Higher Education Technology

Learning and Technology

Last semester in Annapolis, the Mellon Foundation Study Group on Digital Technology took up the question, how do human beings stand in relation to technology? This faculty study group is being led by Cordell Yee, and its members include Louis Petrich, Sarah Benson, William Braithwaite, Catherine Dixon, George and Minna Doskow, and Eva Brann. The group will issue a report later this year.

In today’s guest post, Mr. Yee discusses some of the issues arising from the group’s work in the fall.

Tech Talk
Cordell D. K. Yee

The technology study group spent most of the fall semester reviewing the means by which human beings have communicated, from speech to writing to print to electronic and digital media. Its inquiries were based mostly on historical and sociological writings by such authors as Jack Goody, Eric Havelock, Walter J. Ong, Marshall McLuhan, Elizabeth Eisenstein, and Lewis Mumford. Through these readings, the group considered questions about the relation of technology to cognition, to language, to the past and the future.

The historical record supports a variety of approaches to these questions. According to one view, technology is a sign of human mastery over the material world, a means by which human beings have exerted increasing control over nature and improved their living conditions. But if, as Lewis Mumford, among others, has argued, technology is largely exploitative, used by those who own the means of production to control those who don’t, then in a sense technology is enslaving. Or if, as Hans Jonas has suggested, the machines and devices we produce develop according to what seem to be their own internal moving principles, then technology might be altering itself, and may ultimately be beyond human control. It is conceivable that machines could become nonhuman members of the kingdom of ends.

Different scenarios imply different judgments on whether technology has been good, bad, or neutral. Consider first the advent of writing. Writing gave speech permanence, making human beings less reliant on memory. Or perhaps more accurately, writing externalized memory and made it more objective. The role of writing in overcoming the transience of speech may serve as a paradigm of technology’s role in the human struggle against death and disorder. For example, technology can confer longevity on human beings—for instance, with medical advances like valve replacements.

Permanence and longevity, however, seem to come at a price. Writing dissociates the reader from the speaker, thus deadening conversation. Some might argue that speech had already weakened human beings in certain ways: it made them more cooperative and less self-reliant. It also may have abstracted human beings from each other. Compulsion and direction became less reliant on bodily contact; speech in the form of commands made action at a distance possible. Speech could be said to have technologized the human being, turning part of a person into an instrument for the production of sounds. So is the price of technology worth paying?

A mixture of the dystopian, the utopian, the otherworldly, the comical, and the familiar emerged from the group’s discussions. We may be masters of technology, we may be subservient to it, we may be partners with it, or we may even be symbionts alongside it. The group has not reached any conclusions, except perhaps to reaffirm that interpreting history is a complicated matter.

At the end of last semester, we began to consider some of the oft-cited detriments of digital media treated by Sherry Turkle, among others: amusement, mediation, distraction, addiction. Is the college doing right by minimizing new media in its classrooms? In general classes are extended periods in which digital technology is turned off. It seems plausible that limiting competing claims on participants’ attention should enable the class to attend more readily to the issues at hand.

Even so, should the college do more than limit the use of new media? Should it take advantage of the putative benefits? We might realize some advantages by moving from print to digital publications, including digital “books.” Digital media save space and paper, and they make both personal and institutional libraries much more portable. Why do we prefer the codex format (unknown to some of our major authors like Homer, Plato, and Aristotle) over digital formats? Did reading change in the movement from scroll to codex? Are reading and therefore thinking changed by the use of digital devices? Similar questions could be asked about the resources available on websites such as the Perseus Project, with its huge online library of Greek and Latin texts, or about online programs that animate the movement of the heavens, or construct conic sections before our eyes.

Even if we decide not to use much digital technology in our classes, technology might be a subject worth some study—on the assumption, of course, that we do not risk becoming mastered by it the more we pay attention to it. Such study might open up different perspectives on questions already raised in the Program. For example, are there technological prerequisites for philosophy? Does asking what something is—the “what is” question—presuppose a knowledge of parts of speech and grammar? Without a means of recording speech, which disappears as soon as it is uttered, can one construct a grammar that would enable one to isolate nouns and verbs, and thence to compile a lexicon by asking what words mean?

Furthermore, it is difficult to imagine getting far in geometry, performing complicated numerical calculations, or working out extended mathematical proofs, without using some form of graphic implement and medium, such as stick and sand or stylus and clay. So did technology make possible or facilitate the development of the liberal arts, the arts of language and arithmetic? Is freedom founded on technology? Does technology, in fact, underlie the work of the college?

With such questions in mind, this spring we will continue to focus on our main charge: twenty-first-century technological developments in relation to the Program.

Cordell D. K. Yee is a faculty member at St. John’s College in Annapolis