Impact of technology on practice

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We all tend to celebrate technology and the way it seems to simplify tasks. Over the years we have seen how technology has come in to replace human beings in certain types of tasks. For example technology aids humans in tasks that humans could not possibly do on their own for various physical limitations like traveling large distances in very short times (moving very fast, flying, etc. or manipulating objects  where the object is very big or very small, very heavy, very hot, very cold, etc. In these situations, technology helps us do things we probably couldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

In the same way, technology has also aided thoughts. Technology is used extensively for thinking, mathematical thinking and computations using calculators and spreadsheets, verbal thinking with word processors, concept mapping and mind mapping tools, etc. And more recently spatial thinking, but I can’t readily come up examples of these right now.

Considering the human being as an agent, and consciousness as the way a human being makes sense of the world, it is clear and hard to dispute that technology improves our capacity to ACT but the question I want to ask is, does technology increase or reduce our capacity to think?

Thoughts represent continuous streams of events that do not readily render themselves into descrete parts. Technology on the hand represents inherently discrete events that try to render themselves as continuous. Thus, when technology and thought are placed within the same activity, one has to wonder what the consequences would be?

Activity theory provides a useful framework for looking at this. I would not go into details about Activity theory here. Coming from Leontev’s views, activity comes from motive, action come from intention and operations from conditions.

In the standard core activity theory triangle with subject, object and tools, these labels merely describe the role played by different objects within the activity system. There is no indication that these roles are fixed, indeed an object could very easily become a tool or a tool become the object which might require that a new activity system be defined (probably a sub-system).

The transformation or dynamism of activity systems as a result of changing motives and intentions provides the first response to my question. When new technology is introduced into an existing activity system, operations breakdown because the conditions have changed. The technology, which was supposed to be a tool, suddenly becomes the object. Thus the activity system has changed.

Does it ever return to the same activity system but only with a different tool? well, if we assume the tool was designed to aid that specific activity, then after a while the use of the tool within that activity is learned and maybe even operationalized and thus one might say same activity different tools.

But this is where data comes in. I love to write with word processors. Easy to make corrections, easy to read (cos i have a very bad hand writing), easy to save and come back to, etc. however there are times when I can not use a word processor and I realised what these times were. I can’t use a word processor when my thoughts are not clear and focused, when i am grappling for structure, at times like this i need to use pencil/pen and paper. Why? The answer comes when i think about how i use the pencil/paper.

The main difference between pencil and paper is that it is convenient and I can write, draw, doodle, etc which are essential activities in structuring my thoughts but which i can’t do on a PC or laptop (at least not in the same way).

Which brings me to the second response to my question. If i like to doodle and draw when i think, and i can’t do these on a computer, but i love the advantages of using the computer as stated above and thus stick to using the computer even when i am thinking, wouldn’t that have some effect on my thinking? especially since thinking is linked to consciousness and consciousness is a whole body experience?

Another example comes here. in order for technology to exist in its current form, compromises have to be made, straightlines have to be broken up into dots, circles in to steps. In the media world, there is an age old argument that analog is better than digital or that digital is better than analog. Where analog refers to the analog recordings like vinyl and digital refers to binary coded versions of analog signals.  This break down exists at the data level (binary codes) at the process level as well. What i mean is processes within the activity system for which that technology was designed have to broken down and chunked rendering some into ‘operations’ type packaging, inaccessible to the user. One sees this even more in the new generation of consumer and Prosumer technologies.

What happens therefore is “ways of doing things” are embedded in the design of these technologies to the extent that using them is not just providing a tool, but indoctrinating you into a “way of doing things” determined by the technology designer.

Now, is this a bad a thing? well i think it depends. It depends on a few things in my opinion

  1. How well researched the technology is with respect to the “ways of doing things” that serve as the foundation of its design
  2. How much the automated features can be manually overridden
  3. How the users of the technology are positioned towards it

The third point is the most important for I have noticed that people often forget that these modern technologies were designed and developed by human beings. The modern interfaces and interface elements are so humanized that it is so much easier to relate to the technology as a ‘being’ rather than a product. This positioning of the person in relation to the technology determines how the technology will affect the person’s thinking.

In a similar way, sometimes we assume the technology represents the “gurus” of the field or discipline and how they do things. We believe that if it exists, then it must be what the ‘experts’ use or something in that light. And thus we position ourselves as subordinates to the technologies because we ascribe to the technology the status of the “expert” designer. This also determines how the technology affects our thinking.

In both of the above, we are not likely to question the technology’s process much, rather we just focus on learning to use it and to use it well. We will not speak of its constraints and limitations because we might not even be aware of these. We are more likely to assume any difficulties or inadequacies are as a result of our lack of knowledge or skills rather than the technology’s limitations or constraints. We learn to adapt to the design flaws, so to speak.

Now, i will contrast this with what could happen if someone saw the technology as what it is, technology and positioned it as a social object mediating communication between different actors in the activity system of which that technology is part. Actors feature in the activity triangle in subject, community and division of labor. Actors include Consumers, Professionals, researchers/designers, Marketing and advertising, and more.

With this positioning, it immediately becomes likely that one would want to talk about the “experience” of using the technology. Talk about difficulties with the hope of finding out if its our lack of skill or a design problem. One thing i know about positioning in this way is we tend to see the technology for what it is and thus are able to adapt to future versions MUCH FASTER simply because we know how it is ‘supposed’ to work.

In a previous article i described basic, applied, business and consumer thinking where consumer refers to users (consumer and professionals) and the above is the type of consumer thinking i was talking about.

Whenever technology is a part of our activity, we should always ask ourselves, how am i positioning myself in relation to this technology because that will ultimately determine how your mind (thoughts) will work around and with that technology.

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