On the myth of neutral technology

In the wake of last week’s news that a Yale police officer drew his gun on an (unarmed) African-American Yale student under highly questionable circumstances, I felt compelled to turn back to a recent article in The Atlantic that had caught my attention a few weeks earlier. Addressing the question of body-mounted cameras as a response to repeated cases of racial bias and police violence in U.S. cities of late, Melissa Gregg and Jason Wilson argue that, despite what many people think, there is little evidence that using such cameras would lead to greater public accountability by law enforcement. In fact, they write, the fundamental problem is prejudice and “no technological fix can remedy the inequalities that underly police violence against young black men.” To believe otherwise is to partake in the “myth of neutral technology”–namely, that the camera, and technology in general, produces hard evidence and not subjective argument, objective facts and not biased sentiment, and therefore should be trusted over the human powers to witness, to report, and to judge. These assumptions, Gregg and Wilson say, need to be interrogated.

I’ve been thinking about this example quite a bit as it relates to questions of technology in my corner of the world, that is, in university-based language centers supporting the teaching and learning of languages on their campuses–work that has for decades involved training and supporting faculty in the use of technology, and still entails supplying the tools themselves (see Felix Kronenberg’s helpful historical overview, “Language center design and management in the post-language laboratory era“). This is ‘objective’ technology work in many ways, yet, I think, work that also opens up plenty of opportunities for the perpetuation of myth.

Of course, to link these two domains of life and work together is a stretch in some regards; clearly, no weapons or direct physical harm to people are at stake in language professionals’ work with technology. Yet, with a little searching and reflecting, it’s not too hard to find examples of the non-neutrality of supposedly neutral and very accessible tools used for the teaching and learning of languages. Here, to be clear, I’m not thinking about what we might perceive as technology’s ‘failure’ to deliver on promises of perfection: the fact that the quality of online voice recordings sometimes makes differences in pronunciation hard to discern, for instance.

More to the point are examples like the affective and discursive influences of audioconferencing vs. videoconferencing in synchronous learning settings (or of asynchronous text vs. audio messaging in facilitating social presence among learners), or of the mediating effects of another communication/learning technology that’s hot in the news these days: real-time translation assistants. Skype, for instance, already widely used for conversation practice and project work, now offers Spanish <=> English voice translation, with many more language combinations promised to come. Its performance, however, is said to be less like an open window to understanding, and more like a somewhat clumsy third party to the conversation, one who is insensitive to context and gender, region, age, and other variation in language use. A translation ‘assistant’ like this does not just facilitate a conversation that would have happened anyway; it changes the course and the nature of the conversation from the start, demanding attention and producing effects that, however subtle, may be humorous, harmful, or (hopefully, from a language teaching and learning perspective) thought-provoking. 

Closer still to the point about the neutrality of technology are findings, intuitively felt by many and made explicit in the research literature, that even the ubiquitous learning management systems of our higher educational environments, such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, and Classes*v2 here at Yale, may serve some people’s interests better than others. For example, Steel & Levy (2009, p. 1014) write,

While they are easy to use for more generic and teacher or content centred tasks such as information dissemination and administration and for standard (if rather cumbersome) communication tasks, they are not easily configurable to the ways that teaching and learning may be envisaged for a discipline or by an individual teacher. 

In this sense, even the newest and most forward-looking LMSs can still be said to privilege the instructor’s ability to disseminate and administer the class over the students’ abilities to organize amongst themselves, to pose and respond to their own questions, and to evaluate themselves with the same robust set of tools available to the teacher. Classroom power relationships, the rights and means to expression, and procedures for identifying and evaluating learners are to a large degree ‘baked into’ the system.

Yet, the contention that computers and other technologies in education are non-neutral (see Bowers’ influential 1988 essay about the marginalization of certain kinds of individual and cultural experience, and commodification of learning) only gets partway to the point in the Atlantic article about body-mounted police cameras. Gregg and Wilson’s argument about the “myth” of technology is not so much that the tools and materials used in educational settings are biased, but that the human, social and legal systems into which these technologies are placed are themselves predisposed to privileging some, while supporting continued discrimination against others. And that the introduction of a fancy new tool into already troubled or systematically inequitable or unbalanced situations (of learning, of policing) is a great way to keep attention away from where it is needed most.

In a recent NYT column (“Can students have too much tech?” 1/30/15), Susan Pinker remarks, “mounting evidence shows that showering students, especially those from struggling families, with networked devices will not shrink the class divide in education. If anything, it will widen it.” Although Mark Warschauer (UC Irvine Professor of Education and Informatics), whom she cites in her article, justifiably takes issue with the one-sidedness of Pinker’s views on the supposed effects of technology, one lesson to be taken with regard to language and literacy classrooms, as with the policing of an economically stratified and racially divided society, seems to be this: technology does not only do what it purports to do. In fact, as I’ve sugged above, it often doesn’t do everything that its ardent proponents, including those at language centers like myself, hope it will. But whatever instrumental needs it fulfills, it also exerts an influence on existing relationships and flows of power in the institutions where it is introduced. When the ‘instrumentalization’ of needs (e.g., to make language learning or community policing more ‘efficient’) goes unquestioned, this influence of technology may simply be to reinforce the status quo. However, when technology serves as an opportunity to expose and discuss the prevailing political, social and economic conditions of its own deployment, as in the Gregg and Wilson article, it may open the door to change.

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