Sunday, January 06, 2008

Habits of the High Tech Heart

“We have to abandon the arrogant belief that the world is merely a puzzle to be solved, a machine with instructions for use waiting to be discovered, a body of information to be fed into a computer in the hope that sooner or later it will spit out a universal solution.”

“We have to release from the sphere of private whim and rejuvenate such forces as a natural, unique, and unrepeatable experience of the world, an elementary sense of justice, the ability to see things as others do, a sense of transcendental responsibility, archetypal wisdom, good taste, courage, compassion, and faith in the importance of particular measures that do not aspire to be universal, thus an objective or technical key to salvation.” Vaclav Havel

Habits of the High Tech Heart, a rather scholarly book, by Dr. Quentin Schultze of the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana filled the better part of our car trip to visit Dean's parents in North Carolina this Christmas. While it wasn't escapist fiction, it did gave me material for reflection as we begin the new year.

According to Schultze if we mindlessly employ technology we will be disappointed in the outcome. He lists the following habits as necessary. they are Discernment, Moderation, Wisdom, Humility, Authenticity, and Cosmic diversity.

Two areas seem to apply particularly to schools. The first issue is technology costs both hidden and unintended. "Wasted time, money and natural resources are other moral dimensions of information technology. A survey of companies in 1996 by the Standish Group revealed that American companies spend over $250 billion dollars annually on computer technologies alone. Yet the waste is staggering. The same survey discovered that 42 percent of corporate information technology projects were abandoned before completion. Upgrades can easily cost more than the original systems. " In addition people must be employed to keep the software and hardware functioning.

No one really knows how to determine total information technology costs, because installing computers and digital networks create additional non-measurable costs. When Texas Instruments’ area code in Dallas was changed, the resulting technology costs included roughly $100,000 for operator retraining, directories, cellular number changes, and internal phone system upgrades. But the paper costs for the new stationary, business cards, and various business forms totaled a staggering $1,200,00.”

Another good example of this unexpected cost comes in the form of printing out email! The goal 10 years ago was a paperless office, but now most people waste a great deal of money, energy, and resources by printing out email. There are the constant costs of change-- how much does it cost to adjust to new technology and learn new ways to incorporate it? Each time an operating system is upgraded, or another version of software arrives users must learn or re-learn how to do tasks.

The second issue relates to what happens in a community of users. Most technology is under the control of "routineers," lovers of compulsion and conformity, whose chief concern is to keep the wheels moving smoothly.

These knowledge workers derive their authority from the specialized skills and procedures that enable them to make systems “work.” These specialists gain a broad authority . They are entirely data-driven in making decisions, and ae not influenced by intellectual or moral understanding.
"In other words, many managers are informational technicians who rely on database and communication technologies that are themselves the work of expert technicians. Like technologists these managers aim for greater production and distribution efficiencies and for more control over markets. In short, information managers “specialize” by relying on detached quantitative ways of knowing—what was earlier called informationism. In too many instances , their chief responsibility is to be effective managers of information, not to be responsible stewards of the resources for good purposes. Caught in an informational meritocracy, they elevate technique over moral vision."

We experience this when our it department locks down our laptops to the point that we cannot even control how our desktops appear. This rigidity stiffles creativity and innovation.

The IT departments are creating a monoculture that disrespects culturally diverse traditions of local knowledge. "Walker Percy calls this kind of dichotomy a “misapprehension of the scientific method, an idolatry that results in both the radical and paradoxical loss of sovereignty by the layman” and the “radical impoverishment of human relations.”

Quis custodiet ipsos custodies? – Who controls the controllers? Who shall we invite to the table? Indeed that is the question. Who shall we invite to the table? My highest hope is that technology would empower people to question and learn, to explore in community with those around us. Schultze suggests that we can change this, but admonishes us that if we fail,

"We become impersonal observers of the world rather than intimateparticipants in the world. Information technologies foster statistical ways of perceiving and systematic modes of imagining. Under their influence, we see the world in terms of cybernetic systems composed of measurable causes and effects."

This is unacceptable -- our world is far richer and deeper than a system of causes and effects.