Who controls technology?

Recently, David Skrbina, eco-philosopher and lecturer at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, discussed his understanding of the challenges technology creates as it evolves and increasingly penetrates our world and lives (Radio Program, The Story [American Public Media], broadcast on March 20, 2013). He spoke of Jacques Ellul, reminding me of technological determinism and a section of my dissertation which developed the argument that teachers are empowered when they decide how and when to use technology to support their work and  enhance their students’ learning experiences.  I share my thoughts with you, and invite you to reflect and comment upon this rapid rush to embrace technology, enjoying its fruit and experiencing the stinging thorns when it may not work as well as we had hoped.

Definitions of educational technology and the need to decide how we capitalize on its affordances dovetail with concerns on the ethical use of technology.  Kurzweil (2003), the developer of technology that facilitates users to access information, communicate and overcome disabilities, noted that technology can be a double edged sword, necessitating educators to systematically evaluate how technology will impact students.  He, among others, felt that educators have an ethical responsibility to determine the “right level” (p. 252) so the benefits can mitigate the dangers of 21st century technologies. 

Prior observers of the impact of technology on individuals and society have also suggested the need for ‘technical thinking’ to define technology use and design. Ellul (1964), in coining the term, la technique, often translated as ‘technical thinking’, pointed out the need for an individual to question “at every step his use of his technical goods, able to refuse them and to force them to submit to determining factors, [so that]… he must be able to exploit all these goods without becoming unduly attached to them.” (Ellul, 1963, p. 96).  Most importantly, Ellul acknowledged in several essays (since World War II through the 1980’s) the unforeseeable social effects and price the use of technology had on people.  Ellul (1988) expressed concern that society chooses technology for its immediate economic benefit (increasing efficiency in the workplace), without consideration of long-term effects and potentially harmful social implications.  He noted how society tolerated technology gradually “becoming the creative force of new values” (Ellul, 2003, p. 396).  The impact and choices to be made when teachers select technology to support instruction need to be identified in order to neutralize or minimize the unintended consequences.

This decision-making and assessment of tasks’ benefits and shortcomings (a thought process) is often associated with the term technological determinism (Bimber, 1995; Chandler, 1995; Pannabecker, 1991).  In a critique of technological determinism, Ropohl (1983) proposed systemic actions so technology facilitates the production and application of knowledge and goods, to address social concerns (as identified by Ellul).  In other words, there is a definitive need to (a) be mindful in how we choose to use technology, (b) have an enhanced awareness of the impact of technology on the individual and on society or groups, and (c) adjust for the negative impact or unforeseen consequences to control or neutralize potentially harmful long-term effects. 

Social Shaping of technology.  This concept of technological determinism is similar to Finn’s (1960) notion of technology as a thought process due to the potential benefits that technology (as devices or machines) offers instructional design.  Salomon (1998) shared these perceptions of promises and dangers of technology use in educational contexts. He stated that “clever and imaginative employment of today’s technology” impacted the design of effective learning activities.  Praising the power of multimedia to facilitate communication, knowledge acquisition and utilization, and “the social distribution of cognition” (Salomon, 1998, p. 7), he also noted several undesirable effects, such as (a) intellectual shallowness, (b) information overload, (c) devaluation of information, and (d) social alienation.  Educators are expected to identify technology’s capacity to facilitate students’ active participation in the process of knowledge acquisition and utilization within the social context of classrooms or connections through the Internet. Once these uses of technology are identified, educators are to orchestrate these technological affordances to maximize its benefits and reduce the undesirable side effects.

The social shaping of technology is a concept that can frame the nature of teachers’ decisions surrounding technology use in classrooms.  Williams and Edge (1996) recognized that through exploration of innovations and the content of technologies, teachers developed patterns as to their creative use of technology.  These patterns became embedded over time and were defined by contextual factors, established conditions and an identified social use of technology.  These different options of technology use were eventually assessed as either solutions or consequences in meeting students’ educational needs.  Wajcman (1991) also noted the role of technical thinking in discerning the socially desirable values technology design can support.  How people design technology is an indicator of technical thought.  The design of technology can be sensitive to individual and societal needs, or be viewed as culturally relevant.  Often technical thinking and technology use are interrelated within a defined social context, especially when there is a goal to equalize and extend individual access to technology and information. 

Bruce and Hogan (1998) also expanded their discussion of technology transparency to emphasize the nature of “embedded systems” (p. 271) and the potential loss of control that we may perceive as we become increasingly dependent upon various forms of technology.  This perceived loss of control can be mitigated through increasing awareness of technology as a thought process.  With the increasing degree of technology transparency in our lives in the 21st century, many of us lose our sense of who is in control of technology and if indeed we are able to reduce or manage the unanticipated and less desirable consequences of embedded technology use.  School environments have much to gain once teachers are mindful, through engaging in the critical technology thought process, to discern the desirable, unanticipated and potentially harmful consequences of our decisions as educators to integrate varied formats of technology for student learning.

Williams and Edge (1996), as well as Wajcman (1991), pinpointed that technology use is defined within a social context.  With increasing mindfulness of the social context, teachers can design instruction with technology that reduces the undesirable side effects and maximizes its benefits.  Through reflection and awareness of these interrelationships, cognitive and social impacts, teachers’ level of empowerment to use technology effectively and more consistently can be achieved.  Teachers’ efforts to create technology supported instructional activities can be culturally relevant and responsive to students’ educational needs. 


Bimber, B. (1995). Three faces of technological determinism, In M. R. Smith & L. Marx (Eds.), Does technology drive history? (pp. 79-100). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.  

Bruce, C. B., and Hogan, M. P. (1998). The Disappearance of technology: Toward an ecological model of literacy. In David Reinking, Michael C. McKenna, Linda D. Labbo, & Ronald D. Kieffer. Handbook of literacy and technology. (pp. 269-281). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Chandler, D. (1995). Technological or Media Determinism. Retrieved from: http://www.bos.org.rs/cepit/idrustvo/st/TechorMediaDeterminism.pdf

Ellul, J. (1988). The technological bluff. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Geoffrey W. Bromiley, trans. 1990)

Ellul, J. (1964). The Technological society. NY: Knopf and London: Jonathan Cape. (John Wilkinson, trans. 1964)

Ellul, J. (1963). The Technological order. In Carl Mitcham and Robert Mackay (Eds.), Philosophy and technology: Readings in the philosophical problems of technology. (pp. 86-105). NY: The Free Press. (John Wilkinson, trans. 1972)

Finn, J. D. (1960). Automation and education, III: Technology and the instructional process. Educational Technology Research and Development. 8(1), 5-26.

Kurzweil, R. (2003). Promise and peril. In Morton E. Winston and Ralph D. Edelbach (Eds.), Society, ethics and technology (pp. 248-253). Canada: Wadsworth.

Pannabecker, J. R. (1991). Technological impacts and determinism in technology education: Alternative metaphors from social constructivism. Journal of Technology Education, 3(1). Retrieved: http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JTE/v3n1/pdf/

Ropohl, G. (1983). A Critique of technological determinism. In Paul T. Durbin & Friedrich Rapp (Eds.), Philosophy and Technology. (pp.88-96). Boston: Kluwer.

Salomon, G. (1998). Technology’s promises and dangers in a psychological and educational context. Theory Into Practice, 37(1), 4-10.

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism confronts technology. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania University Press.

Williams, R., and Edge, D. (1996). The Social shaping of technology. Research Policy, 25, 856-899. Retrieved from the Research Centre for Social Science: http://www.rcss.ed.ac.uk/technology/SSTRP.html


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