The equation for change

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

It’s a well-worn saying that Americans in particular know only too well.

And of course it’s technically correct. I don’t fear a gun on the table, but I do fear someone might pick it up and pull the trigger. That’s why I don’t want a gun on the table.

It’s a subtle yet powerful distinction that occurred to me as I absorbed the core reading for Week 1 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course; namely Daniel Chandler’s Technological or Media Determinism.

Stone relief of a group of conquistadors.

Technological determinism is a philosophy that has implications for e-learning professionals as we grapple with technologies such as smartphones, tablets, ebooks, gamification, QR codes, augmented reality, the cloud, telepresence, ADDIE, SAM, and of course, MOOCs.

Chandler explains that “hard” technological determinism holds technology as the driver of change in society. Certain consequences are seen as “inevitable” or at least “highly probable” when a technology is unleashed on the masses. It’s how a lot of people view Apple products for example, and it’s extremist.

Like most extremism, however, it’s an absurd construct. Any given technology – whether it be a tool, a gadget or a methodology – is merely a thing. It can not do anything until people use it. Otherwise it’s just a box of wires or a figment of someone’s imagination.

Taking this rationale a step further, people won’t use a particular technology unless a socio-historical force is driving their behaviour to do so. History is littered with inventions that failed to take off because no one had any need for them.

Consider the fall of Aztec empire in the 16th Century. Sailing ships, armour, cannons, swords, horse bridles etc didn’t cause the conquistadors to catastrophically impact an ancient society. In the socio-historical context of the times, their demand for gold and glory drove them to exploit the technologies that were available to them. In other words, technology enabled the outcome.

At the other end of the spectrum, technological denial is just as absurd. The view that technology does not drive social change is plainly wrong, as we can demonstrate by flipping the Aztec scenario: if sailing ships, armour etc were not available to the conquistadors, the outcome would have been very different. They wouldn’t have been able to get to the new world, let alone destroy it.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between. Technology is a driver of change in society, but not always, and never by itself. In other words, technology can change society when combined with social demand. It is only one component of the equation for change:

Technology + Demand = Change

In terms of e-learning, this “softer” view of technological determinism is a timely theoretical lens through which to see the MOOC phenomenon. Video, the Internet and Web 2.0 didn’t conspire to spellbind people into undertaking massive open online courses. In the socio-historical context of our time, the demand that providers have for altruism? corporate citizenship? branding? profit? (not yet) drives them to leverage these technologies in the form of MOOCs. Concurrently, a thirst for knowledge, the need for quality content, and the yearning for collaboration drives millions of students worldwide to sign up.

MOOCs won’t revolutionise education; after all, they are just strings of code sitting on a server somewhere. But millions of people using MOOCs to learn? That will shake the tree.

So the practical message I draw from the theory of technological determinism is that to change your society – be it a classroom, an organisation, or even a country – there’s no point implementing a technology just for the sake of it. You first need to know your audience and understand the demands they have that drive their behaviour. Only then will you know which technology to deploy, if any at all.

As far as gun control in the US is concerned, that’s a matter for the Americans. I only hope they learn from their ineffective war on drugs: enforcement is vital, but it’s only half the equation. The other half is demand.

8 thoughts on “The equation for change

  1. Hi Ryan,

    My thinking on this is that we have to be broader than dualism. So whether technology is a driver of change, or change drives useful technological uptake, those two concepts are still only part of the equation.

    In your Azetc example, disease was probably far more powerful than gun, ships, bridles, gold and the quest for power, as it was in every country colonized by Europeans at that time.

    My feelings on determinism is that it is a useful concept for recognizing a particular binary kind of cause and effect approach to looking at issues, but personally, I prefer to think of exploring things in a more transdisciplinary way,where we can come at something from many angles and hopefully discover new insights and a new understanding of “whole”. It is the only way I think we can manage great complexity in my view. ( if you are interested, actually it is not a great article but you can get the general drift)

    I loved your post, I’m not up for writing another one myself for week 1 so I am going to be lazy and put your link and some others in my blog. So please don’t delete anything, I’m counting on everyone for a kind of collective memory!

    Angela (from Bowral by the way)

  2. Thanks for your kind words, Angela, and for your insightful comment.

    Link away! I never delete my posts.

    I love Bowral. What a beautiful part of the world. And the Biota restaurant is world class.

  3. Hi Ryan,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. As a former U.S. public school teacher, I can tell you that you are absolutely right in your observations in terms of your formula tech + demand = change. (don’t remember if this in the readings or if you came up with this; kudos if you did!) Here is the problem, like gun control, war on drugs, health care reform, educational reform and all the other problems we have, the policy makers know their audience and know their demands, yet the people keep electing them so we live in this downward spiral where the quality of life continues to decline. We are so distracted and complacent there’s no need for change. Some of us enjoy being lied to since it means we don’t have to do anything to change, so we passively accept our circumstances. Questioning our circumstances takes courage. The technology is there for our taking to educate ourselves about all of these issues, to protest and demand change but the socio-economic need for change to radically occur has not yet been lit in our bellies. It’s happening, but slowly. In regards to your mention of gun control, if you recall the school shootings this past November, plus all the thousands of other shootings that occur all the time, how long before the people just forget and accept this as a way of life? We come up with these extreme solutions all the time for these intractable issues, and like you said, we do not consider all the gray areas.

    In education, we have cutting ed technology that languishes in the storage rooms of many urban schools because there is no need to educate these children. A socio-economic change in these communities is dangerous in the eyes of the powers that be. So, instead of the school leaders taking control and demanding better conditions, they end up enforcing policies that sabotage a human being’s intellectual growth failing to see they are at the bottom too and are complicit in carrying out orders from the top that do nothing to create thriving communities. Since these urban schools expect children to fail in life, they are statistics even before they are born, what good is it to use the tech or quality teachers, for that matter, to improve their learning if everyone expects these kids are incapable of critical thinking and content creation, or they are just savages waiting to destroy or steal the tech in their neighborhoods.

    As you point out, the Aztec’s driving force, or any driving force throughout history has been God, Gold or Glory. As an American, I have many theories on how and why we are losing our driving force. I guess I should write a post about this myself. Thanks for making me think! :)

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