Technology is Not Neutral

Ran across a short essay by Gary Stager today, entitled “Technology is Not Neutral.”

His focus is on K-12 education, but the principles still apply, and should give all of us in higher ed something to ponder. I would say that those of us in IT in higher ed should ponder more than most.

We ITers often think of ourselves primarily as service providers (which we are) and we focus a lot of attention on how quickly we respond to requests from the faculty, students, and staff whom we support. We should respond quickly, and we should have the highest committment to service.

In my opinion, we should have an equally high committment to serving our institutions as thought leaders. Technology is not neutral, and we should evaluate and recommend technology in light of our institutional goals and values. There are simply times when only the folks who understand the technology well will be able to see the subtle ways that it will promote behavior that is at odds with our institutional values.

I’ll give you one example that I don’t think will embarrass anyone or get me in any trouble! (This is intended to illustrate the point of technology being not neutral; this is not an example of the University choosing a solution that runs counter to its values.) Ever since the invention of the Walkman it’s been acceptable in youth culture to wear headphones, earbuds, etc. It seems perfectly normal. We struggle at times with our student employees to convey to them the subtle message that it sends if they wear personal audio devices while on the job. Simply put, it makes them appear unavailable to those who may need assistance, and when a service counter employee appears unavailable oftentimes the patron will not approach the service counter.

Now there are certainly more significant examples, and if you’re interested I’d be quite happy to meet for coffee and discuss.

As educators, as IT professionals, and as thoughtful people we should maintain an awareness of the ways in which the world around us forms us. It will always be my stance that we should be wary when technology is offered to us and only utilitarian advantages are articulated. Efficiency? What outcome is assumed to be achieved more efficiently? Are there other outcomes that we should value more? Are those outcomes promoted or demoted by this new system, this new software, this new gadget?

If you appreciate the issues raised by Stager in the “Technology is Not Neutral” essay, you may also enjoy an earlier article called “What’s a Computer For? Part 1”

(Hat tip to Philip Cummings’ In Retro Cite)

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