Monday, June 18, 2012

The High Priest at the Altar of Technopoly

In chapters 3 and 4 of Technopoly, Postman explains the shift that he observed moving American culture from Tool-using (technology has value, but tools have limited value to specific situations) to Technocracy (technology plays a central role in culture, and tools vie to take over culture) to Technopoly (technology is culture, all other cultural aspects are subservient to the tools, the tools use us.) Postman mentions that at the time of his writing--1992--the United States was the only Technopoly in the world. (I might argue that most western nations are now Technopolies of one sort or another, and many East Asian nations as well.)

I first found this idea of our whole culture being somehow subservient to technology a little ridiculous, but the more I've reflected on it, the more true it seems to me. For example...
  • I expect my doctor to show me evidence of some medical test to back up his claims. Not that I know any better...but somehow it "feels" better to know that there is a test to confirm his diagnosis.
  • I have no idea what is wrong with my car, and perhaps neither does the mechanic until he plugs it in to his computer to see which widget needs to be replaced. 
  • How much of my free time do I spend in front of some sort of a screen? 
  • How much of my working time do I spend in front of a screen? 
  • Do I really care what my high school classmates are broadcasting on Facebook? But how often have I thought--while doing an activity that is actually meaningful and enjoyable and non-technological--"I can't wait to post about this online!"

But true? I do think Postman might be on to something here. In our culture, it seems that the prevailing thinking goes: Technology is omnipresent. Technology can make our lives better. Technology can save us.

Then let's think about school. Have we bought this idea at school: "Technology will make our students learn better. Technology will make us teach better. Technology can save us." Ouch. I'm thinking now that my most recent job in an elementary school was Technology Coordinator speaks to Technopoly. We need to have a full-time person in a school of ~420 students and 30+ staff members to coordinate how we use technology, to teach students how to use technology, to coach teachers in how to effectively allow technology to enhance their teaching practice, and to fix all those lovely technological toys when they misbehave.

And even that--I describe the tools/toys as though they are alive if they might really choose to behave badly!


And yet...teaching in the 21st Century in North America...could we not teach with technology? I mean, if push comes to shove, I'd rather my own children have roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-your-hands-dirty kinds of learning experiences to virtual ones that happen via website or iPad app. At the same time, I think we, as distinctively Christian teachers, need to speak prophetically to our culture, and that means a level of understanding of our culture as well, right?

So I'm torn. I'm advocating for teaching kids the technological literacy skills they need to be successful as 21st Century citizens, but that the same time I'm advocating for being very aware of the hidden messages embedded by adopting any technology.

Perhaps Technopoly is idolatry, fundamentally. That's a scary thought for the Tech Coordinator! Suddenly I have a crazy mental image of a pagan high priest in garish costume, ascending to the altar of the gods of Technopoly, and all the people gathered around, prepared to solicit his blessing, his access to the gods. (Okay, that's a little overly dramatic perhaps...but you get my point?) That's a horrible image, isn't it? Yikes!

And yet, I cater to it, to some degree at least. I quickly fix people's problems without taking the time to explain what I did to them, shrouding my work in mystery. Sometimes I even wave my hand at the machine while I'm working on it. (This reminds me of the story of Naaman the Leper in 2 Kings 5--upset with Elisha for not "waving his hand over the spot" to heal his leprosy. Check out the story here.) Scary stuff--having a higher caste of the technological elite.

Which leads me to my question for you all:
Do you have a designated person on your staff who has the responsibility to coordinate how technology is used at your school? And if so, how much do you rely on that person to be your resident high priest on the altar of Technopoly? Or if you don't have such a designated person, can you speak to why not? Is it a conscious choice made by the school? Or perhaps a matter of pragmatism?


  1. After reading this blog I am reminded again how much our schools (and our personal lives) revolve around technology. I would say at this point it would be very hard to find a school that did not have a technology coordinator of some sort. When we are being encouraged to use technology in its various forms, there needs to be someone who can help lead and teach us.
    The last school I was in did have a part-time technology coordinator who led sectionals on different types of technology, fixed things that were broken, taught computer class, etc. Both schools I substitute taught in this year had a technology coordinator. I always tried to learn and figure things out on my own, but when I was stuck or needed new ideas I would go to him. Actually, sometimes before I went to him I would ask the students in my classes because they often knew more than all of us!
    I think it is a conscious choice made by the school to have a tech coordinator. Although I also love the "role-up-your-sleeves" learning experiences, I think we also need to acknowledge the fact that students will need some technological skills to be prepared for the 21st century. If a school wants to do their part to prepare students effectively for this, having a coordinator to make sure this is done well is important.

  2. Yes, my school does have a technology coordinator. The moment I realize how much I rely on him is when I realize at 7:59 that my SmartBoard isn't working correctly. You better believe I get in touch with him as quickly as I can! It is in those moments that I am a little bit ashamed how much my teaching relies on technology. Not only does technology somewhat control the information I take in and how; it also controls the way I teach and manage my classroom. It can even control my mood-mostly when it's not working!

    Karla-I love the comment about asking the kids first. I am amazed how much even 6 year olds know how to do on an iPad or SmartBoard! I am curious to know your thoughts about technology as a substitute. I am finding that sub plans are getting harder and harder to write as my classroom gets more and more inundated with technology. Even the way my kids check-in in the morning involves technology. Did you feel overwhelmed by trying to figure out classroom technology as a sub?

  3. My school does not have a technology coordinator. We have someone my principal emails when something is going wrong and maybe in the next week or so he will get to it. We have SMARTboards in every room and we recently purchased a traveling lab of Ipads. I feel the more and more technology we implement in our school the more and more the need for a tech coordinator will be. The only reason we don't have a tech coordinator is funding. We can't afford a full-time staff person to be a tech coordinator. However, I agree with both of you girls that my students seems to be my go-to tech helpers. I am amazed how tech-savvy my students are. Where did they learn this stuff, because it's not from me?! My 2 year old niece can navigate herself around an Ipad to watch a Dora episode. Crazy!

  4. Wow Professor Mulder what thoguht provoking questions! Many of them were running through my mind as well. Not only does my school have a technology coordinator but we also have another one that is for the entire district. I have to say I do rely on them a lot especially this past year as a new teacher. To our district technology is extremely important and this is where our society is going.

    Technopoly =possible idolatry ouch! I also feel the same way about feeling torn. How much is to much? If I do not incorporate technology I feel I am not doing my job in preparing my students for the 21st century or truly differentiating instruction for those who need it. But I also worry about am I hindering other skill that need to be learned and practiced?