Technological Momentum and Education

“There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.”  — Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage

Conversations about technology and education, in my experience, eventually invoke certain vague notions of inevitability. There is often talk about getting on the train before it leaves the station and all of that.  Perhaps it is the case that notions of inevitability will surface in most discussions about technology whether or not education is involved — the specter of technological determinism casts a long shadow. I am not a technological determinist. Nevertheless, I do believe technology influences us in significant ways. How do we describe this condition of being influenced, but not determined?

The concept of technological momentum employed by historian Thomas Hughes provides a helpful way of thinking about this question.  In Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, David Nye explains Hughes concept and offers some examples.

Hughes argues that technical systems are not infinitely malleable.  If technologies such as the bicycle or the automobile are not independent forces shaping history, they can still exercise a “soft determinism” once they are in place …

“Technological momentum” is not inherent in any technological system when first deployed. It arises as a consequence of early development and successful entrepreneurship, and it emerges at the culmination of a period of growth. The bicycle had such momentum in Denmark and the Netherlands from 1920 until the 1960s, with the result that a system of paved trails and cycling lanes were embedded in the infrastructure before the automobile achieved momentum. In the United States, the automobile became the center of a socio-technical system more quickly and achieved momentum a generation earlier. Only some systems achieve “technological momentum” …. The concept seems particularly useful for understanding large systems. These have some flexibility when being defined in their initial phases. But as technical specifications are established and widely adopted, and as a system comes to employ a bureaucracy and thousands of workers, it becomes less responsive to outside pressures …

Hughes makes clear when discussing “inertia” that the concept is not only technical but also cultural and institutional. A society may choose to adopt either direct current or alternating current, or to use 110 volts, or 220 volts, or some other voltage, but a generation after these choices have been made it is costly and difficult to undo such a decision. Hundreds of appliance makers, thousands of electricians, and millions of homeowners have made a financial commitment to these technical standards. Furthermore, people become accustomed to particular standards and soon begin to regard them as natural. Once built, an electrical grid is “less shaped by and more the shaper of its environment.” This may sound deterministic, but it is not entirely so, for people decided to build the grid and selected its specifications and components. To later generations, however, such technical systems seem to be deterministic.

Coming back to the more specific topic of technology in education in light of Nye’s observations, I want to suggest that teachers and administrators think carefully about the implementation of technology, particularly in its early stages.  There is no inevitability.  We have choices to make.  Those choices may lead to the adoption of certain technologies and corresponding practices, and later the institutionalization of those technologies and practices may eventually make it very hard to discard them.  This kind of inertia is what retrospectively makes the adoption and implementation of certain technologies appear inevitable.  But at the outset, there were choices to be made.

It is probably the case that in some circumstances the choice is not really a choice at all.  For example, in certain industries one may either have to constantly adopt and adapt or else lose business and fail.  Exercise of choice may also lead to marginalization — witness the Amish.  Choices come with consequences and costs.  I grant that those costs may sometimes amount to coercive pressure.

Perhaps education is one of these industries (calling it such is already to prejudice the matter) in which this sort of coercive pressure exists.  One hopes, however, that better aims and ideals are steering the ship. Teachers and administrators need to be clear about their philosophy of education, and they need to allow their vision for education to drive their choices about the adoption and implementation of new technology. If they are not self-conscious and intentional in this respect, and if they view technology merely as a neutral set of tools at their disposal, they will be disappointed and frustrated.

As media theorists have noted, the ecological metaphor can be a helpful way of thinking about and understanding our technologies. Once a new element is introduced into an ecosystem, we don’t get the same ecosystem plus a new element; we get a new ecosystem. The consequences may be benign, or they could be destructive. Think of the classroom as an ecosystem; the introduction of new technologies reconstitutes the classroom’s media ecosystem. Consequently, the adoption and implementation of new classroom technologies should be guided by clear thinking about how new technologies alter the learning environment and a sober estimation of their compatibility with a school’s philosophy of education.


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