Technological Rationality and You

The development of a highly technological academic learning environment is at once both exciting and intriguing. This exploratory post will use ideas founded within Herbert Marcuse’s work, drawing ideas in particular from One-Dimensional Man. Although it was published in 1964 and written with particular economic and cultural frameworks in mind, many of the ideas presented are still relevant to today’s world, some of which are increasing in relevance, rather than declining, possibly indicating negative or backward trends in society as a whole. This post will also examine the use of technology in the classroom, as well as the relationship of technology and the typical assignments.

A main theme in One-Dimensional Man is an idea of one-dimensional thought. It is a self-imposed limitation on freethinking, where people follow prescribed patterns of thought, are indoctrinated into specific ways of thinking, and a strong trust in operationalized definitions. We follow the definitions too closely, and this prevents a “far reaching” change in thought. People are indoctrinated in a manner that consumes the entire individual, rather than just being a set of teachings for example. Technology and mass production have enabled this method of total indoctrination.

In a broader sense of the idea of one-dimensional thought, we can look at increased issues of accessibility of knowledge. Wikipedia, although vastly improved from its previous states, presents a point in fact of the dangers of open-access material; it shows us how a database can become something of a default knowledge base people go to, and can become regarded as some sort of dogma. Due to the ease of accessibility and ease of editing, I believe this is producing what Marcuse called a self-limitation in thought. Studies have linked changing brain patterns when it comes to deciding where to find data, with the more-open internet, particularly Google, becoming a default search base instead of asking others knowledgeable in the subject, doing some hard-copy research, or accessing databanks/search engines such as EBSCOhost. I believe this contributes to a self-limitation of thought; we are thinking less and less for ourselves, instead quickly turning to search engines to see what other people think, and rely on that rather than getting multiple opinions or data; our resourcefulness has decreased. The long-term impact of self-limitation of thought is quite negative, but in the learning environment there is a two-fold effect that has to be recognized.

First is a de-skilling of learning capabilities. Many students today are lacking in understanding how to use resources, and how to really pull information from academic work. Students tend to search first, and think later. There is also the old argument of the internet creating a text dialect, a horrid shorthand of English. Digital tools such as spell-check also allow students to be lazier, although this is debatable since many students still somehow manage hand in assignments riddled with errors. Second, is the erosion of academic freedom, meaning students are not truly learning, they are being dictated to, and being specifically formed to take their place in the system. Although this is a granted and obvious effect, it is often not recognized as such because, as Marcuse points out, the system does a wonderful job of hiding this purpose within it. The lack of resourcefulness and tendencies to take information at face value without giving it deeper thought or reading supporting documents creates a flawed “learning” environment. Although this is not as bad at the post-secondary level, anything with a “curriculum” or departments/instructors that are somewhat censored are doing a disservice to academic growth.

As I noted in my previous post, there have been major calls to integrate technology in the modern classrooms of the twenty-first-century. Classrooms have been slow to adopt computerized methods of teaching for a variety of reasons, including economic factors, methodology conflicts, and general access. However, there has recently been a push to equip the academic environment with technology; again, as I noted earlier, what is the point if the technology is not used properly, faulty, or simply not effective? Marcuse made note of the “self-validating hypotheses” being “repeated hypnotically” in society, and the push to integrate technology is exactly this. We constantly hear that digital interfaces will enhance the learning environment, and it is taken for granted that this is the case. However, the consequences are being overlooked in favour of accelerated mobilization. We have heard the adverse effects on health from wireless internet in some schools, yet they decide to press on with it. The extremely rapid obsolesce rate of technology does nothing to help either. What good is it to implement a series of technological marvels if they will be outdated in a relatively short span of time? This planned obsolesce is nothing more than greed, and leads to the current problem of recycling and waste that is being experienced by the digital world.

One of the larger themes in One-Dimensional Man is the idea of a “technological rationality.” Marcuse suggested that everything in society is being operationalized, rationalized, and brought into a scientific order. However, technological rationality works to protect dominate social structures at all times. It contributes to the creation of and sustains a monoculture, a “rational” culture, where everything is accounted for, specifically defined, and freethinking is limited and discouraged. This is where our needs are defined, and our drive towards those needs created, whether or not they are Marcuse’s “true or false” needs. Everything is confined within these figurative boundaries of the monoculture. One-dimensional thought is created by this structure as well.

A major issue with technological rationality is that it treats everything equally, that any idea or object is to be steamrolled and absorbed into the whole by totally disregarding any inequalities or differences. This is what is prevailing in the bid to equip schools with digital learning interfaces. It is often assumed that all kids these days are brought up with modern technology, or that it is “natural” to them. This is a sweeping generalization. There are often considerable gaps when it comes to access of technology, especially if we consider rural areas. This assumption also takes for granted that parents allow children to have extensive use of computers at home, or mobile technology, and more importantly assumes that the economic capital for constantly up-to-date technology is available. This is not always the case. For example, although many of my peers are quite proficient with technology and love to live connected to it, I was not brought up with it; I did not get internet until 2005 (dial-up on windows 98), and did not have a reasonably decent computer and internet until 2008, at which point I was finishing high school. Living in a suburban area with many working class families, I know many who were not brought up immersed in technology, dislike using it, and dislike seeing much of it used in classrooms. Many of my peers prefer auditory lecture styles, with slideshows being a reference point only.

How will the assignments change? We have seen how technology has created a cycle where people are bound more to work after their work hours are complete. It is possible for the same thing to happen with higher tech classrooms. For example, if the students are equipped with tablets or laptops, are they going to have to do more work outside of class than ever? Marcuse emphasized the new need for continuous, mentally stupefying labour, and wasting time on a laptop or tablet is the perfect fit. On the flip-side, what if people are not equipped with these things, but have no access to them? Way to go, technological rationality.

It is undeniable that there are issues with boredom in the classroom. Classic ways of teaching have been victimized, and it is argued that technology will make it “better.” On its face, this seems like it would be a good thing; a more interactive environment stimulates the student to pay more attention. However, there is an equally arguable point that if the student is simply not interested in the subject matter, the format of delivering the material will not matter. Statistics, taught by lecture, PowerPoint, Prezi, in a computer lab, or by workshop, is still statistics, and thus still likely bores the students. It is an issue of self-discipline; the burden cannot always be laid on the teacher or the methods of teaching. This smacks of the entitled generation, wherein the kids and students of today never seem to be at fault.

If the issue of learning is boredom, how does a technological environment solve the issue? Having access to multiple efficient resources is one thing, but what to do with them? People need to be taught how to use these things, and in turn the lesson once again becomes linear. To solve boredom, one must entertain, and Marcuse suggested “entertainment may be the most effective mode of learning,” given that we can distance ourselves from the entertainment. A digital classroom immerses us in the entertainment. This entertainment idea is dangerous, for it raises the chance of the lessons not being taken seriously, and also demeans the educative environment. Just look at how classes that bring in movies are looked at; easy, not taken seriously at all. Will digital classrooms be looked at in a similar way?

There are research projects currently being conducted that investigate the introduction of social media into the learning environment. How do we view this integration? To me this seems like a way of continuing the “happy consciousness,” that the student must be occupied at all times to make it seem like the system is working just fine. It is a problem maker that simply hides the problems. Is it really boredom, or is it an addiction, not necessarily an addiction to technology, but an addiction to being in contact with people? Perhaps we should be critiquing how traditional constructions of space and interaction have created an atmosphere of isolation, and looking at social media as a way of fulfilling the desire of interaction, since it transcends physical constructions of space. Such a desire is amplified by the fact that society isolates us from each other.

Here we look to Marcuse’s idea of a cultural diffusion. Education, historically, was a marker of class and wealth. It was only a gradual process that enabled the general population to be educated. Lower culture was readily absorbed into the process, and the higher culture aspects were brought down and blended with the lower cultural meanings to create a harmonious and smooth operation. Negative aspects of society are also absorbed into this harmonious whole. The key to the success of this idea is looking to the past, and convincing ourselves that it is better now than it was before.

As such, technology is only being integrated on the terms of dominant social structure. As we have seen here with Blackboard 9, corporate business has a strong interest in integrating technology with academia. Currently, learning with digital media can only be implemented and accomplished if someone stands to profit by it, and the results of learning with these digital tools produces a citizen that is within both societal and corporatist interests. We know corporations pay scientists or scholars to represent a certain angle of a given topic, and regular people to support it. What kind of impact can this have on a database? How can the academic community regulate itself to maintain academic freedom? The third party interests are what need addressing the most. It is essential to construct the most neutral as possible environment for students to learn, so they can think for themselves and choose their own path.

We are constantly looking for ways to do things differently from the past. I always come across self-congratulatory writing about how we have “come so far from our barbaric past,” particularly when I was doing research on mental health and asylums. Needless to say, usually a lot of the references of the barbaric past are changes that have happened within relatively small frameworks of time. It is a delusion of grandeur and egoism. Highly technical academic learning environments will be praised in much the same manner, but they will still suffer from lazy, distracted students, plagiarism, and boredom. They will still suffer from ineffective instructors and poor methodologies. Nevertheless, they will be considered much better than before, and a justification for these new methods will be always found and held onto.

Technological classrooms have the potential to entirely dominate the student. A continuous connection contributes to that absorption of the entire body I mentioned earlier. Marcuse wrote that technology shows us how unfree we actually are. We cannot disconnect from it, and it blinds us from understanding the true causes of our frustrations and oppression. Our data is collected, analyzed, and then we are sold.  The growth of technology is a constant reflection of not just advancements in capabilities in research and development, but also a growing understanding in how to cater to us better by providing a piece of technology for every purpose imaginable. We are not just connected to technology in the class, but we are connected to those who control the technology, the dominant social structure; we are surveilled, analyzed as a statistic, and understood. This is why cultural diffusion is necessary, to hide the domination of the upper strata by infusing our own meanings into technology. In the recesses of our minds, we understand how fully entrapped we are, and escape is extremely difficult, if not impossible. We find some way to justify this, and thus, in the end, we are “better off than before.” Technological classrooms are generated as a “false” need that people orient to as something rational, something worth desiring, even if it is not. This goes back to the whole idea of praising ourselves, and satisfying our “happy conscious,” and believe everything in the system is rational, working, and efficient.

As this has probably been an overwhelmingly cynical read, I must look for the positive. Through the cynicism of Marcuse’s work, he describes the “Great Refusal,” wherein he believed society could change for the better if people took an active part in resisting arbitrative change and thinking for themselves. The same thing applies to integrating digital media to the learning environment. Although it is a possibility, technology in the classroom is not necessarily a doomed idea. If it resists the operationalized, “rational,” standardized approach that is often undertaken by authority, there is a chance that digital interfaces can enhance the academic learning environment, particularly in the social sciences and the humanities. Strong students and teachers can make use of extended classroom dialogue through digital media, update information as it comes out, and developing stronger ideas by encouraging stronger peer-to-peer engagement. Highly interactive interfaces that are controlled and fully understood by both the instructor and the student are something worth striving for. Technology is only what people make of it, especially in academia.

People can claim that using technology has enhanced learning. There can be no doubt that it has had great effects so far. Nevertheless, the gears of progress seem to have stopped, it is stagnate. Tradition and the economics of today are holding technology back. Progress is stalled by greed, by those who wish to profit off new modes of learning. In traditionalist terms, technology has been making learning easier, and Marcuse suggested that we strongly “militate” ourselves against any fundamental changes that make life easier, but take away traditional roles. To move forward there needs to be a break in the old, constrained modes of thinking.

There needs to be a critical evaluation of these plans to integrate technology in a classroom. To substitute one form of classroom boredom to another is entirely pointless; technological teaching can be equally or more ineffective than bad teaching in the current system. Although I believe it can be used effectively if used in very particular manners, it is not the fix that some people hope it is. The student of today is equally a major factor of failing classroom experience as inefficient teaching methods. There needs to be a shift in the way people think, and how change how education is viewed and valued rather than simply patching the problem.

Credit for inspiration and ideas, One-Dimensional Man

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Miami Palmetto Adult and Community Education Center | Classroom Environment - May 14, 2013

    […] Technological Rationality and You (digitalcommunitas.org) […]

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    […] note: please see Allen Kempton’s post on tech rationality that are more reflective of Kittler’s view that we do not produce […]

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