Monday, October 05, 2009

Intersection of Tools and Culture

Pea (2004 ) believes that intelligence is not an individual, solitary thing – though in our modern society, we try to measure it as such. Instead, proposes Pea, intelligence/knowledge is multiple and distributed across people and environments. In using intelligence, humans have desires (4 types), in which they create and use tools to achieve these desires. Each tool has accordances – that is the “perceives and actual properties of the ting, primarily those functional properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used”(p. 51). The tools can also be said to be “intelligent” itself, as the tool defines its purpose and the task. But, as tools become accepted, the intelligence within is less evident. Tools can amplify human intelligence, but Pea posits that they are more reorganizers of mental functioning – that people change what they do, not just how they do it. However, education seems to be unaware of this, and continues to adopt technologies without considering the trade-offs, or does not adopt the tool, even though it is part of everyday life.

Postman (1993) has a lot to say, but it basically boils down to this – all technologies have both blessings and burdens. Too often, people either fully embrace or fully reject a technology. In doing so, the complex relationship of the cultural, social and systematic change borne from the technology is not fully examined.

Illich (1973) proposes a new society – one that he names a convivial society, in which the tools people use allow for autonomy and creative interactions between people and their environments. In doing so, three values would be protected; survival, justice, and self-defined work. In our current society, too often, people become slaves to the tools – whether it is an institution (like school) or a machine (like an airplane). In our modern society, the use of industrial tools has spawned a world-wide homogenization of culture, in which people are trying to fit in. (ie – schools look about the same, factories look about the same). “A convivial society should be designed to allow all its members the most autonomous action by means of tools least controlled by others” (p.21). He goes on to define tools as “ all rationally designed devices, by they artifacts or rules, codes or operators, and to distinguish all these planned and engineered instrumentalities from other things such as basic food or implements, which in a given culture are not deemed to be subject to rationalization” (p. 22). He believes that hand tools, those that adapt a person's metabolic energy to a specific tacks, tend to be more convivial, as almost anyone can use for his/her own purposes, as compared to power tools, which often subsume the users to a mere operator. However, manipulative tools (those in which create gaps between have/have not) can not be fully abolished, instead, a balance between manipulative and empowering tools is necessary. Which leads to the definition of work (satisfying, creative and independent), labor (doing for the benefit of a master/exploitive), operative ( earned through consumption and privileged experience). In modern society, technological progress tends to widen the gap between rich and poor. Often the “progress” is only for individual gain, not societal good. And, in doing so, deprives the majority of further independence, self-worth, and efficacy.

Johnson (1988) argues that as we delegate more of human activity to tools/technology, the general public tends to humanize the technologies and apply human characteristics to them. If a person's perception is their reality, then non-human technologies, designated as human, must be an important factor in society, and by extension, in sociology.

It seems to me that Illich (1973) is suggesting that specialized knowledge has little place in his convivial society, as we should be able to heal ourselves etc. I struggle to imagine his ideal convivial society in the context of our modern technologies and societal demands – would it even be possible? Which, is maybe his point – we would have to have a radical revolution in order for this to happen. I couldn't help but think of Stephan King's The Stand while reading. When 75% of the world's population dies, how do the survivors re-engineer society when many of the specialists are dead? Well, new people become specialists, but with more of a focus of committees. (That on the “good” side – the bad side is just a dictator.) Postman's (1993) predictions are scarily accurate in many cases. What frustrates me is that he warns, but doesn't have alternatives. Though, Illich's alternative seems unrealistic, at least he has a vision. Pea (2004) begins to indicate the implications of a new definition of intelligence on education.


Illich, I. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper and Row.
Johnson, J (aka Latour, B.) (1988). Mixing humans and nonhumans together: the sociology of
a door-closer. Social Problems, Vol. 35 No.3, pp.298-310.
Pea, R. D. (2004) Practices of distributed intelligences and designs for education. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions. (pp. 88-110).
Postman, N. (1993). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. NewYork: Vintage Books.

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