Technology and civilization have stepped together through history, so much so that they are often equated as the same thing. When we look back through history, we’re often looking back at the progress of “technological evolution” (Dron, 2014, p. 241). Humans are so adept and noteworthy for their technological creations that the philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously suggests “that humans might be the ‘sex organs of the machine world’” (McLuhan, 1964, as cited in Dron, 2014, p. 240). Perhaps our technology classes in schools should add “Tech Ed”, and include a primer on technological reproduction. However humorous, the conflation of human evolution with technological evolution presents a conceptual problem: is every technology an advancement?
Understanding the difference between innovation and change is essential to understanding technological evolution. As with biological evolution, not every adaptation is beneficial: an organism’s environment will determine the “survival of the fittest” (Darwin, 1859). How do we determine what is fittest in a technological sense? Dron (2014) presents an overview of technological change in distance education. Among the change he studies are generational shifts, such as evolving pedagogies from behaviourist to constructivist models (p. 239). These shifts represent the environment for technology changing, and the fittest technologies would be the ones most adapted to the prevailing theories, ideas, and mindsets. However, even the metaphor of evolution suggests an overall advancement. In which ways can change be technological, but not innovative?
Perhaps innovation must represent a change in more than one aspect of an idea. The form of an object can change, but unless its purpose, intent, or mindset change, can it be called an innovation? For example, designing a better desk might be a classroom invention, but designing a teaching approach that doesn’t require desks may be a true innovation. Dron (2014) suggests that an important aspect of technology is the degree of choice it affords. Soft technologies allow greater choice and flexibility, whereas hard technologies limit choice (p. 241). “The more we embed processes and techniques in our tools, be they pedagogies or machine tools, the fewer choices are left to humans” (p. 242). By this definition, an innovation is something that moves on a continuum further towards being a soft technology. This suggests that innovation is a fundamental change, not just on the surface-level.
Can we actually define innovation? As Dron (2014) points out, even the concept of technology itself “is a slippery and evolving concept” (p. 239). The concept of innovation therefore remains even more elusive, but nonetheless important. As I teach young minds in my computer science class, I find myself wanting to add some more “Tech Ed” into the curriculum, and help foster a healthy skepticism of the world of technological innovation we live in.
Dron, J. (2014). Innovation and How we Change. Online Distance Education: Towards a Research Agenda, 237–265. Retrieved from http://books.google.co.za/books?hl=en&lr=&id=9dH9AwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA237&dq=water+taylor+and+francis&ots=FO3_1cbZvM&sig=bVYig9e3pS6iQrxQ64Vz9vB5Gzo
Darwin, C. (2004, Original work published 1859). On the origin of species, 1859. Routledge.