My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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some thoughts on technophilia

The New Media Consortium is hosting a Symposium for the Future October 27-29. I was asked to write a few thoughts that might provoke conversation in preparation for the event. This is a re-posting of my Ideas for Thought. If you are an educator or involved in the world of learning, consider attending the symposium. Regardless, if these topics interest you, consider reading the other idea pieces by Gardner Campbell and Holly Willis.

It is easy to fall in love with technology. It is equally easy to fear it. In a setting like this Symposium, many of us fall in the passionate lovers camp, dreamily accounting for all of the wonderful things we’ve experienced through and because of technology. All too often, our conversations center on the need to get technology into the hands of learners, as though the gaps that we’re seeing can be explained away by issues of access. Push comes to shove, most of us know that there are problems with this model, but in a world filled with dichotomous rhetoric, it’s easy to get into the habit of being the proselytizer in the face of fear-mongering.

I want to push back against our utopian habits because I think that they’re doing us a disservice. Technology does not determine practice. How people embrace technology has less to do with the technology itself than with the social setting in which they are embedded. Those who are immersed in a techno-savvy, technophilic community are far more likely to embrace technology than those whose social world is shaped by other patterns of consumption and communication. People’s practices are also shaped by those around them. There are cluster effects to socio-technical engagement. In other words, people do what their friends do.

Rejecting technological determinism should be a mantra in our professional conversations. It’s really easy to get in the habit of seeing a new shiny piece of technology and just assume that we can dump it into an educational setting and !voila! miracles will happen. Yet, we also know that the field of dreams is merely that, a dream. Dumping laptops into a classroom does no good if a teacher doesn’t know how to leverage the technology for educational purposes. Building virtual worlds serves no educational purpose without curricula that connects a lesson plan with the affordances of the technology. Without educators, technology in the classroom is useless.

There are also no such things as “digital natives.” Just because many of today’s youth are growing up in a society dripping with technology does not mean that they inherently know how to use it. They don’t. Most of you have a better sense of how to get information from Google than the average youth. Most of you know how to navigate privacy settings of a social media tool better than the average teen. Understanding technology requires learning. Sure, there are countless youth engaged in informal learning every day when they go online. But what about all of the youth who lack access? Or who live in a community where learning how to use technology is not valued? Or who tries to engage alone? There’s an ever-increasing participation gap emerging between the haves and the have-nots. What distinguishes the groups is not just a question of access, although that is an issue; it’s also a question of community and education and opportunities for exploration. Youth learn through active participation, but phrases like “digital natives” obscure the considerable learning that occurs to enable some youth to be technologically fluent while others fail to engage.

Along the same lines, keep in mind that the technology that you adore may hold no interest for your students. They don’t use del.icio.us or Second Life or Ning or Twitter as a part of their everyday practices. And the ways that they use Facebook and MySpace and YouTube are quite different than the ways in which you do. We each approach technology based on our own needs and desires and we leverage it to do our bidding. In this way, we actively repurpose technology as a part of engagement such that rarely does one technology fit all. Yet, when we introduce technology in an educational setting, we often mistakenly assume that students will embrace the technology in the same way that we do. This never works out and can cause unexpected strife. Take social network sites as an example. You use this for professional networking; teens use it to socialize with their peers. Putting Facebook or MySpace into the classroom can create a severe cognitive collision as teens try to work out the shift in contexts. Most problematically, when teens are forced to navigate Friending in an educational setting, painful dramas occur because who you’re polite to in school may be very different than who you socialize with at home. Using technology that ruptures social norms in the classroom can be socially and educationally harmful.

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

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10 comments to some thoughts on technophilia

  • edh

    I agree with the concept that technology can be one of many tools used to help young learners understand concepts. But are we not experiencing our own dramas as adult learners too? I know many adults who segregate their social networking so that, say, Twitter is for friends/peer group and Facebook is for everyone else/family/polite professional relationships. Or they divide their friends lists up so that they can interact in different ways with different audiences.

    More than using technology to rupture social norms, I think we should fixate on helping them manipulate social media into powerful personal learning tools. While I have no problem with students using social media in ways of their choosing, I think it’s our obligation to also demonstrate how to twist and bend these tools to their will – to accomplish future and potential learning goals.

    Ultimately, educators need more PD time to experience and play with these tools so they are using them to purposefully disrupt students’ expectations of their boundaries/usefulness, and build skills that are transferable to other social settings.

  • I just wanted to say, this is one excellent piece of writing. And to see that you are originally from the area where I went to college, it gives me a bit of hope that eventually something besides cows, butter, and funky city names can come out of south-central PA.

    I’ll be tuning in and reading your papers 🙂

  • Great ! No digital natives. Our social life embedded in technology (that is true since prehistoric times, cf. Leroy Gourhan) We are social. We can’t be anything else. All what we do is social : war, politic, esthetic, fashion, writing

    Your text reminds me the “object presenting” of D.W. Winnicott. It is always hard to summerize the ideas of Winnicott but he emphasize the fact that the way an object is presenting to a baby determine if it will be able to use it or not

    Aren’t we, as net educators, in the same position ?

  • I agree with you Danah. The kids we teach don’t use Twitter, Ning or Delicious in their everyday lives. And this is where we as the technophiles need to step in to show them how to use social media so that it will be advantageous to them. It’s this kind of understanding that these tools can be used for professional networking and personal growth that needs to be modelled and taught to the kids we teach. So much needs to be done in terms of teacher professional development to ensure that we prepare our students effectively for the workplaces of the future. I know that the kids I teach are learning about using connective tools for learning purposes because I am using them to support our curriculum. But this is not the norm. Leadership in our schools and at State or National level needs to recognise the importance of our profession staying abreast of change to ensure we prepare our kids adequately.

  • I just have to point out that the cautionary tone of this post is at quite a different place on the spectrum of technophilia compared to “I want my cyborg life.” I think that what both posts show is that sometimes we love technology and sometimes we hate it, and that swinging from one feeling to the other is probably pretty healthy.

  • While I agree with the overwhelming majority of points in this post, I struggle with the notion that “rejecting technological determinism” should be the mantra of members of the field of new media. In fact, this post led me to respond with my own, called “why i am a technological determinist.” You guys can read it (and lordy, I hope you do) at http://tinyurl.com/ks4ejm. I’d love to hear what you think!

  • Hollie

    The issue locally that I find is that there seems to be money available to get the technology. However, the infrastructure doesn’t exist (smartboards are only useful when the network doesn’t crash), or the time is missing to truly train the teachers in time for the school year, or the technology exists only for certain teachers. While a science or math teacher may have great ways to use technology, I would love to use it to help my 5th graders write a song. However, I am not considered important enough to get computer lab time- meaning the computer labs are scheduled to the hilt, and I could never find time to take my classes down there to explore the technology available in my field. I’ve been asking for 3 years for a laptop, seeing as I am in 3 different buildings, and am only promised one by December of this year!

    AJWRIGHT- there are more things positive out of southcentral PA- you just have to look harder 🙂

  • josh

    Technology is not a tool. A hammer is a tool. Technology is a social context in which a tool is embedded. Social contexts do indeed influence the behavior of people within them. In that sense, technology does indeed influence practice, just not in a *crudely* determinisitic manner.

    For instance, there is the problem that the technology of digital networked communications can be seen to promote a passivity injurious to community, democracy, action, etc. – when the hope was that by merely “dumping it in” the opposite effect of strengthening institutitions would occur via the expansion of opportunity for communicative rationality. You can see the failure here is not that because technology is “neutral” it did not have the desired effect, but that because technology is not neutral, and because we are unable to predict its effect with certainty for whatever reason, we could not assess that it would have an effect opposite to our expectations.

    I think the prefered scholarly term is “technological fetishism,” not technophilia.

  • I come from Sao Paulo, Brazil. In this part of the country, people are discussing that public schools should have more computers with internet access. Up in the north of the country, and in poorer regions of Sao Paulo too, children go to school so they can have two meals a day. And we know quite well that many schools which do have computers, don’t have money for their maintenance or they are just there for teachers to use. Or computers are is a room for “recreation” and kids can use them for Orkut, as well as for school reseachers, of course. When it comes to education, technology doesn’t solve much when there are gaps in terms of human capital.