Perspectives on technology

As should be evident from what you have seen of the course so far, technology is a human activity and there are different ways of looking at it. It is important to consider different perspectives on technology that may result from its relationship to human cultures, the experiences that children may have with technology, and how those experiences might influence the approach taken to technology in the classroom.

Technology and science may be related in various ways but they are distinct ways of understanding the world. Where science might be thought to be driven by pure curiosity, technology is a response to human needs and wants. It is about the changes that people make in their environment to meet those needs and wants and those changes are influenced by values and beliefs about what should be done. Although technology often results in products, the core of the 2003 Queensland syllabus document was about the process of working technologically to meet needs and wants in a particular context with impacts and consequences. The new Australian Curriculum: Technologies has an overarching idea, creating preferred futures, supported by key ideas: project management, systems thinking, design thinking, and computational thinking. Although the curriculum documents use different language there is consistency in the idea of technology as processes through which people work to improve their lives by meeting needs and wants.

Human needs and wants vary with context. Common needs such as clothing and shelter differ from one climate to another. What people consider desirable or essential may vary according to their age, physical condition, and beliefs. The technologies that develop to meet these needs and wants will respond to the local environment by using the resources that are available but will potentially also influence the environment, or at least the way that it is experienced by people. People who live in cool environments with few trees might use animal skins to construct shelters but those who live in a forested area may use timber for the same purpose. In both cases they will experience the environmental extremes to a lesser degree than if they did not construct shelters and that will affect other aspects of their lives. Building shelters to mitigate the effects of weather and improve living conditions is a simple step toward creating a preferred future.

What counts as technology, that is, as a worthwhile contribution to meeting needs and wants, will be affected by our values or preferences. It may be affected by such human factors as gender, ethnicity, or religious beliefs. Technology develops out of existing culture and influences the development of culture, that is the "sum total of ways of living built up by a group of human beings and transmitted from one generation to another" (Dictionary.com).

Technology is shaped by culture through the values and beliefs that drive decisions about what technologies are developed and how they are distributed and used. Technology, in turn, helps to shape culture by affecting the range of activities in which people can engage and the ways in which they can communicate. Certain activities, such as patterns of travel and entertainment, are legitimated by the technologies that make them possible and technologies such as newspapers and television determine who is able to influence public opinion. Some technologies persist beyond the life of a culture through adoption by other cultures and in archeological evidence.

Technology is not a recent invention. It has been a common feature of human existence since the earliest times when the capacity of humans to use tools, such as sharpened sticks and rocks, and to control phenomena, such as fire, enabled them to extend their populations and living range. However, technology has varied through time and according to location. Some technologies, such as flaking suitable rocks to produce sharp edges, seem obvious but required considerable skill for successful execution. Others, such as the methods used by Polynesian peoples and others to navigate on long ocean voyages or the processes used by indigenous peoples to eliminate poisons from certain foodstuffs, are less obvious and some remain mysterious even today.

It is important to consider technologies in relation to the contexts in which they develop and are used. They involve interactions among needs engendered by environmental conditions, the resources available in a local environment, expectations of the culture, and the available tools and techniques. Without direct experience of a specific context it can be difficult to appreciate the needs and other factors that have contributed to development of particular technologies. When teachers present material about technologies from different contexts it is important to consider the circumstances in which the technologies were developed and used and to be sensitive to different cultural values and histories that have influenced the technologies. It is important not to judge technologies in one context according to the norms of another context. Ideally technologies from other cultures should be presented by, or at least in ways acceptable to, representatives of the culture of origin.

The close links between technologies and the contexts in which they are developed and used are important when technologies are transferred from one context to another rather than being invented in situ. There are good reasons for acquiring technologies from other contexts when that can save time and cost of development and enable more rapid adoption of comparable technologies. However, it is important to ensure that technologies adopted from elsewhere are a suitable match for local environmental and cultural conditions and to guard against undesirable consequences. The concept of appropriate technology suggests that design or selection of technologies should recognise social, environmental, political and economic aspects of introducing a technology and that smaller scale technologies that are affordable and sustainable are preferable in many circumstances.

It is important to recognise that there are different perspectives on technology that can add breadth and depth to our understanding of technology and the ways that it affects our lives. Among the variety of other views that might be considered are the ideas of Ivan Illich about conviviality and those associated with technological determinism. Illich (1973) argued that tools (technologies) should be capable of being mastered by their users for use according to the goals of users thus empowering users with choices rather than forcing particular modes of operation. Technological determinism represents an essentially opposite view in which the course of technological development is seen as beyond the control of humans and a major factor in the direction of human development.

Perhaps you would prefer to take a position somewhere between these. Whatever your personal perspective on technology there is no doubt that it is an important aspect of culture and an appropriate subject for education.

References

Illich, I. (1973). Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper and Row.

Queensland Studies Authority. (2003). Technology Years 1 to 10 Syllabus. Retrieved from http://www.qcaa.qld.edu.au/downloads/p_10/kla_tech_syll.pdf