Technology means nothing without humans

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Something odd is happening to the way we use language. It's a truism to say that language is always changing - the welter of neologisms associated with ICT is testimony to that - but I'm thinking here of something more specific.

When I buy online from Amazon, I receive a courtesy email informing me that my order "has dispatched". Not "has been dispatched", or "is being dispatched"; just "has dispatched". At this year's Bett technology show, the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announced that "Teachers' TV will be launching on February 8". Not "will be launched". And we frequently hear constructions such as "the car drove along the wrong side of the street".

I'm not a grammar expert, but such usage applies a transitive verb (involving action) to an inanimate object, hence implying that the action ("dispatching", "launching") can be done by the object to itself. The consequence is to leave the human actor invisible and, by implication, to ascribe agency to objects.

Of course, in the above examples there isn't really any confusion. Everyone knows there's a driver in the car, so it doesn't really matter, except to fussy so-and-sos like me. After all, the purpose of language is to communicate, right?

Of greater concern are the instances of invisible humans - and invisible teachers in particular - in relation to ICT. For instance, a recent advertisement in The TES claimed that if you subscribe your pupils to a web hosting and design service, "it will enhance their learning abilities"; another, that by using an online reference service, "your whole school will benefit". These claims, in their use of the unconditional "will", ascribe the power to make things happen to the technology, rather than to humans.

But of course it is conditional. It could happen, and if it does it will be because teachers - not the technology - have made it happen.

The tendency to grant human powers to technology is part of a phenomenon called "technological determinism", and there's a lot of it about.

Technological determinism, once you get your eye in, is quite easy to spot in the rather obvious hyperbole of advertisements. More worrying is when it seeps into official discourse. For instance: "It (ICT) has the potential to transform the way that education is delivered" (David Blunkett, 2001).

Subsequent education secretaries have used similar language when talking about ICT's "capacity to transform".

When I talk to teachers about ICT, they often refer to it as "a tool", and that is exactly what it is. The point is that tools have users. They don't do things on their own. My alarm clock wakes me up, but not because it has somehow decided to; I have to set the timer.

So, let's re-establish the explicit relationship between tools and their users, and challenge technological determinism. Why? Because language is the fundamental means by which we represent the world. If human agency is invisible in our language practices, what does that tell us about the picture of the world that is being constructed?

Technological determinism in education leaves largely invisible the work that teachers must undertake in order to realise the improvements that technology offers. If education is transformed, it will be because teachers - no doubt making use of particular technologies - have made it happen.

Tony Fisher is ICT co-ordinator and lecturer in education at the University of Nottingham school of education, and chair of the Association for Information Technology in Teacher Education

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