digital humanities digital rhetoric Teaching

why utopian/dystopian thinking is wrong-headed #edcmooc

With some 40,000 others I have started on this Coursera MOOC on elearning and digital culture. The first unit deals with utopian and dystopian perspectives on technology. Is it really necessary to explain why this is not a worthwhile way to frame this conversation? If we brought someone from where I live in Western New York from 200 or 500 years ago, would they look upon our world as utopian? dystopian? or just hopelessly foreign? I am guessing they would find it both alienating and amazing. Many of the values they would have would simply not make sense in our world. While technologies do not determine culture, they clearly participate in shaping the world (both naturally and culturally if you wish to make those problematic distinctions). It would be naive to view technological development as a problem solving activity: necessity isn't always the mother of invention. Technologies do not lead toward utopia. Sometimes technologies solve problems, but I think they're more likely to make old problems irrelevant. Did the automobile "solve" a problem with transportation? Not exactly. Did the light bulb solve a problem of darkness? I guess, but it would be more accurate to say that electric illumination created a new human space with new human activities. Put in the broadest terms, we no longer have the problems that 18th-century Americans had; we have new ones.

When we think of the technologies that are the focus of this MOOC–the social web, mobile devices, etc.–did they solve problems? Were they designed with some utopian impluse? Maybe, partly. Most people don't imagine they are doing evil. We could say that technologies are market-driven, but we wouldn't want to mistakenly believe that the market overdetermines technology. As if the market were some uniform entity. As if the market were not capable of error. In my view it's more accurate to imagine technologies as participating in a discontinuous process whereby new activities are generated, activities among humans and nonhumans. Sometime these activities solve old problems, sometimes they make old problems obsolete without solving them, and sometimes they create new problems or reshape old problems. Given this frame, what seems like a better starting point for me is attempting to identify the functionality of these media technologies and the activities that arise from them. Out of that analysis one might begin to think about their situation in pedagogies. I don't think that's a strictly technical or rational process, though obviously some technical understanding is necessary. That said, it's more about investigating what people do and the myriad capacities that might emerge when humans and nonhumans interact.

In other words, I think the utopian/dystopian business is a bit of boondoggle. I realize that we often think of technologies in this way, so maybe its an attempt to find a broad piece of common ground. OK. But as a teacher I would not want to spend so much time confirming a bias that I had to later undo.

This brings me to the MOOC itself. I'm very early into the experience. The typical thing users say is that they feel overwhelmed. That's not exactly the word I would use. The reading/viewing material is pretty light. There are a lot of potential discussion topics in Coursera, along with Twitter feeds, a Google Plus group, etc. etc. So it's a little hard to figure out where to find one's audience. I feel like my audience is here and connected to the MOOC through the Twitter hashtag. I will post in Coursera some, but I do face a rhetorical quandry there. I'm not sure what the point is. Maybe I'll find out. 

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