Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Drop in a Bucket

Just finished reading Nicolas Carr's "The Big Switch," which is partially the story of the generation and dissemination of electrical power, and is partially the history being written *as we speak* regarding how computing services are/will be delivered to business, and indeed to all of us. It was fascinating to contemplate the imaginative leap that moved us--quite rapidly--from each man serving himself (the waterwheel as a source of power) to Edison's musings about why the "power of yonder river" couldn't be harnessed to make the job of mine workers in Wyoming less arduous.
Edison invents the generating station, designed as a local power source (with Edison envisioning himself selling MANY sets of the needed technology). His disciple, Thomas Insull, sees a still larger possibility...a much larger network which, if fully employed, could provide power to a region, and at much lower cost. The issue for Insull was that people had to believe that his vision was possible, as embracing said vision required that they turn away from the infrastructure in which they had heavily invested in favor of Insull's vision of the possible. Surely Insull's success in realizing his vision (at what would become known as Commonwealth Edison) had as much impact on the society we know today as did Edison's amazing harnessing of the power of rushing water itself.
Carr then draws a parallel between this story and the evolving story of computing in our lives. To make a long story very short, we find ourselves in the early stages of a transition from computers on desks and massive computer infrastructure at every business, to the astonishing possibility of (like the electrical outlet we take so much for granted) plugging a monitor into an "outlet" and having full access to a full array of computing services, data management, etc. This is a potentially revolutionary step for the business world, seeming to require the same kind of faith that Samuel Insull ultimately warranted/benefited from. In a sense, as individual users, we've already moved significantly in this direction with the explosion of web-based tools (the so called web 2.0 technologies) that push us away from the rapidly antiquating idea of buying software, etc.
So what does this have to do with education? Lots, to be sure. I'm still trying to get a handle on that question, but Carr's choice for an epilogue provided me with a starting point...our relationships with one another. Carr talks about people gathering in the evening around the fire, providing a social gathering point. Amongst other things, electricity afforded people mobility, even within the house, such that this gathering didn't necessarily happen. Carr also talks about how objects looked different in firelight than they did in electrical light...our fundamental "realities" (perceptual and social) were affected.
As I think about what I'd like to talk about with the "Teaching with Technology" students, I thought of Neil Postman. Postman's writing pulls the conversation powerfully in the direction of how we relate (as people and as educators) to the "magic" of technology. I recall Postman talking about what he called the "ecological" change brought about by technology. In a speech
he gave in Denver of 1998, he states that "(t)echnological change is not additive; it is ecological." He asks, "(w)hat happens if we place a drop of red dye into a beaker of clear water? Do we have clear water plus a spot of red dye? Obviously not. We have a new coloration to every molecule of water. That is what I mean by ecological change. A new medium does not add something; it changes everything. In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe."
A new kind of light changes the way we see things, and our social relations. Computers have the same far-reaching effect, and we as teachers struggle to get a handle on what and how and what it means in terms of our teaching. What does all of this mean in terms of what should occupy the space labeled "Educational Technology" for future teachers?
One thing is that old-timers like me do not have the luxury of paying no attention to Facebook. For the moment, I'm going to take my students back to Dewey and see if we can connect with the astonishing, perplexing world of social networking.
I'll let you know how it goes ;-)

Carr, Nicolas. " The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google" (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008)

Postman, Neil. “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological
Change.” Web Home of Tom Shanks, Ph. D, Santa Clara University. July 9, 2008.


Rebekah said...

I like the idea that the modification of an important invention possibly made more impact than the invention itself. That thought ties in nicely with what we are discussing in a few other classes about how, as new technology emerges, completely new opportunities for jobs open up.

Carolyn Z. Lawrence said...

Hi Jeff, You left a comment on my blog,, a while back, and I am only just getting to check out your terrific blog. I was wondering if you could email me at, as I would like to chat with you about online media/blogs/media resources for students from a teacher's point of view. Thanks! Carolyn Lawrence