What can’t technology do?

I chaired the main session on the final morning of the excellent Learning Without Frontiers conference last week, then stayed to listen to a stellar afternoon of speaking, culminating with talks from Lord David Puttnam and Jimmy Wales.

When both speakers were answering questions, Lord Puttnam noted that he has been advocating bold changes in education for decades and that in many areas little has been achieved. Similar things are being said today as were being said ten or twenty years ago: state education is failing many children; affordable, disruptive technologies are not being deployed; society is being transformed by technology while education is falling behind and failing to teach vital 21st-century skills, to inspire, or to reform its notions of assessment.

This gulf between theoretical and practical possibilities was a melancholy note that ran in parallel to much of the conference’s energy and inspiration. And it got me thinking about something rather different: Evgeny Morozov’s new book The Web Delusion (which I reviewed last week for the Observer) and its masterful pouring of scorn upon the dream that digital technology is inherently emancipatory.

A question is begged by both Puttnam’s comments and Morozov’s book: which kinds of problem are amenable to change via technology, and which aren’t? Putting it another way: we know what technology can theoretically do in situations ranging from a classroom to a political movement. But we also know that, mostly, it doesn’t do these things. And so we’re left with a yawning gulf between blue-sky thinking and political and social realities.

There’s a connection here to the idea of wicked and tame problems. Chess is a “tame” problem: bounded, its variables entirely knowable, and thus amenable to mathematical analysis and solution. But issues like climate change, education and democratisation are “wicked,” meaning there is no definitive formulation of them as “problems” in the first place, and thus no definitive solution. This doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as a productive engagement with them: just that you need to approach them differently, with different expectations, if you wish to do good.

Similarly, the idea that technology can “solve” problems is questionable in some circumstances. And this suggests that we need to be much more precise about what the best uses of technology are, and what realistic expectations look like.

Morozov himself asked something along these lines on Twitter recently, during a discussion about this CNN piece on Tunisian protests and social media:

So here is the Q: assuming revolutions will continue & Twitter won’t go away, how do we judge the actual contribution of the Web to revos?

As it was intended to, this shows just how problematic the field is. But it also suggests a way forward, in the form of the many other questions it begs.

What, first of all, would it mean to ask this question for other media: How do we judge the contribution of books to revolutions? Asking this naturally leads us to further questions: Which books, which revolutions? It’s easy enough to think of books that have fed into revolutionary thought: from the first editions of the Bible to appear in native tongues rather than Latin and Greek to the Communist Manifesto. Similarly, it’s not hard to think of books that have bolstered obnoxious regimes: from Mein Kampf to the exquisitely bonkers Ruhnama. So we must go on to ask: what is it that connects those books with a positive impact? In what circumstances did they contribute to the outcomes we hope for? And what are those outcomes?

The books paraphrase is a useful way of rooting analysis in something with historical weight and context. New, interactive media are often treated as an entirely separate category to old media. That’s a mistake, and something that helps us to lose perspective on both the limitations and virtues of new media, which resemble nothing so much as an accelerated, intensified version of what came before. Above all, media both old and new are about connecting and informing people. As Clay Shirky tweeted in response to Morozov:

…no one claims social media makes people angry enough to act. It just helps angry people coordinate their actions.

Here, we are at least starting to explore what kind of problems media and technology can and can’t solve. And this means we can start to ask the most important question of all: which are the tame problems that technology can solve that might then form part of a strategy for engaging with other, more intractable issues?

Take politics. One tame set of technology-based questions might go something like: Can we try to ensure the permanent, distributed global availability of certain resources that tend to get censored or shut down? What does a meaningful digital protest look like? Or education. What would a national e-Portfolio system for secondary school students do? What does a model Facebook group for a class, subject or project be? And so on.

These may be the wrong questions. But by posing them we may at least able to assess their daftness, and inch towards a better world: not utopia, but a place where we deploy technologies to solve problems that it’s actually possible for technology to solve.

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