The Theoretical Perspective

To a great extent, the Digital Cobbler came from a very practical, hands-on way of
looking at technology. However, another way of looking at the digital environment
is from a theoretical perspective. That is, a theoretical look at how we are
using and developing technology in this culture, what we might learn from technological
developments in the past and what that might tell us about how to use what we
have go more effectively.

 

The theoretical perspective looks at technology as a vast powerful force that
has in the past greatly reshaped the world and our place in it. Various theorists
describe technology as a system or an ecology and the age we are in as the beginning
of the age of computers (or "information" or "complexity")
and that this new age, while replacing one that has lasted for more than five-hundred
years, may go on for as long as that or longer (but it is not the point of this
site to guess the future).

 

Despite the broad, overwhelming implications that will be discussed here, most
of us continue to view the powerful technology we have simply as "tools".
We increasingly have dozens of choices about how we choose to apply these tools
and, if nothing else, the purpose here is to give us a better context with which
to apply them and some understanding of the future implications that our choices
might have. We are all likely already aware, to some degree, that these powerful
tools can greatly enrich our lives; that they can enhance our lives. Not by
any magic powers they might have but because they can allow us to avoid the
things we don’t like doing and they can free us up to do the things we do like
doing. However, we might not really be aware that the way we adopt these tools
as individuals will also affect how they are incorporated into our culture.
This culture-wide adoption can be slow and inconsistent and it is not directly
evident how our own use affects our culture but I certainly believe that subsequent
generations will be using today’s technology (or its direct decendants) based
on rules they have been taught that we first applied.

 

James Burke , in his book The Day the Universe Changed, suggests
that people at a certain time and place act in a certain way because they know
how the world works. Burke’s examples are often the big ideas that changed what
a culture knew to be true and led to a different perspective. We are not really
any different than our ancestors in this regard. We know how the world
works and how people are and how to apply the tools we have to get what we want
out of this world. Although computerization is changing the tools we use we
must always remember that raw computing power itself is not much use to us and
most people are never in a position to manipulate this power. The electrons
racing around a microchip adhere to a certain microchip design which is run
by an operating system of some sort upon which some kind of software application
uses inputs and outputs to help us do some job. As soon as you progress beyond
the raw electrons in that scenario, each one of the subsequent steps has been
designed and built by some person or group of people. These folks are not much
different than the rest of us. They are products of their time and place and
they do their work within the context of what they know to be true
and what is known by the culture around them. As a result of this,
there is no reason to think that the raw computing power and the electrons that
have been harnessed to do some job for you can not be re-harnessed to do some
other job with exactly the same sophistication of tools. As we go back in time
and investigate the nature of technological discovery and invention of previous
centuries we will see that many great developments that changed how people view
the world were not really breakthroughs of new physics and chemistry but were,
rather, new assemblies of existing processes and concepts that had not been
tried in that order before.

 

W. Daniel Hillis (Pattern on the stone, pg. xi) points out, “these days,
computers are popularly thought of as multi-media devices, capable of incorporating
and combining all previous forms of media — text, graphics, moving pictures,
sound. I think this point of view leads to an underestimation of the computer’s
potential. It is certainly true that a computer can incorporate and manipulate
all other media, but the true power of the computer is that it is capable of
manipulating not the expression of ideas but also the ideas themselves.
The amazing thing to me is not that a computer can hold the contents of all
the books in a library but that it can notice relationships between the concepts
described in the books…”. These comments are certainly apt. They point
us to the idea that when we begin using computers in their most common PC configuration,
we are using the devices as they have been configured for the most common consumer
purposes; something designed to sell us an idea or mind-space in which to use
the computer. In actuality, however, the computer is capable of a far greater
range of functionality than is presented to us by the common consumer operating
system and by the applications that are sold with almost every home and office
computer. Much of the computing power that we have bought is used up presenting
the information to us in a pleasant graphical format and running “type-ahead”
or word completion routines with our wordprocessor. It is possible, however,
to use this same computing power to provide entirely different services to our
daily routines and getting us to think about what those other services might
be is one of the main purposes of this project.

 

The fundamental reason to think about how we relate to new technology at all
is because we find that many people dislike, or are afraid of new tech. Tools
become cultural artifacts and people become attached to how the tools look and
how we use them. The very fact of new powerful tools changing the culture is
very threatening to people who fear these changes. This happens both in personallives and in professions andvocations.

 

… Tech Change and Work