In the world of the philosophy of technology – a huge area of debate at present – there is much talk about the conflict between technological determinism (the idea that a technology or a collection of devices incorporating a technology predetermines or influences to completion the practices and lifestyles of those humans that use it) and technological instrumentalism (the idea that technology is neutral and without influence, and we choose to use it – it is thus allied to social determinism). Both of these have flaws and there is some evidence (in Thomas Hughes idea of Technological Momentum) that over time, the one (strong social control over technology) gives way to a more deterministic outcome – we all use a technology and it forms part of the reason we do things. I publish these posts the way I do because of the freedom given me by the internet and a cheap or free blogging platform.
Having just finished Albert Borgmann’s Power Failure (I knew I would get there in the end), I have been thinking about these things in some depth because of a growing concern that we teach children, growing up in a highly technological world, how to accept and how to challenge the technological pre-thinking that ordered the society into which they are born. Sometimes it is easy to spot and challenge – a parent under the sway of video games rather than spending time talking to or reading with their children, or the decision to drive to school rather than walk or cycle. More often it is not that easy, but there are some pointers – the way we seek to relate to one another, the value we place on relationship, our approach to food preparation, how we think about the natural world, how we go about the acquisition of information and the value we place on different types of information. All of these are start points for thinking more deeply about separating out that over which we have control, and helps children stand strongly against the automatic assumption that because Google brings out a bit of kit (Google Glass is going to be a big talking point in schools within 18 months) we have to use it. I am resisting the use of iPads and iPhones simply because I want less connectivity in my life, not more. The decision flows from a value I treasure, and so to that extent I stand against technological determinism. Wendell Berry argues for this position in an excellent essay in 1987 entitled Why I am not going to buy a computer.
Borgmann argues for the presence of focal things and focal practices in order to recapture the heart of – the things speak of a practice, for instance a violin speaks of making music with that same violin, a fishing rod speaks of the practice of fishing, a warm loaf of bread speaks of the making of that same bread. In Christian terminology, we have focal things – a crucifix, the bread and wine, a dove, etc. They call us to certain practices that re-focus us on our humanity.
However, there is a simpler and easier way of using these focal practices that can be used to inform our life at school. They become things we do – routine, everyday things, family things (often) that keep us rooted in our ethos and our work practices, celebrating our work and the values that that work gives to others and back to ourselves – a liturgy of teaching, if you will.
Within a fortnight I will have asked my senior leaders to say exactly what actions they consider will meet the requirements and success criteria of our school development plan. Some of these actions will become focal practices – part of the routines we practice that will help and guide children to grow, under God, as learners and as humans. In particular, those that underpin our work on chaplaincy will become part of a cycle of work that will help us remember our responsibilities, challenge our attitudes, maintain our faith, and remember all the time to place children, adults or all types and the natural world at a higher status than the technology that seeks to make our lives easier.
I will write more on this, because I think that focal practices will become important in all we do, particularly in building a school community – indeed, we already have some, in restorative practice circles, in collective worship, etc. But better definition, clearer articulation and a broader and deeper imagination will all help.