Principled Technology Development

Go to Critical Reviews


This article outlines a principled approach to technology development, based on aspects of human nature and aspects of technologies themselves.  It explicates four easy principles, two related to reflections human nature, and two related to reflections on the nature of technologies.  It is proposed that by using the approach outlined and explicated, knowledge workers and learning organizations can develop well founded and effective technology plans that avoid market driven hype one the one hand, and stasis on the other.


The idea of principled technology development might initially seem a contradiction in terms or wild juxtaposition. Technology can easily carry an aura or mantle of new, inevitable (why think) and exciting (market driven) haphazard. For example (and no matter what for) we're supposed to be excited when a school gets THE INTERNET IN EVERY CLASSROOM! or when a university becomes ONE OF THE TEN MOST WIRED CAMPUSES! Principled on the other hand may seem quaintly past-millennium, wearing house slippers in the "just do it" Nike world.  However, I think knowledge workers and learning organizations can do well to avoid the horns of this false dilemma and thereby develop effective, reflective, principled technology plans.

The implications are, to my reckoning, important. Working in the field of instructional technology and program development, I'm now seeing signs everywhere that bets are being called in: if technology cannot be shown to impact learning practices and organizations in a positive direction, many if not all bets may soon be off. Rather than reacting to this supposed impending urgency, it may be a propitious time to consider basing technology development on something other than betting on market driven pursuit of "exciting innovations in education" or conservatively enacting faux-strategic policies of wait-and-see. Principled technology development can be proactive, exciting and fun and still, like gardening, involve some digging -- in this case digging for sensible principles.

First, being principled, reflective, and effective in technology development does not mean proselytizing or moralizing about it. It need not mean reserving the technophobe's right to "just say no" to technology. Nor need it mean exercising the technophile's right to browbeat those that "just don't get it" about technology. Instead, being principled can mean basing technology development on deep linkages to human nature and to the nature of technologies themselves.

We can begin by acknowledging that tool making and tool use -- hence technology -- are part of human nature. There has never been a time that we know of when technology was not something human beings were deeply involved with. Therefore technology is part of our essential being, part of our nature. The way to proceed with technology development in light of this principle is to simply maintain an open, communicative, and meditative stance. Doing so may assist us in thinking deeply, and hence appropriately, about technology development. Thich Nhat Hanh puts this succinctly when he writes, "The car and I are one. We have the impression that we are the boss, and the car is only an instrument, but that is not true." (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1987, p. 67).

If we curve this line slightly, we can then say that humans are by nature part of an "integrated circuit" (Haraway, 1990, p. 70) which includes technology along with biology and human society. This enables us to look for our roles in the integrated circuit, and to locate one of those roles in our capacity set directions and/or lay out principles of technology development in a philosophical (including ethical) sense. Software gives hardware its instructions. Humans -- the "wetware" in the integrated circuit -- give software its instructions. Principles R Us!

In a similar vein, if within the integrated circuit we routinely and continually transfer, offload, or "autoamputate" (McLuhan, 1964, p. 42) our own roles or functions to computers and networks, being principled or acting philosophically may be one of the few intellectual functions that remain within our domain. Again, Principles R Us!

Remembering that tools represent transfers or extensions of our human functionality to machines reminds us that, in the wake of such transfers, we can reinvent our practices. The way to proceed with technology development in light of this principle is to account for what a given piece of technology represents in terms of transfer-of-function, and to then account for how this changes or enables shifts in our understanding and/or enactment of our own functions. The practical application of this principle is that remembering and applying it will enable us to deepen our understanding and use of time. For example, if email enables us to engage in certain sorts of communication and discussion asynchronously and remotely, we can use this as an opportunity to rethink and/or deepen what we seek to encourage and develop in face to face communication. If transmission, storage and retrieval procedures no longer need to occupy much of our instructional time, we are freed up to reinvent Socratic learning ecologies and rich problem-solving environments.

It is also possible to derive direction or principles for technology development from considering the nature of technologies themselves. For example, the nature of mass-industrial technology -- the type informing public learning organizations since the 1850's -- embodies the logic of broadcast and standardization (Gilder, 1990, p.139). It embraces the vast middle of the road (i.e., one size fits all). The problem of how to individuate -- a key psycho-social imperative culminating in the "me generation" -- was in many ways posed by mass-industrialization. To some extent, the "sit still and listen" imperative for learners in mass-industrial era learning sites was set in place by the logic of broadcast.

In contrast, the nature of computer-industrial technology (or what I've referred to elsewhere as personal-industry technology) embodies the logic of point-casting or multi-casting. Rather than embracing the middle of the road, computer technology hugs the edges of the road (i.e., the exceptions). The psycho-social problem now posed is how to gather or group within the context of an ingrained, radically individuating, free associating computer technology. Many knowledge workers, justifiably if unfortunately, fear the loss of control implied in computer technology; they rightly understand that it implies a challenge to their autocratic rights to group and broadcast. Learners are able to form their own groups, according to individual desires, and listen to whomever they want within networked environments. Many businesses are similarly grasping to find ways to re-group or gather so as to deliver broadcasts; witness for example the recent merger of AOL and Time-Warner or the many instances of Internet giveaways. These are, in part, attempts to re-capture or sequester audiences at a time, and within a technological era, when individual choice and multiple association (talking to and/or listening to whomever one wants) are ascendant.

For knowledge workers and learning organizations, understanding these basic characteristics of given technologies can provide clear and principled direction. For example, since the individualizing or point-casting capacity of computer technology is ascendant, it presents particularly strong potentials for developing individualized, self-paced, mastery learning modalities. One of the most pressing concerns of knowledge workers and organizations in the mass-industrial era was that of how to individualize learning according to interests and abilities. To a degree, personal or computer industry technology supplies this missing piece. Sure, some self-paced tutorial software amounts to "drill and kill" but not all of it. Some is "practice and empower." And even in its diminished forms, computer based individualized instruction is powerful in its potential to customize instruction to individual needs and timing.

The social-interactive or multi-casting capacity of computer technology is also ascendant, and embodies particularly strong potentials to develop highly communicative, collaborative, social learning environments. One of the most vexing aspects of mass-industrial education has been its paltry elicitation of the social and interactive potential of learners to learn from each other as well as their teachers via dialogue. Computer technology can give learning a real boost here. If more knowledge workers and learning organizations looked more carefully at the gains they'd realize from enabling and encouraging email and other forms of networked communication for substantive purposes -- much as businesses have done -- they might find they would embrace email and other communication tools as essential -- much as businesses have.

As a kind of bonus, understanding the nature and characteristics of broadcast vs. point-cast and multi-cast technologies enables us to more clearly understand the transition knowledge workers and learning organizations are currently in. It is a transition wherein actual buildings, bureaucratic structures, and procedures constructed according to the logic of mass-industry and broadcast are in many cases set directly against the most basic characteristics of the signifying objects of personal-industry (computers). In a context defined by mass-industry's quasi-individual and quasi-social practices, the "text" of computers -- with its charged potentials for highly individual and highly social formations -- is profoundly at odds. This mismatch cautions us to not expect too much too soon in terms of computer technology's impact on learning. But it is also cautions us to make intelligent beginnings, on grounds indicated by aspects of human nature and by discernible and foundational characteristics of technologies themselves.  If knowledge workers and learning organizations deeply and perspicaciously understand the human role in the integrated circuit, and seek to foreground the communicative and individualizing capacities of computer technology, I  think the entire enterprise of technology development becomes stonger and more relaxed.  Technology development itself can become integrated into the larger and time-honored concept of a complete education.

Taken in this way, principled does not seem stodgy and technology does not seem like some sort of magical journey to learningland.  Instead, it looks like knowledge workers and learning organizations have important, principled, and fun work to do within the integrated circuit. I hope what I've outlined here may be useful to that work.


Gilder, George. Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and
American Life. New York: Norton, 1990.

Haraway, Donna. "A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s." Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 190-233.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964.

Thich Nhat Hahn. Being Peace. Berkeley: Parallax, 1987.


Critical Reviews

Critic NN

Click here for comments.

Critic PP

I'm fairly certain -- at least hopeful -- that there  is some "meat" hidden in there, somewhere, amongst the jargon ... but it  seems "not too much" meat, and well-hidden... I have to recommend  "reject outright".

Critic G

I like this paper, although I think the issues  discussed are far more complex than the author seems to suggest. The  idea of a middle way between technophobia and technophilia is hardly  new. In a sense most reasoned discussions propose this in one way or  another. Also the issues of the impact of technology on mass production   is complex and well-researched - except in the sector we call  'education'! Nor am I sure that the 'conflict' between individualised delivery and mass delivery is necessarily a conflict - it can be  complementary, as in most university systems which combine mass lectures  with seminars and tutorials.

I don't think the 'sit still and listen' imperative was set in place  by the logic of broadcast. It came with the development of the  university system in the 19C from medieval scholar-tutor/student to the  Germanic expert-lecturer/student - itself an imperative of a  (relatively) rapidly expanding system. Thus broadcasting found a natural  method in the 20C in the one hour lecture, particularly as many lectures   in universities did not admit questions through choice or time. The  broadcast lecture was/is frequently better than many in campus  universities, e.g., the UK Open U series on TV, much criticised (by  media folk) for being static and visually uninteresting, were actually  quite good in terms of content and (simple) presentation (and were  short, 25 mins!) and helped recruit thousands to the OU. In other words  a kind of mass system was already in existence before broadcasting,   which broadcasting copied!

Actually, in the mass system students do learn from each other - they  make contact with other students nearby, and often this is facilitated  by the mass system. Even campus universities have been poor at  harnessing the interactive potential of learners. 'Paltry elicitation'  thus sounds a bit hard and one-sided.

So I think the polarity between broadcast and pointcast is  exaggerated.

The second to last paragraph needs some unpacking - it is a bit too  opaque and rhetorical - and I think 'mismatch' is the wrong word, or  should be qualified, e.g., 'possibilities for mismatch'.

I take this piece as polemical rather than scholarly in intent, and  as seeking to promote discussion. I am not sure I agree with much beyond  the most general, or that a 'principled' approach will get us very far -  but we should all have some pedagogical (and ethical) principles  nevertheless. The author(s) may wish to take on board some of the  comments I have made in the name of a more secure argument, but as a  personal 'commentary' I believe it is publishable with revisions which   clarify the more opaque sections.