Has Culture surrendered to Technology?

Recently I have had reason to reNeil Postman-read Neil Postman’s Technopoly a brilliant critique of the way technology has and will continue to dominate our lives in ways that diminish our humanity. In my opinion it should be required reading for all D&T teachers, those training to be D&T teachers and those studying D&T at KS5. There are some wonderful gems.

Did you know, for example, that when the stethoscope was first invented many Technopoly; the surrender of culture to technologydoctors were against its use? Their reservations were that the instrument would become between the doctor and patient, quite literally, and prevent doctors listening to what the patients had to say about the way they felt. For Postman, two ideas are key here, medicine becomes about disease not the patient and what the patient knows is untrustworthy; what the machine knows is reliable. What do many patients complain about with regard to our NHS? The doctor has so little time to talk to me. Postman devotes a whole chapter to medical technology and the way it can dehumanise medical practice. And of course de-humanisation across the piece is one of the major criticisms of technology.

It is in the final chapter that Postman turns his attention to the role of schools in helping young people resist the onslaught of technology on their humanity. He couches his argument in terms of action that should be taken by “loving resistance fighters”. He is particularly scathing about school curricula arguing …

The curriculum is not, in fact, a course of study at all but a meaningless hodgepodge of subjects. It does not even put forward a clear vision of what constitutes an educated person unless it is a person who possesses “skills” – a person with no commitment and no point of view but with plenty of marketable skills.

1410715035I must confess to a sense of despondency allied to this view when I see D&T justified in terms of ‘where it can lead’ without much in the way of a consideration of its intrinsic worth as described by Jacob Bronowski in his marvellous book The Ascent of Man from which the following is derived.

Envisaging what might exist in the future and using tools and materials to create and critique that future is a unique human ability, which has led to the development of successive civilizations across history. It embodies some of the best of what it means to be human. Through teaching young people design & technology schools introduce pupils to this field of human endeavour and empower them to become people who see the world as a place of opportunity where they and others can, through their own thoughts and actions, improve their situation.

Postman is a great admirer of Bronowski and envisages a curriculum that would educate young people as being based on a study of ‘The Ascent of Humanity’. In Postman’s view to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems, to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said and done has been produced. Postman is stern in that such an education is

… not child-centered, not training-centered, not skill-centered, not even problem-centered. It is idea-centered and coherence-centered.

It would be wrong to think that Postman does not want to see technology in the school curriculum. He identifies a study of the history of technology as an indispensable component to understanding where we have come from. This provides as much as science and art provides part of the story of humanity’s confrontation with nature and indeed with our own limitations.

… we need students who will understand the relationships between our technics and our social and psychic worlds, so that they may begin informed conversations about where technology is taking us and how.

Postman realizes that this is a BIG ask, to engage students with the study of what was in order for them to understand what is and what might be. Such teaching will require the very best from what teachers can do but what a worthwhile task. On this blog both Torben and I have argued for ‘technological perspective’ to be an essential ingredient of D&T learning and it seems we have an ally in Neil Postman, sadly no longer with us. His writings serve to remind us just how important a subject D&T is. I would dearly love to be able to talk with him about how he views ‘technological capability’ the sister to perspective that together provide the totality of D&T in the curriculum. I wonder what he would say?

quote-the-effects-of-technology-are-always-unpredictable-but-they-are-not-always-inevitable-neil-postman-260104As always, comments welcome.

What does David Spendlove think about Re-building D&T?

David has commented on the Re-Building D&T paper on his blog.As always it’s well worth a read. David hopes his comments will start a wide ranging and genuine debate across the community.

Torben, Nick and I will be collating comments received and publishing a summary mid – late January.

An interesting case of unintended consequences

e3c60004d9e6edb35b8e04f9567b324f-1 An article in this month’s issue of Develop 3D intrigued me. It features the Davy Safety Lamp and the production of an exact replica for museum display by 3D printing. The article reminded me of the controversy surrounding the impact of the Davy lamp on miners’ safety. Mining is a dangerous business. There is always the possibility of tunnels collapsing but the use of strong props and careful monitoring of vibrations interpreted by miners’ experience goes a long way to mitigating this. The presence of dangerous and invisible gases is much more pernicious. If flammable such as methane they can cause explosions. And some such as carbon dioxide can cause asphyxiation. The lamp was devised to combat these hidden hazards. The way it works is ingenious. A wire mesh screen encloses the wick. This allows air to enter the lamp and for the fuel evaporating from the wick to burn but the holes are too fine to allow a flame to propagate through them and ignite any combustible gases outside the mesh. The lamp also provided a test for the presence of gases. If flammable gas mixtures were present, the flame of the Davy lamp burned higher with a blue tinge. Lamps were equipped with a metal gauge to measure the height of the flame. If the flame burned higher with a blue flame the miners would know that methane was present. Miners could also place the safety lamp close to the ground to detect gases, such as carbon dioxide that are denser than air and so could collect in depressions in the mine; if the mine air was oxygen-poor the lamp flame would be extinguished. The lamp gave an early indication of an unhealthy atmosphere, allowing the miners to get out before they died of asphyxiation. So the Davy lamp must surely have been a boon to miners, not the case unfortunately. Paradoxically, the introduction of the Davy lamp led to an increase in mine accidents, as the lamp encouraged the working of mines and parts of mines that had previously been closed for safety reasons. Men continued to work in conditions which were unsafe due to the presence of methane gas. Although extractor ventilation fans should have been installed to reduce the concentration of methane in the air, such fans were not installed, as the mine owners claimed this was too expensive. One way to interpret this is that the owners valued the lives of miners less than they valued profits. Also the miners had to provide the lamps themselves, not the owners, as traditionally the miners bought their own candles from the company store. Another reason for the increase in accidents was the unreliability of the lamps themselves. The bare gauze was easily damaged, and once just a single wire broke or rusted away, the lamp became unsafe. Even when new and clean, illumination from the safety lamps was very poor, and the problem was not fully resolved until electric lamps became widely available in the late 19th century. A lamp invented with the intention of making mines safer for those who worked in them had the opposite effect; surely a poignant example of unintended consequences? David and Torben would be pleased to hear about other examples of unintended consequences that might be taught in D&T lessons.

Something to read over the Christmas Holiday?

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Getting a book published is always rewarding but especially so in this case for the following reasons. First it was a successful collaboration with my friend and colleague John Williams. It is well known that technology education is under researched and also that teachers rarely if ever have access to research findings and when they do they are unlikely to be able to use them to inform practice. So a second reason is that not only does the book provide the opportunity to share research findings in technology education with teachers in schools but deliberately explores how teachers might use the findings in their own practice. A third reason is that the book makes suggestions how teachers might get involved in furthering the research. The book contains chapters on each of eleven successful PhDs from different parts of the world but all with relevance to teaching design & technology in schools in the UK. You can find details here. The book is published by Springer in the series Contemporary Research in Technology Education. It is titled Helping Teachers Develop Research-informed Practice. The really good news is that John and I are already working on Volume 2 to be published in January 2018!

Not the outsides but the insides surely?

clock-faceI’ve come across several requests for new projects to support a revision of current KS3 schemes of work. My usual response has been don’t start with projects, start with what you want the pupils to learn. But I’m beginning to wonder if it’s possible to start with an existing and somewhat limited project and revitalise it by considering what might be learned if it was extended in various ways. This led me to consider the designing and making of clock faces. Many schools get pupils at KS3 (or even KS4) to design and make clock faces, providing a bought in mechanism to move the hands. My impression is that they use this as an opportunity to explore the aesthetics of particular design movements. So we get Mackintosh or Memphis or Bauhaus derive clock faces. I’m not sure that this is the best use of precious design & technology time. Surely the interesting idea behind such work is that we can devise machines that can record the passage of time. Being able to tell the time has had a large impact on the way we live our lives. Before this was possible sun rise and sun set provided the boundaries on our days with inadequate and often poisonous lighting (oil and kerosene lamps) giving some respite from darkness. So understanding the impact of measuring time on our lives and how this can be achieved would seem to have great potential in a design & technology course that was concerned with both perspective – understanding the interaction of technology and society, and capability – designing and making things that work. So some questions to consider:

  • Why might we need clocks?
  • What do various people use clocks for?
  • Who wins and who loses when people have clocks?
  • What sorts of clocks are there?
  • When and where were different sorts of clocks invented?
  • How do they work?

The history of clocks goes back a long time, starting with sundials and water clocks. The use of pendulums and springs then allow the invention of mechanical clocks which include some very delicate and accurate components moving on jewelled bearings. Such clocks needed winding up using a hand turned key but this function was overtaken by the electric motor. And then we reach the quartz clock that uses an electronic oscillator regulated by a quartz crystal to keep time. Most modern clocks (and watches) now operate this way.

It seems to me that there has got to be some good design & technology in a consideration of clocks that goes way beyond what their faces look like. It will be no mean feat to derive a unit of work that looks at the insides as opposed to the out sides of timepieces but I think the rewards in terms of learning would be great. All the BIG ideas will be represented to some extent – materials, manufacture, functionality, design and critique. And such a unit of work could embrace making without designing, designing without making, design and making and considering consequences. I expect other areas of the curriculum would be interested – mathematics, science and history. So as we prepare for the new GCSE and start to revise our KS3/4 offerings consider what we might teach if we seriously revamped ‘the clock face’ project.

As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry Part 2 Science fiction becomes science fact!

skeeterHave you ever watched a dragonfly? They can hover almost as if frozen in space wings beating so fast they appear as a blur, land with delicate precision on a waving blade of grass, skim gracefully over a pond and fly off at speeds that defy sight. Surely a target for biomimicry and that of course is what has happened. A helicopter used by sea rescue services based on dragonfly flight would be wonderful. Hmmm, scaling up insects is tricky. The fossil record indicates that the largest flying insects existed some 275 million years ago had wingspans of only around 700 mm (28 inches). So may be a dragonfly based rescue helicopter is conceptually inept. So in this case biomimicry has to stay in scale. In which case if you could mimic a dragonfly or aspects of a dragonfly what would you mimic. Given the aerial dexterity of the dragonfly it’s not surprising that Animal Dynamics, an Oxford University spin off, has developed Skeeter a tiny flapping winged drone specially designed for covert surveillance. Weighing no more than 30g, and designed to cost less and fly for longer than other hand-launched drones, it could, its creators claim, help reshape urban warfare. Biomimicry transforming urban warfare! It’s not difficult to see biomimicry playing out in armaments developments. Should this be discussed in D&T lessons? On the grounds of the subject reflecting activities in the world outside school it is difficult to say ‘No’. But any discussion will move into tricky territory very quickly. A surveillance drone, even a tiny one, can easily provide targeting information and missile flight path data for larger weaponised drones. And without too much difficulty be developed into a lethal weapon in its own right. Some argue that the basic technology itself is has no moral compass. The guidance technology used in missiles can just as easily be used for autonomous farm equipment. Where does this leave the designer? And where does it leave the design & technology teacher? As always comments welcome.

Baddass Biomimicry

antEarly in 2013 when there was considerable debate about the government’s proposed National Curriculum Programme of Study for design & technology. Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems, one of the UKs biggest companies, criticised the government’s proposal on the following grounds: The draft proposals for design & technology did “not meet the needs of a technologically literate society. Instead of introducing children to new design techniques, such as biomimicry (how we can emulate nature to solve human problems), we now have a focus on cookery. Instead of developing skills in computer-aided design, we have the introduction of horticulture. Instead of electronics and control, we have an emphasis on basic mechanical maintenance tasks. In short, something has gone very wrong.” The result of such authoritative criticism was a complete revision of the proposed programme of study such that it included the following statement under the teaching of design: To use a variety of approaches, such as biomimicry and user-centred design, to generate creative ideas and avoid stereotypical responses. Although biomimicry was a non-statutory example of a design strategy it was mentioned by name.

The Design and Technology Association ran inset sessions to help teachers understand what was for many a new idea. And many teachers have since taught pupils at both KS3 and KS4 about biomimicry, particularly how designers have used it as a creative product design tool. At its most basic the development of webbed gloves and flippers to aid swimming (biomimicking a frog) and more sophisticated the use of corrugated card for a cycle helmet based on the bone structure in a woodpecker’s skull. And of course it’s possible to view the circular economy as a systems approach based on biomimicry that can be used to move the world away from a destructive linear economy.

Kill Decision CoverUnderlying this appears to be the idea of biomimicry as a benign design tool; one that can only be used for good with few if any harmful consequences. But this view misrepresents nature and the constant struggle between and within species for survival. This was made very apparent to me when I read Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez. It’s a rollicking good read but I won’t go into too much detail as this will spoil the story for those who haven’t yet read this excellent piece of science fiction which borders very much on science fact. A key element of the story is to use biomimicry of weaver ants to develop swarms of lethal quadcopter drones that once unleashed can operate without human intervention and control. Weaver ants are able to communicate with one another by laying down and following pheromone trails which indicate the task to be accomplished be that foraging or territory defense. In the case of territory defense the trail will lead more and more ants to the sites where defense is necessary and even large intruders are soon overcome by the multitudes of smaller weaver ants that converge on the site. The brain power of individual weaver ants is of course very small but the colony achieves highly effective defense by getting large numbers in the right place at the right time to attack and kill the intruders. So imagine using biomimicry to transfer this ability to a swarm of drones, each drone with highly limited AI and equipped with simple but effective weapons.

Noel SharkeyThis led me to ponder the role of design strategies in general. In themselves they might be considered neutral in terms of being intrinsically good or bad but their use will of course depend on the intentions pursued by the designer. So the buck clearly stops with us humans. The case of robots and the intention to use them in warfare has led Noel Sharkey, Emeritus Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics & Public Engagement University of Sheffield, to urge extreme caution and argue for international conventions to govern their development. So as always with design & technology we find ourselves in territory where values are as important if not more so than knowledge, understanding and skills.