Monday, 9 February 2015

There is no such thing as "new" technology.....

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

In studying the genesis of technology,  I now know that there is no such thing as  a “new technology”, simply because  each “new” technology is an evolution of an “older” technology.  

History shows that the introduction of any “new” technology is inevitably accompanied by a group of skeptics and alarmists who go wax poetic about the perils and dangers of the “new” technology.

Let’s take a journey in a time machine and go to ancient Greece of Socrates.

The advent of writing was a source of major concern and distress for Socrates. He believed that one could only gather and gain knowledge through dialogue and interaction - that is to say, you need to ask questions and get answers.... “dialogue where ideas are interrogated until the knowledge is truly understood”. He then went to say that this was not possible with a book - “written words” - or with a painting. 

Now, let’s fast forward to today.... As knowledge management practitioners, we advocate for documenting and capturing the learning and lessons as they emerge. We then produce papers, case studies, publications, a myriad of PDF files which accordingly to the latest World Bank Knowledge Management Evaluation no one reads.

When we have the luxury and opportunity of “hearing the story” of that lesson learnt first hand, that is when we truly understand and assimilate the learning. And this is not only because we hear it orally, but as Socrates said, it is because we have the opportunity to interact with the “author” or the story teller.

Socrates was also concerned that because written words are disembodied, the art of memorization, delivering speeches, rhetorics and more broadly dialectic is at great risk. For sure, today the art of memorizing poetry or epic stories is not something common. Similarly individuals excelling in rhetorics may be sneered at and deemed as arrogant and self-centred. 

However,  I believe the “new” media - aka social media - has created a fertile ground for conversation and engagement - albeit virtually and not face-to-face. I know Socrates would not necessarily be happy with this compromise, but nonetheless, it is probably better than the one-way traditional media. 

This said, when it comes to education, nothing in the world can nor should replace the role of the teacher, instructor, mentor, whatever you want to call this figure. So, no I am not at all for on-line courses nor e-learning. These are tools that are useful when you have a grasp of a subject matter. There are just like dictionaries... You do not learn a language or a philosophy by “reading” or “consulting” a dictionary.

 While we’re in the time machine, let’s visit the 21st century and examine the “novelty”  or lack of thereof social media. The Economist article “How Luther went viral”, very eloquently demonstrates how social media has been around at least since reformation, if not earlier.

It shows how Luther then and how social media users now are taking advantage of a decentralized model to share information, put pressure, raise awareness about issues and engage in a multidirectional conversation. In other words, we are in as much of a networked world today as we were back in 1500s and earlier.

By the same token, while Luther exploited the power of print and distributed short pamphlets instead of huge tomes, we communicate with 140 characters the headline of a news or the news itself via a tweet. Instead of writing an academic paper with lots of footnotes and citations, we blog and instead of creating 40 minute documentaries to raise awareness about atrocities happening in the world, we make a one-minute Vine video.

And when it comes to measuring success, instead of counting the reprints of a pamphlet, we measure it by the number of “Likes”, “Retweets”, “Shares”  and comments.

I wonder whether the discussions and exchange of views and ideas happening on social media channels would have tranquilized Socrates’ and changed his view vis-a-vis the fact that written words are not necessarily disembodied..... Who knows. 

Another extraordinary aspect of mainstreaming any “new” technology is its agency to create new lines of jobs. These jobs can either see the light of the day to protect the very essence of the technology or be created as a result of user appropriation.

For example, as writing became mainstreamed and the norm, this gave rise to forgery and falsification of manuscripts and scriptures. This  in turn led to whole new genre of employment requiring academics and experts to examine writings on clay, parchments, papyrus, silk and paper to detect whether these were original or the fruit of a forgery. Similarly, the mainstreaming of social media has led to creation of jobs such as professional bloggers who raise awareness about social, economic and developmental issues, or act as whistle blowers;  social media strategists and ghost writers for prominent personalities and celebrities.

I’ve also learnt that it is prudent not to sing too much the praises of any technology and make it seem as if it is the panacea. Here are some examples of great technologies that “changed our lives” or where supposed to change our lives which now have retired to an obscure section of our memory lane....... telegraph, fax, typewriter, Concorde, Kodak film and more recent ones, GoogleWave, Google glass, MySpace and list goes on and on.....

Be forewarned, some of the “old” technologies come back in new guise..... Think of the scroll, which became old technology with the introduction of codex - or book..... And guess what .....good old scroll is back big time! How many times did you have to scroll while reading this blogpost?

I find immense comfort in studying history, as it allows me to put things in perspective, understand where we are coming from and how we got to where we are. 

I’ve also learnt that being an early adopter puts you in a vantage position to live passionately through the hype, sit back and wait for the next “big new” technology. 

As an early adopter I also cherish raising awareness about the benefits of the “new” technology and convincing the “cavemen” how the “new” technology can and will make a difference!

As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, I am a technological determinist and one who is maturing to be more balanced.


More to come.... so check back in and I would love to hear your views and ideas.
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