[Column] Technology is culture

Bob van Vliet prefers to teach in spaces that he can arrange to his liking. The same goes for online education. But it’s not that simple.

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

The Canadian engineer and activist, Ursula Franklin, once defined technology as ‘the way things are done around here’. Technology is practice. And therefore culture. Our machines, our furniture, and our software are inextricably linked with habits, ideals, and power relations. There is technology that makes us free and independent, and there is technology we must surrender to.

I prefer to teach in spaces that I can arrange to my liking. I hate it when I cannot or may not move the tables around. And it annoys me no end when rooms have lots of fancy screens and projectors, but extremely limited options for what to show where, and what to hide.

The same goes for online. Last year I was sad to see how swiftly and uncritically we surrendered en masse to commercial and closed software such as Zoom and Teams. ‘We cannot help but be shaped by our tools’, I wrote at the time. ‘So we had better choose tools that we ourselves can shape.’ At public institutions such as ours, we should invest in public alternatives. Not because open source is cheaper – the development, maintenance, and support of good software costs money – but because it gives us the freedom to move the digital tables around ourselves, instead of it being determined in America somewhere.

It is difficult for individuals to escape such a collective habit

I could hardly blame my colleagues for this rush to private platforms, however. There were hardly any alternatives available, after all. In a panic, you grab the closest tools available. But almost a year down the road, sharing a Zoom link has become ‘the way things are done around here’.

It is difficult for individuals to escape such a collective habit. When, in December, all kinds of things suddenly had to move online again, I too used Zoom for my meetings. After all, that is what students were used to. And I didn’t want to ask them to do that one meeting or presentation on an unfamiliar platform at the last minute.

This quarter I’ll probably have to face the music as well. The progress presentations in a large bachelor course, where I am one of the teachers, will all be going online again. The lecturer responsible is too busy to make much time for my moaning about security, privacy, and pedagogically more effective alternatives. He is used to presentations in Zoom. For him, arranging the next course in a way that’s familiar is the logical option. Again, it’s difficult for me to find fault with him for that.

Technology is culture. So directed change requires collective organisation.

Even before the disaster year of 2020 broke loose, the rectors at Dutch universities collectively wrote an op-ed to warn of our increasing dependence on private platforms (link in Dutch). ‘This could have major consequences,’ they wrote. ‘Education will be dependent on private companies that can determine and change the architecture of platforms without the possibility for institutions to influence this. This diminishes the independence of education and science.’ They announced that the education sector would start to work towards ‘a safe and responsible digital environment’ independently.

Good plan. Let’s dig that out of the drawer where it apparently ended up.

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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