What is ‘technology’ anyway?

At the London Festival of Education on Saturday I was on a panel about learning technologies in the classroom. You can see my notes in a previous blog post. One of the questions I received (or chose to respond to) was from a self-proclaimed applicant for a ‘bolshy questioner’ badge. Whilst I dismissed his main question as unhelpful, he did make one very good point: I hadn’t defined what I meant by ‘technology’.

It’s human nature to focus on negative feedback – perhaps it’s evolutionary, I don’t know. Whilst it can be destructive if dwelt upon (see this Oatmeal cartoon, for example) it can also spur your own thinking. And that’s what I’ve been doing over the past few days, until I stumbled across the following in Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants.

To make the lengthy quotation slightly shorter, I should explain that techne is a word the ancient Greeks used for art, skill or craft. It’s closest to our word for ‘ingenuity’:

In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution was one of several revolutions that overturned society. Mecchanical creatures intruded into farms and homes, but still this invasion had no name. Finally, in 1802, Johann Beckmann, an economics professor at Gottingen University in Germany, gave this ascending force its name. Beckmann argued that the rapid spread and increasing importance of the useful arts demanded that we teach them in a “systemic order.” He addressed the techne of architecture, the techne of chemistry, metalwork, masonry, and manufacturing, and for the first time he claimed these spheres of knowledge were interconnected. He synthesised them into a unified curriculum and wrote a textbook titled Guide to Technology (or Technologie in German), resurrecting that forgotten Greek word. He hoped his outline would become the first course in the subject. It did that and more. It also gave a name to what we do. Once named, we could now see it.  Having seen it, we wondered how anyone could not have seen it.

Beckmann’s achievement was more than simply christening the unseen. He was among the first to recognise that our creations were not just a collection of random inventions and good ideas. The whole of technology had remained imperceptible to us for so long because we were distracted by its masquerade of rarefied personal genius. Once Beckmann lowered the mask, our art and artefacts could be seen as interdependent components woven into a coherent impersonal unity.

If you want to follow this up I recommend reading Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It for more on how ‘attention blindness’ can lead to bad consequences in technology and education.

I’ve said time and time again since writing my thesis that we run into problems when talking about things that can’t be pointed to in the physical world. If I point to an object for sitting on, for example, and say ‘chair’ you may be able to call it something different but (unless you’re an existentialist) can’t really deny its existence. That’s not the case with concepts such as ‘digital literacies’ or even ‘openness’ and ‘Bring Your Own Device’. We can argue what these things are, and what they mean, precisely because we don’t know where the boundaries are.

So technology is the name we give to a loosely-related, amorphous mass of stuff. The word is what William James would call ‘useful in the way of belief’ in that it provides with a way of talking about – a conceptual shorthand for – the kind of things that we’d otherwise have to explain in wordy blog posts like this one. 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA Andrea in Amsterdam

 

Pragmatism as a candidate methodology

This is is the first draft of a section for my Ed.D. thesis; please don’t quote it as it’s not the final version.

The bibliography relating to the referenced literature can be found at http://dougbelshaw.com/thesis (I’ve blogged more about my thesis at http://dougbelshaw.com/blog


To recap, a methodology suitable for this thesis must be:

  1. Recognised and respected as sound.
  2. Well-suited to the research area and aims of the thesis.
  3. Allow for results that will make a difference to a research area.

So far we have rejected Cybermethodology, Grounded Theory, Critical Theory and Post-Structuralism. The next candidate methodology to consider is Pragmatism. We shall find that this methodology is especially suited to the current thesis as it fits the three criteria set out above.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although it was Charles Sanders Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represents have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

Pragmatism has evolved over the last century and a half and therefore has many definitions. We shall explore the nuanced views of Pragmatist philosophers such as Peirce, Quine and Rorty in the next section, but start here with a definition by the populariser of Pragmatism, William James:

Pragmatism, on the other hand, asks its usual question. “Grant an idea or belief to be true,” it says, “what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone’s actual life? How will the truth be realized? What experiences will be different from those which would obtain if the beliefs were false? What, in short, is the truth’s cash-value in experiential terms?

The moment pragmatism asks this question, it sees the answer: True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify. False ideas are those we cannot. That is the practical difference it makes to us to have true ideas; that, therefore, is the meaning of truth, for it is all that truth is known-as. (James, 1995, p.77)

In this sense, it is already clear that Pragmatism is well-suited as a methodology that fits the third of the criteria specified above. Pragmatism is focused on a ‘difference’ making a difference in practice – with truth being defined by James elsewhere what is “good in the way of belief” (James, 1995, p.30). Pragmatists reject the Correspondence Theory of truth, which holds that a statement is true if and only if it accurately describes (i.e. corresponds with), that being described in the external world. This causes a problem in terms of verification; how can we know whether our ideas are true? Pragmatists answer this question by reference to a ‘community of inquirers’ rather than individuals. Truth becomes what is “expedient in our thinking” (James, 1995, p.86) and dependent upon discussion and debate within society:

The ‘absolutely’ true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine that all our temporary truths will some day converge… Meanwhile we have to live to-day by what truth we can get to-day, and be ready to-morrow to call it falsehood. (James, 1995, p.86)

We shall explore in the next section how Pragmatism has been developed by philosophers such as Dewey, Quine, Davidson and Rorty but, for now, we must examine whether the core of Pragmatism constitutes a sufficient basis – and meets the set criteria – as a methodology for this thesis. Having established already that the third criterion is satisfied by Pragmatism, we turn to the first and second criteria to see if they, too, can be satisfied.

Pragmatism is a philosophy that, in its present form, is around 150 years old but with roots that go back further. Several research journals a dedicated to the field and three of the best-known philosophers of the 20th century, William James, John Dewey and Richard Rorty, were all Pragmatists. It is a coherent approach taught in modules in high ranking and respected universities. Academic papers and books based on the Pragmatist method contribute to the world’s body of knowledge every day. It is safe to say, therefore, that Pragmatism can be deemed an approach that is ‘recognised and respected as sound’.

As for the second criterion, I would argue that Pragmatism is well-suited to postmodern world, particularly suited to research in the digital sphere, and especially suited to research on Digital and New Literacies. The reasons for this suitability are threefold. First, Pragmatism is what John Dewey calls a ‘practical fallibilism’ (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.13). This uncertainty is not because of a gap between mind and matter but “stems from the fact that we can never be certain that the patterns of action that we have developed in the past will be appropriate for the problems that we will encounter in the future” (ibid.). In terms of Digital and New Literacies, we cannot be sure what kinds of ‘texts’ (and therefore what kind of literacy practices) will be necessary in the future. As a result, although we may do our best to make provision for what we see on the horizon, Pragmatists cannot be certain that past patterns of action will suit future problems.

Second, Pragmatism does not constitute a “recipe for educational research and educational researchers” being “as much a way of un-thinking certain false dichotomies, certain assumptions, certain traditional practices and ways of doing things” (Biesta & Burbules, 2003, p.114). Given that the central question of this thesis is “What are digital literacies?” it seems particularly appropriate to explicitly analyse the boundaries of literacy practices as well as question dichotomies, assumptions and traditional practices.

Third, Pragmatism does not aim to close the book and end the story by reference to definitions and postulating static theories. Instead, theories have a ‘cash-value’ and are tools:

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed. (James, 1995, p.21)

It is us who impose categories on the world, argues the Pragmatist, and ‘truth’ is a process of assimilation – not of discovery.

Pragmatism, therefore, is a philosophy that provides a sound methodology on which to base this thesis. In the next section I shall give an overview of the development of Pragmatism as a theory in order to define what shall be referred thereon as a form of shorthand as ‘The Pragmatic approach’ or ‘Pragmatism’.


  • Biesta, G.J.J. & Burbules, N.C. (2003) Pragmatism and Educational Research (Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD)
  • Goodman, R.B. (ed.) (1995) Pragmatism: A Contemporary Reader (Routledge: London)
  • James, W. (1995) Pragmatism (Dover: London)
 

Methodology for Pragmatists

I had an extremely productive Bank Holiday Monday, writing c.5,000 words of the Methodology section for my Ed.D. thesis. The following is an extract that explains where the philosophy of Pragmatism originated.

The essence of Pragmatism is that there exists no standpoint from which to judge the objective truth or falsity of a statement or belief:

There is no absolute standpoint, and there is no exemption from standpoints; there are only and always relative standpoints… I can in reality think of no absolute whatever; I always tacitly place myself upon the scene as the observer who is beholding things in their relation to himself. (Lovejoy, 1930:81, quoted in Mounce, 1997:159)

Instead of being able to distinguish between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ qualities in the world, therefore, we are left with only secondary qualities of which we can speak. The grass is not objectively green, it is only green to me. Pragmatism is a philosophy concerned with action and the practical application of meaning. It is concerned with the development of capacities and habits that allow for human beings to be successful and productive in the world. As we shall see, Pragmatist philosophers have little patience with definitions for their own sake.

As William James explained through the title and content of Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, there is little ‘new’ in the philosophy of Pragmatism other than its name. Indeed, although Peirce coined the term ‘Pragmatism’ – later switching to ‘Pragmaticism’, “a term “ugly enough to be safe from kidnappers” (Collected Papers, 5.414) – the ideas it represented have older origins and wider usage. Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, demonstrated his adherence to a proto-Pragmatist project, stating:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, R.W., ‘Circles’ in Goodman, R.B., 1995:25)

And later in the same essay:

Step by step we scale this mysterious ladder; the steps are actions, the new prospect is power. Every several result is threatened and judged by that which follows. Every one seems to be contradicted by the new; it is only limited by the new. The new statement is always hated by the old, and, to those dwelling in the old, comes like an abyss of skepticism.

Peirce and James did formalised this way of thinking in such a way that it provided a philosophical approach to problem-solving. Peirce’s project was anti-Cartesian in approach and focus, whereas James was concerned with the concept of ‘truth’ – especially as it related to religious belief. In addition, they both discussed the skepticism to which Emerson alludes, rejecting it as debilitating. James in particular thought that cultivating a habit of doubt in relation to truth statements was indicative of an attitude rather than an intellectual position (Mounce, 1997:88). Skepticism is the result of confining one simply to the intellectual and theoretical sphere, as dangerous as confining one solely to the non-rational.

Instead, James argued that we should allow our ‘passional nature’ to help us decide upon the truth or falsity of statements and propositions:

Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must decide an option between two propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds; for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question’ is itself a passional decision – just like deciding yes and no – and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.(James, 1918:108)

Like the historian, we gain certainty through commitment, by leaving certain areas unquestioned. Certainty both in history and science comes through being ‘imperfectly theoretical’ – i.e. Being theoretical up to a point. As Mounce (1997:99) puts it, “It is only in philosophy, where commitment is at a minimum, that scepticism flourishes without limit.”

As a result, endless definitions do not serve to advance our understanding of the world and move closer towards truth. ‘Bachelor’ is a oft-cited example of a definition that means something precise. However, an alien to our planet would have to understand the institution of marriage, which cannot be easily explained in a sentence, before grasping the meaning of ‘bachelor’. Instead of definitions, then, it is the commitment to a statement, proposition or belief that helps us make our ideas clear. To use another example from Mounce, there is no sharp demarcation between day and night but we still find it useful to use these terms (Mounce, 1997:104).

It is precisely the fact that Pragmatism allows for error and chance that makes it a practical philosophy. Instead of committing ourselves to omniscience when using the words ‘know’ and ‘certainty’ we use them as practical instruments to go about our business in the world. I, for example, know that I am to attend a conference in a foreign country soon. I can express this certainty despite my attendance depending upon my continued health, an absence of airline strikes, and various geological phenomena not taking place.

For Pragmatists, and James in particular, truth becomes close to utility – what is ‘good in the way of belief’. James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience is a defence of this position. We cannot base beliefs on a theoretical conception of the world because this would, in effect, be a ‘view from nowhere’. Pragmatism, it will be remembered, is a philosophy that rejects the existence of an objective standpoint from which to ascertain the truth or falsity of a statement or belief. Reasoning is allied to experience rather than replacing it.

James was the original populariser of Pragmatism, the one who explained it to the intelligentsia of the early 20th century. However, it is important to briefly sketch the origins of Pragmatism in Peirce to understand the true aim of the overall project. Peirce rejected Cartesian dualism along with the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. To Peirce and later Pragmatists, what Kant termed the noumenal world – the unknowable world ‘as it exists in itself’ – is a fiction. Likewise, Peirce rejected Descartes’ recommendation to start from a position of scepticism:

Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you should begin by doubting everything, and says that there is no one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were as ‘easy as lying’… But, in truth, there is but one state from which you find yourself at the time you do ‘set out’ – a state of mind in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you can not divert yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubting has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all reality out of you, recognise, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt in the least. (Peirce, 1935(V) para 416:278, quoted in Mounce, 1997:21)

Meaning can only be grasped through practice, not through armchair philosophising, for Peirce and other Pragmatists. The ‘Pragmatic Maxim’ as formulated by Peirce states that a conception does not differ from another conception (either in logical effects or importance) other than in the way it could conceivably modify our practical conduct (Mounce, 1997:33).

It is this Pragmatic Maxim that I shall be using to test concepts surrounding ‘digital literacy’ in my Ed.D. thesis! 🙂

Bibliography

 

The problem(s) of 21st century literacy/ies

As most people reading this will already know, I’m studying towards an Ed.D. at the moment. My (tentative) thesis title is What does it mean to be ‘educated’ and ‘digitally literate’? The impact of ICT and the knowledge society upon education in the 21st century.. You can find my thesis proposal here and bookmarks related to my studies here. My current thinking is that I’m just going to focus on the concept of what ‘literacy’ means in the 21st century as it’s a huge and confused (confusing?) field.

 

My Ed.D. thesis: introduction and a ?

Having found readers of this blog very helpful in the past – especially when it came to my most recent job description – I thought I’d ask for your help again. The input of all my readers to what follows, but especially those of a philosophical persuasion like Stephen Downes and George Siemens, would be fantastic.

What follows is a rough, not-long-enough first draft of introduction to my Ed.D. thesis. Trouble is, my interests have led to a slightly different focus from that outlined in my thesis proposal; I need a new working title, please! :-p

The structure of my Ed.D. thesis is going to be something like:

  1. Introduction
  2. Literature review (including discussion of ‘literacy’, ‘visual literacy‘, ‘media literacy‘, etc. and how these terms developed)
  3. Worldviews on ‘digital literacy’ (how various education systems around the world discuss the area)
  4. ‘Digital literacy’ in the UK (analysis of stakeholder policies and discussions of the area)
  5. ‘Digital literacy’ & educational institutions (suggestions of ways in which schools & universities can promote the skills congruent with the area)
  6. Conclusion

So please, read this rough outline to my introduction and I’d love it if you could think of a title. I’m currently thinking of something as simple as: What is ‘Digital Literacy’? A Pragmatic Investigation.

(Rough) introduction to Ed.D. thesis

“All human activity is subject to habitualization. Any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be reproduced with an economy of effort and which, ipso facto, is apprehended by the performer as that pattern.” (Berger & Luckmann, 2002:42)

Human beings are tasked with making sense of the external world. We feel the need to decipher and communicate oft-repeated experiences and sensations, allowing other minds to share the same (or similar) conceptual space to our own. For example, research in Phenomenology tells us that two individuals may have two markedly different sensations when viewing a red pillar box. If, however, they agree on the category ‘pillar box’ to refer to approximately the shape they see before them, and that the colour sensation they are experiencing shall be called ‘red’ then meaningful discourse can ensue.

All human communication must begin in this manner. We train toddlers and young children to be able to understand the world around them by allowing them to use the constructs we ourselves use. These constructs we largely inherited from our parents, and they from their forebears. There comes a need, however, in each generation to create and agree upon new ways of understanding the world. This can be as a result of natural changes in the environment, new (disruptive) technologies, or some other way – usually involving politics or economics – that alter human relationships.

This thesis shall discuss the concept of ‘digital literacy’. It shall be my contention that, as psychologist Steven Pinker puts it, “some categories really are social constructions: they exist only because people tacitly agree to act as if they exist.” (Pinker, 2002:202) As we shall see, although a consensus is growing around the term ‘digital literacy’, other competing ways of describing a similar conceptual space have emerged. This is partly due to a lack of clarity over the seemingly-straightforward term, ‘literacy’.

When dealing with conceptual spaces, metaphor and new ways of communicating experience and sensation, it makes little sense to talk of ‘reality’ and, indeed, ‘truth‘. Without wishing here to go into too much phenomenological and philosophical depth, it would seem clear that descriptions and talk of ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competence’, ‘digital fluency’ and so on are of a different order than ‘sky’, ‘chair’, and ‘lamp’. There is a qualitative difference: the first seeks to be a lens in the way the second does not. It is the lens of ‘digital literacy’ that this thesis shall discuss, the aim being to seek to describe the changing landscape and terminology surrounding such conceptions.

To avoid the quagmire of correspondence theories of truth and slips into solipsism, then, this thesis will employ a pragmatic methodology. This way of approaching the world was first suggested in the 19th century by C.S. Peirce and developed by William James. Although there are disagreements within the Pragmatist movement, James perhaps has been the clearest exponent of classical Pragmatist philosophy. He argues that there is no ‘end to enquiry’ and that we “must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of [our] experience.” (James, 1995:21)

The above meshes with the phenomenological account presented earlier; if we are socially-constructing what we term ‘reality’, then changes in human relationships will alter our conceptual ‘realities’ and vice-versa. Pragmatists, without needing to hold onto a correspondence theory of truth do, however, reject the notion that the conceptual and practical realms are completely divorced. As James (1995:20) puts it,

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen.

With regard to this thesis, therefore, discussions that either make no or could make no difference in practice shall either be only mentioned in passing or disregarded entirely. Although a non-empirical thesis, what comes hereafter is intended to be of use and be able to inform policy-makers.

So, what do YOU think? Title suggestions, please!

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Digital Literacy, Pragmatism and the Social Construction of Reality

Note: This blog post is to clarify my thoughts on the subject and provide an easy point-of-reference as I begin to write the Literature Review section of my Ed.D. thesis. Feel free to skip it if that’s not the reason for which what you came here/subscribed to my RSS feed! You can read my thesis proposal here and I collate links and quotes from my research on my wiki. 🙂

As I ‘write’ this I am looking through corrective lenses at a screen that is a representation of a digital ‘reality’. The alphabet by which the words and sentences are constructed is a social construct, as is the programming language by which the website on which you’re reading this came into existence. This also applies to concepts such as ‘bachelor’, ‘virgin’ and, indeed, any other idea that presupposes a limit to its application.

‘Digital literacy’ is one such concept. It is a social construct that has gained some momentum by its explanatory power in the face of technological change that has left some bewildered by the abilities of one generation with respect to another. That the term ‘literacy’ is attached to the concept shows the historical legacy, applicability and origin of the term. It is a concept mostly applied by an older generation about a younger generation (and especially the attitude towards technology of the latter).

Literacy used to have a rather precise definition: the ability to read and write with a pre-determined level of proficiency. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, literacy has been applied to much more wide-ranging concepts such as Multimedia literacy, Computer literacy, Information literacy, Technacy (or Technological literacy), Critical literacy, Media literacy, and Health literacy. This appears to be akin to early descriptions of cars as ‘horseless carriages’, the understanding of the new through an old, outdated framework. Or, to put it more formally, in the words of Berger & Luckmann (2002:49-50),

What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future.

Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.

What is necessary, therefore, when looking at concepts that are defined socially and in the light of their historical use, is to determine their ‘cash-value’. The Pragmatic method, invented (arguably) jointly by C.S. Peirce and William James, would seem to be a useful approach. James states the method thus (James 1995:21),

But if you follow the pragmatic method, you cannot look on any such word [such as ‘God’ or ‘the Absolute’] as closing your quest. You must bring out of each word its practical cash-value, set it at work within the stream of your experience. It appears less as a solution, then, as a program for more work, and more particularly as an indication of the ways in which existing realities may be changed.

To explain a difference between ‘standard’ literacy and ‘digital’ literacy, therefore, means to see what difference there is between the two in practice:

There can be no difference anywhere that doesn’t make a difference elsewhere – no difference in abstract truth that doesn’t express itself in a difference in concrete fact and in conduct consequent upon that fact, imposed on somebody, somehow, somewhere and somewhen. (James 1995:20)

It is necessary to go beyond simple ontological arguments as to whether or not ‘digital literacy’ exists and instead flesh out whether belief in such a concept would make a tangible difference. My thesis will be concerned less with dogmatic attack or defence of particular terms and rather more with the ‘cash-value’ of concepts such as ‘digital literacy’.

Associated ideas such as ‘digital natives’ vs ‘digital immigrants’ (or more recent distinctions such as ‘digital resident/outsider’) will tangentially be discussed, especially in their usefulness as ways of understanding attitudes towards technology. The latter term – ‘technology’ – shall also be defined more accurately, perhaps as having a ‘digital’ aspect rather than being the use of any man-made object to achieve an particular human end.

My idea when beginning my thesis is that I shall not discover a coherent set of ideas and assumptions behind terms such as ‘digital literacy’, ‘digital competency’, ‘digital fluency’, and the like. Still, as heuristics, as commonly-agreed methods by which to understand an observed difference, they will ‘work’ and have a ‘cash-value’ during an indeterminate and temporary period. Much, in fact, like the term ‘horseless carriage’. :-p

(Image credit: yellow rope with knot by limonada @ Flickr)

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