The “Spatial Turning Point”
The “Spatial Turning Point”
Technology and knowledge have always gone hand in hand. It is hard for us to describe our knowledge world without the technologies that surround it. The history of human knowledge runs through major technological revolutions: the transition from an oral to a written culture, the shift from scrolls to paged books (codices), and the move from manuscript to the printed word. Each of these revolutions not only constituted a new medium but, largely also served to shape knowledge itself – the system of values that it carries and the manner in which we remember, express ourselves and learn. The technologies used at our daily practices have become almost transparent. For example – the action of writing cursively is not perceived as a use of technology. Pen and paper are almost like a part of the human body, while the act of writing is almost automatic. We are so well adjusted to writing that we are not even aware that, when we write the letter “T”, we are initiating the action of writing a vertical line, lifting the pen, placing it on the paper again, and then writing a horizontal line. We are also unaware of the fact that the ballpoint tip of the pen puts out an exact amount of ink in response to the pressure we put on it. We write just like we ride a bicycle – the technological instrument becomes almost like an extension to our bodies, and its use like a basic bodily function, such as breathing or walking.
One of the most fascinating dynamics is that of the replacement of one knowledge technology with another. Amazingly, not too much time is required before we readjust to the transparency of the technology. It only required a few decades for many of us to treat the keyboard with the same automaticity as we treated the ballpoint pen. Sometimes, when looking from the outside, the new technology that we have adopted is less effective at being transparent: for example, the transition from writing with pen and paper to writing on the computer is a transition from objects that are inexpensive, easy to carry, and uncomplicated in operation, to heavy, expensive objects with significant potential for going wrong. However, the evolution of the technological device, along with our human capacity to adapt, makes even the most complicated technology, automatic and transparent. The amazing human capacity to adapt to a new technology and make it transparent, also conceals within it a major shortcoming – we tend to be blind to the limitations that the knowledge technology imposes on us. The more successful the technology is at being transparent and invisible, the more blind we are to the price that we pay for its use. The ability to perceive these limitations is generally found within two fundamentally different populations – the conservative Luddites, who oppose the adoption of technologies, and who are thus able to look at them from the outside; and the futurists, who look forward to the paradigm that is yet to come, and so are able to adopt a perspective of foreignness toward that which we see as obvious.
Looking at knowledge technologies like a science fiction writer
If we wish to look critically at the transparent technologies around us and at the directions in which they are developing, we may adopt an enjoyable exercise that science fiction writers sometimes perform – a supposedly retrospective examination by people of the future on the civilization of our own day. This perspective puts things that appear to us to be natural or logical into a different light. For example, today’s learning appears slow and clumsy when compared with the possibility of loading our brains with a large amount of knowledge within a few seconds, as in the world conceived by the creators of “The Matrix”. How would our descendants in another 400 years look at today’s educational technology? Let us imagine, for example, a student at the Education Dept. of an University on Planet Kepler 452B (a planet similar to Earth, discovered in mid-2015) looking at images from the 21st century that depict “educational technology.” If that student would have to describe educational technology in the 21st century based on pictures, she would note – with a measure of surprise combined with the patronizing smile reserved for those who look at the past – that most of the pictures include one image that repeats itself over and over. It is that of a student sitting in front of a computer screen, alone or with friends, smiling and showing interest. Towards the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, thousands of such images were created intended mainly for marketing purposes.
These pictures are so common that they could be defined as a genre of images in its own right, similar to those works that depict the “Madonna and Child,” or portraits of the families of nobility in the 17th century. As with the 17th century family portraits, these pictures may be read both naively and critically. When we look at these portraits naively, what we see is a family of noble lineage, perhaps with a hunting dog or servants, grouped in front of the painter. When we look at them critically, we see that the painter is trying to make a particular claim, or tell a particular story. A critical reading, may reveal that this is actually a bourgeois, middle-class family, and it is the painting that allows them to represent themselves as something they could never be – a family of noblemen. The visual image has the ability to tell an alternative story to a less sparkling reality. If so, what is the story told by those common images of educational technology? In most instances, we see a gender and racially balanced group of students, smiling and engaged in front of the screen. If our student from Kepler 452B looks at pictures of the “joy of educational technology” genre through those same critical lenses, she would conclude that the picture is gender balanced because in reality this is a field dominated by boys, that it is racially balanced because it is mainly accessible to higher socioeconomic classes, and that the kids are all smiling because the outside viewer may suspect that computer assisted learning is actually quite boring. As with many pictures, the most problematic aspect is that it expresses something that was obvious to the contemporary viewer, but only with the perspective of time that it is revealed as problematic. In the case of our picture, the problem lies in the situation itself – a kid sitting in a room, concentrating on an isolated object in which only his intellect is involved. To emphasize how grating this image is as a learning method, we should recall what Jean Jacques Rousseau, a leading thinkers of the Enlightenment, wrote about optimal learning as a combination of three elements: nature, other people, and the interaction of our own bodies with environmental objects. To create proper learning, according to Rousseau, there has to be the right combination of these three elements – the body, the space and the society around us. Educational technology, in its initial stages, did not meet any of these conditions: in the early days other people were not involved in the learning process – the “learning machine” would not require interaction with a human teacher; it was designed as a technique that only involved our mental presence: disembodied awareness viewing a screen, based on a technique that takes place not in a closed room and in a single position.
Two turning points
We have put on the glasses of a science fiction writer so as to look beyond the surface and identify the limitations of the transparent knowledge technologies that surround us. Now we can take another look at those limitations, this time from the perspective of some of the trends developing in the tech culture around us, pointing at two turning points: the first took place at the beginning of the 21st century, and the other may take place in the coming years. The first could be called “the human turning point.” For the last decade, we have witnessed the entry of interaction with people into the learning processes. With the widespread penetration of the internet and of social networks, educational technology has ceased to be a technology that merely provides interactive eduware, and is instead establishing itself more as a communications technology. From learning management systems, through forums, to social networks, communication between teachers and students, among teachers themselves, and among students, has become an important component of the value offered by educational technology. From a paradigm that views technology mainly as a “teacher-proof” interaction, we have shifted to a vision that views technology as a communications tool, one that produces learning communications that are far more powerful than those made possible by simple human learning communications.
The second may be called the “spatial turning point” – it hasn’t yet taken place, but certain of the developments of recent years hint at its imminent arrival. The first and most significant is the massive deployment of smartphones, creating a situation in which computers have come off the desks, shrunk, and moved into the pockets of each of us. The computer goes everywhere we do. It now also has capabilities that can give expression to that movement, such as GPS, gyroscope, and so on. The next stage in the lead up to the turning point includes a number of developments that substantially change the three-fold relationship: man-space-tech tool. Among them, we should include the Makers Movement, the maturation of Virtual Reality technologies, and what is commonly referred to as the Internet of Things. At first glance, these developments do not connect with one another, and do not appear to belong to the field of educational technology. However, all of them are trends that blur dichotomies that block the connection between technology, body and space.
The Makers Movement blurs the distinction between “lo-tech” and “hi-tech,” between professional and amateur, and lessens the distance from planning to production. The Maker culture matured about a decade ago, and has flourished in large part because of tech developments such as 3D printing and laser cutters. These technologies reduce time and space allowing for a complete production process. Using traditional means, these processes had required, until recently, industrial tools, specialist expertise, and a division between design and production, with industrial implementation being feasible only at the mass production level. In the Maker space, the whole of the process shrinks to one relatively small space, to short periods, as well as simultaneously plan and design using relevant software, and physical outputs. The Maker space brings together an infrastructure that is ideal for learning- the process is focused on a product, creating a direction for a project that demands learning while doing similar to that taking place in project-based learning. The connection between the planning, preparation and implementation stages creates an interface between the virtual and the real – and an unmediated understanding of the physical sides of what is learned – for example, a different understanding of spatial engineering.
If the maker culture were a religion, then its religious ceremonies would be the hackathons – intensive development marathons operating at a fast pace, on the basis of teams working together toward completion of a shared task. This activity develops tools for working in a group, as well as the opportunity to empower and offer expression to participants with a broad spectrum of skills and abilities. An instructive example of an industry that has developed based on the fundamental assumptions of the Maker culture is the drone industry, which has “taken off” in recent years. This industry owes a great deal to a community of amateurs who, programming in open code, provide the means to control and operate drones from the ground, while in parallel creating and improving the physical components for these drones. The community of drone enthusiasts is, in effect, duplicating the model known to us from the open code programming tradition, into a world with physical outputs. The educational context of this development falls naturally into place within it. Chris Anderson, who to a large extent, has been identified with drones over the past decade, began his involvement in the field when he was looking for a suitably challenging activity for his children.
Virtual Reality (VR)
Apparently, the field of Virtual Reality contradicts everything offered by the Maker culture. If the latter requires us to interface with the physical world, VR technologies seek to eliminate this connection, while offering us a strong enough illusion that masks the lack of connection with the real world. However, it would be more accurate to say that the field of VR also expands our contact with space, only from a very different angle. VR and the technologies connected with it have been around for about three decades, but until recently they have been so heavy and clumsy that they could not be implemented outside professional research laboratories. A sequence of events has led to them becoming applicable, accessible, more compact, and, most importantly, of interest to the software giants who are leading the industry. What got the ball rolling may have been a crowdfunding project led by a startup that offered goggles with a very concrete illusionary experience – Oculus Rift, bought by Facebook in 2014 for the immense sum of 2 billion dollars. This acquisition marked the beginning of an “arms race” joined by Microsoft, Google, Intel, Samsung, and others. It appears that we are only a few years away from the point where VR glasses will be an inexpensive, accessible product, which will provide a variety of human techniques for communication, information and leisure. VR platforms allow us to overcome limitations of space, and to put ourselves in places that we would have no opportunity to reach, either because of their physical or historical distance from us, or because they are not accessible to human beings. These platforms allow us to deceive our senses in such a way that we can, in a very concrete way, move between galaxies, travel through the bloodstream, or walk through Louis XVI’s palace.
The Internet of Things (IoT)
If the Maker culture makes space available to us through physical contact, and VR platforms make space available to us by means of virtual illusion, the Internet of Things offers us that which is in the interval between the physical and the virtual. The term “Internet of Things” is, in effect, a metaphor that describes an almost evolutionary development in the realm of communications. This evolution may be described in three stages. In the first, there was interaction between man and computer. Man was assisted by the computer, programmed in advance by other people to fulfil tasks and solve various problems. In the second, with the penetration of the internet, networks were created that connected people by means of a connected computers. The first generation of the IoT is the generation in which computers communicate with one another without people participating in this communication. If this mythic formulation sounds abstract, we may make it clearer by referring to some expressions that already exist around us. For example, smart houses, in which the thermostat can tell the air conditioner to turn itself on, are an example of this communication between computers with does not pass through specific human mediation. This vision is still in its inception, and it has already become an important element in turning all of space into a technologically sensitive place. A place which has a kind of ability to sense, to express itself and to interact. In the world of the IoT, even the supposedly inanimate objects around us, become animated. In such a world, the concept of research based learning takes on a totally new meaning – students, parents and teachers can obtain information in real time, not only about school work, but also about levels of students’ physical activity, blood pressure, or a host of other data (which may or may not interest us).
What does the washing machine whisper to the refrigerator on cold nights?
If we attempt to imagine a world in which these technologies are more mature, it will be a world in which there is no single “workstation” or anchor point for technology, no single object, large or small, into which everything flows. The whole environment will be full of sensors, expressive instruments, and the means to allow us to move in time and space comfortably. In this world there will be sufficient room for the body and for physicality, for creativity and activity. We will be able to turn our virtual creations into 3D products, the programming activity will be integrated with the research, design and production of physical objects. In this world, technology will function as a tool that offers the optimal conditions for learning that Rousseau formulated – it will be a world in which the body will be active, in which we will experience space with an intensity that we have never before known, and in which we will have the conditions and opportunities for discourse with others. The learning environment in a world such as this will be the whole world, with the technology being transparent and invisible.
Only a few years after the first Morse signals were transmitted, Henry David Thoreau noted that the fact that a person from Maine could communicate with someone from Texas did not yet mean that there would be something important for them to say to one another. This statement may be understood as a sarcastic comment that accentuates the cultural emptiness that technological capabilities bring to the fore. Neil Postman interpreted this statement differently. According to Postman, the medium has a great influence on the content and values of what we say. Entry into a new communications medium is not only the use of a new instrument to transmit all that had been transmitted previously; it is a profound change in the content and functionality of what is worth communicating. Those who have experienced the introduction and adoption of mobile phones, of instant messaging and of social networks will easily identify with Postman’s words.
It is no less true when we come to decode the learning framework following the “spatial turning point.” Each of the trends that we described embodies within it a world of values whose implications are hard to discern without experiencing it. The world of makers offers a new hierarchy of trades, and repositions trades that are currently labeled as low-tech; this world also offers a new perspective on the concepts of purpose and need – much of what is being done in the makers movement is not intended to solve problems or to fulfill a particular purpose. The world of virtual reality once again raises questions of manipulation and illusion, and regarding the internet of things, one may ask – paraphrasing the words of Henry David Thoreau – if the fact that the refrigerator can converse with the washing machine means that they will have what to say to one another. At the Shaping the Future lll conference, we attempted to touch on some of the issues raised by the world that comes after the “spatial turning point” – the world beyond the computer screen.
This story and more are part of our special EdTech Mindset magazine, dedicated to the Shaping The Future 3 events we held in June 2015. Read the complete magazine here.