Technology Use As Narrative

I just finished reading Bruner’s 1996 book, The Culture of Education.  In Bruner’s discussion of the narrative mode of thought, I found some significant connections with Nye’s first chapter of Technology Matters.

Nye relates tool use to narrative.  Deciding to use a tool is part of a story.  There is a problem and a solution that fall into a sequence:

“Composing a narrative and using a tool are not identical processes, but they have affinities.  Each requires the imagination of altered circumstances, and in each case beings must see themselves to be living in time.  Making a tool immediately implies a succession of events in which one exercises some control over outcomes.  Either to tell a story or to make a tool is to adopt an imaginary position outside immediate sensory experience.  In each case, one imagines how present circumstances may be made different” (p. 3).    Bruner suggests that it is in this narrative mode in which we live out most of our lives.  He believes that in order to introduce innovation, it will be necessary to change those stories–in particular, change the folk psychological and folk pedagogical theories of teachers and students.  And, I would add, parents, whose stories of education involve paper, pencil and textbooks.

Bruner and Nye seem to overlap in their discussions of culture as well.  Nye comments that cultures emerge before texts.   For Bruner, this means that practice, or knowing by doing, emerges before the theories that then govern the doing.  Drawing on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, Bruner writes, “You will be struck to the degree to which the practice of punishment preceded that theory, but also by the effort that was made, once theory came into being, to construct one that fit practice” (p. 158).

Nye discusses the mistrust of technology because it often threatens the status quo.  He quotes Leo Strauss who wrote that classical thinkers realized “that one cannot be distrustful of political or social change without being distrustful of technological change” (p. 7).  The members of the community would determine the diffusion of technology.  Within the culture of education, there are certainly those who wish to preserve the past by condemning the new technologies.  Webkins, according to at least one internet-safety guru, are “gateway drugs” to larger virtual worlds like Second Life, as though moving into these online communities is bad and should be discouraged.  Bruner points to the contemporary version of the classical thinker when he criticizes academics as being the guardians of culture.  He singles out Allan Bloom: “I am not proud to admit that much of the most strident recent criticism [of education] has come from such self-appointed guardians of the culture as Alan Bloom, who longs bitterly for an imaginary past while immured in his ivory tower” (p. 118).   Alan Bloom has a certain version of the world that does not take into consideration more diverse cultures and points of view.  And, we see the conflict between education as a conserving enterprise and education as a radical enterprise.  In both cases, education courts “risk” as it carries out its fundamental role of transmitting culture:

“In carrying out that function, it inevitably courts risk by ‘sponsoring,’ however implicitly, a certain version of the world.  Or it runs the risk of offending some interests by openly examining views that might be taken as like the culture’s canonically tabooed ones.  That is the price of educating the young in societies whose canonical interpretations of the world are multivocal or ambiguous.  But an educational enterprise that fails to take the risks involved becomes stagnant and eventually alienating” (p. 15).  So, when schools ban technologies, they are doing more than banning a tool, they are banning a new cultural movement that threatens the past.  And, since change is the norm, then they are becoming less flexible.

This argument, however, seems to spill over into technological determinism and Nye concludes his chapter with the question of whether we should accept such determinism.


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