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Disruptive technologies and the social shaping of our futures

January 6th, 2011 by Graham Attwell

There is an interesting debate taking place on Steve Wheeler’s blog about disruptive technologies. Steve says:

Disruptive technologies are those that change the market and in most cases replace an existing technology. They are characterised by their capability to do so over a relatively short period of time. Some are known as ‘killer applications’ because they completely wipe out the opposition due to their placement in the market, their greater appeal, availability and lower price, to name just a few of the key factors.

Welcome though the debate is I think it is overly simplistic and veers towards technological determinism. Technology progress is seen as an inevitable and to take on a life of its own in terms of social impact. In counter to this there is a long tradition or research and thinking, especially in The Nordic countries and in Germany which sees technology as being ‘socially shaped;. Researchers such as Engestrom, through activity theory, have seen technology as a mediating factor within a human activity system. German researchers have referred to the idea of ‘Gestaltung;, a difficult word to translate, but variously used to refer to ‘social shaping’ or ‘design’. Technology is designed by humans and has social impact. In the area of vocational education, researchers form the University of Bremen have pointed to the interaction between ‘competence is use’ (Beruf – another almost impossible term to translate) and work organisation in shaping the use of technology. This is an excerpt from a paper called “The social shaping of work and technology as a guiding principle for vocational education and training” which totherw ith Gerld Heidegger I wrote around 200) and was subsequently, published by CEDEFOP, I think.

Social shaping and the perspective of an open future

An important counter-argument against the shaping approach challenges the supposition of the possibility of influencing production technology as well as the concomitant work organisation.

Very often, and currently again with increasing intensity, technical change, or technical innovations, are thought to be determined solely by the progress of knowledge within the technological and natural sciences. Such a technological determinism would signify that only the most effective path existed for the development of production technology, for technical progress, and it would also determine the path to be taken to the future of work. Such a view is one-sided, as has been shown from historical studies (Kuby, 1980; Hellige, 1984; Noble, 1984). If one looks at technical development, one sees there were situations with forks in the road in the past where development could have taken different directions. The development of technology is also a social process (Bijker et al., 1990). In other words, technology is influenced by social conditions, both in its application and in its inner principles. As far as applications are concerned, this topic was discussed some time ago (Cooley, 1980). It seems apparent that the economic conditions of capitalism have influenced the specific way of applying technology in the production process. And this is, of course, still the case. But relating only to this would mean maintaining an economic determinism. There are, however, other societal influences that have tended to be consistently overlooked in recent discussions. According to the view of the authors cited above, that which can be considered to be a ‘successful’ technical solution – there is no ‘right’ one, though there are a lot of wrong ones – depends on cultural parameters; that means, it is also influenced by the form of human social life.

Hellige (1984) in particular introduced the concept of ‘horizons of technological problem solving’ which vary during historical development. This means that the engineers themselves take into consideration only the restricted set of criteria which lies inside their horizon of thinking. This horizon, however, varies according to ‘industrial culture’ (Ruth & Rauner, 1991). If the shaping of technology aims at really new solutions it is necessary to overcome these boundaries. Here non-experts can show considerable imagination because they are less influenced by the ‘normal’ thinking of the community of engineers. Therefore, devising new technical ‘outlooks’ might well be possible in secondary education. At the very least, future skilled workers should be able to discuss certain aspects of technology with the engineers. The same should be true for the participation of persons as non-experts in general discussions regarding technological policies.
Speaking within the scope of a more theoretical orientation, the development of technology not only owes a debt to a ‘material’ logic, ‘techno-logic’, but at the same time to the opposite element of social ‘development logic’, with this the former forms a ‘dialectical unit’. One cannot refer to social ‘development logic’ until one also assumes an ‘inner logic’ of development for social conditions. But, on the other hand, in the social field the unforeseen is a daily experience.

According to Luhmann (1984), this can be attributed to a basic condition of human communication, ‘double contingency’. In the case of communication between two people, this means that ‘each of them knows that each of them knows that one can also act differently’.
Technology in its interaction with chance results in a partially predetermined, partially unforeseeable progress that can be termed technical change. Accordingly, the interaction of social development logic with ‘contingency’ leads to social change. The latter takes place on a less spectacular, though no less profound scale than the former, especially since it is a question of interpretation whether one attaches greater weight to the persistent or to the changing aspects. This becomes plain particularly for the goal of social shaping of work and technology. Rauner & Martin (1988) interpreted socially shaped technology as a unity of the elements of that which is technically feasible and that which is socially desirable, as a regulative principle at any rate. That which will be feasible is, even in the case of technology, not that much a question of forecasts; because there, too, is great uncertainty concerning the change in this field. Therefore scenario pictures of the future can mislead. Just think of some of the grotesquely exaggerated forecasts of the past, prepared by ‘scientific futurology’.

What is desirable, however? The answer is the subject of controversy and will probably remain so. Is it, at the same time, that which is reasonable? And what is then the latter? An attempt will have to be made to obtain, as has been said, compromises between different wishes (Romanyshyn, 1989). This does not mean harmonious assent, but rather a restructured dissent which has to be discussed and disputed over; from there on, one should hope, one would become able – to some extent – to act jointly. For the task of shaping work and technology this perspective does not allow for objectively valid criteria. Instead teaching should aim at developing orientations for deciding on different alternatives, and to enable young people to develop their own orientations.

The point we were trying to make is that vocational educatio0n should provide young people with the ability themselves to shape technologies for the future. Such ideas are not a long way from recent work by Ceri Facer looking at the future of education. Ceri says:

The developments in remote interactions and in disaggregation of content from institution; the rise of the personal ‘cloud‘; the diagnostic potential of genetic and neuro-science; the ageing population; all of these, when combined with different social, political and cultural values lead to very different pedagogies, curriculum, institutional arrangements and cultural dispositions towards learners.

She suggests that

the coming two decades may see a significant shift away from the equation of ‘learning‘ with ‘educational institutions‘ that emerged with industrialisation, toward a more mixed, diverse and complex learning landscape which sees formal and informal learning taking place across a wide range of different sites and institutions.

Rather than try to develop a single blueprint for dealing with change we should rather develop a resilient education system based on diversity to deal with the different challenges of an uncertain future. But such diversity

will emerge only if educators, researchers and communities are empowered to develop localised or novel responses to socio-technical change – including developing new approaches to curriculum, to assessment, to the workforce and governance, as well as to pedagogy.

Thus rather than view technology as inevitable and to wait to see what disruption it brings we have the ability to shape its future. But this in turn depends  on reshaping our education systems and pedagogies to empower both educators and worker to themselves co-determine their futures.

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