRAC and SILLIAC – and how they compare with today’s technology.

Today’s computing had a million times as much memory for one-ten-millionth the power. Another colleague pointed out, that it would basically take 4 million CSIRACs to replace my current mobile phone, which would require most of the electricity in New South Wales, and most of the landmass too.

Although the processing power of these initial computers may not seem so significant now, they were behind a number of significant projects, including the building of the Sidney Myer Music Bowl These developments moved us from a world associated with what might be possible to what was actually happening, making speed the measurement of success.

02 | Fast, smart and connected: Dealing lightning with both hands

In the second lecture, Bell discusses how we have evolved from a focus on speed to incorporate connections.

Even if you don’t keep your smartphone within arm’s reach, and you don’t use Facebook, or Twitter or Instagram, or Snapchat or Tinder, you live in a world where your friends, your kids, your parents, your bosses, your politicians, your teachers, they all do, and where those services and their underlying ideas are shaping this world and how we live in it.

1978 announced the arrival of the first personal computer, the TRS80, a device that opened the world to a new digital world. Even if you are not a part of this personally, there is no doubt that you know someone who does. Bell discusses the rise of Silicon Valley, Douglas Engelbart’s demo, ARPANET’s initial network and the birth of the internet in 1989, reminding us that to approach the future, we first need to appreciate the past.

03 | Fast, smart and connected: All technology has a history (and a country)

Looking back at the typewriter, Bell explains how the design was about speed and efficiency. Associated with this, the story of Karel Capek’s play, R.U.R., where the term ‘robot’ derives:

In his play, a factory owned by a man named Rossum mass-produces mechanical creatures who resembled humans and who can be set to work. Over the arc of the play, the mechanical creatures become numerous and also increasingly unhappy, demanding the factory owners help give them more capacity — to reproduce, to love, to feel.

Ultimately the creatures are pitted against humans in an epic struggle that humans are bound to lose. Described variously as a satire, and later as science fiction, Capek’s play owes a great deal to both Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the stories of the Golem, and, from this vantage point, I see Blade Runner and the story of the replicants.

Another addition to our world has been electricity. This was not straight forward. It involved negotiation between existing technologies.

There are important questions to ask. What is getting connected? Why? And how? What drives an infrastructure roll out? Efficiencies? A governmental or civic agenda? Cultural aspirations or experiences? Who is doing the connecting, and what is their motive? Will the network evolve and change over time? What are the measures of success and the driving forces? Who are the other voices in the story, and what might be their threads? And ultimately, what is the world that all this connecting will build?

04 | Fast, smart and connected: How to build our digital future

The last lecture begins with a quote:

Each of us, from the day he’s born, begins to deposit information about himself in various public and private files. By the time he emerges from school and the armed forces, the ordinary young adult cannot have escaped becoming the subject of at least a dozen personal information files. Our necessary social interdependence assures an acceleration at the rate at which personal data are accumulated and stored. Until yesterday it’s been manila folders; it becomes increasingly a computer record, which stores and organises an ever-wider range of data about each of us.

This was from Sir Zelman Cowen and his Boyer Lecture in 1969. In this last lecture, Bell unfurls how we got to now. She explains that Cowen’s prediction has clearly come into existence:

That data-centric world seemed benign at first — smartness that helped us. We gave up data about ourselves, and the technology around us got smarter. Devices and services knew us, gave us recommendations about food and books and movies and news, helped us remember passwords, and websites, and made sure we didn’t get lost or stuck in traffic. More recently those devices and services reminded us to walk more, to vote, to leave for the airport. They promised us better dates and hook-ups, better travel times, ticket prices, cheap data plans because we were in the airport, advanced warning for bush-fires in our area, and reminders to take umbrellas or wear sunscreen. They helped label our photos, and curate our memories, and find our friends. And it turns out they have been shaping our conversations, our views, and our attitudes.

Bell explains that one of the aspects that we need to consider is the intent associated with these developments. This takes us back to BF Skinner and the teaching machine:

Skinner viewed people as mechanistic systems, reducible to electrical impulses and operant conditioning. This matters, because the notion of the human that Skinner theorised still pervades AI today. Replace stimuli with data, and you see the same frame. AI is, at one level, just data in, and data out – measurable and mechanistic.

How do we balance between the utopian and dystopian stories being told about technology. So much of this is about the ethics and morality, rather than the actual technology itself. How then do we engage with this? What is the bigger vision? Bell argues that there are four things we can, and should do, in our smart, fast and connected digital world: build new approaches, invest in the (hard) conversations, strive for accountability, and make our own (Australian) future.

the next time you hear that story about killer robots, ask yourself: What is the history of this technology? Where did it come from? What are its vested interests? And who are its beneficiaries? And what logics about the world is it normalising? And most importantly, what is the broader context into which it fits?

This is a helpful resource in appreciating the current digital context. As we add Digital Technologies to the curriculum, Bell addresses some of the reasons why. In addition to this, she provides a wealth of resources to take further.