If It’s Not “All About The Technology” Then What Else Is It Not About?

The announcement of the availability of a video summary of the event reminded me of the opening F-ALT session, held on 8 September in the Lass O’Gowrie pub  (a pub I always try to get to when I’m at a conference at Manchester University).  This was my first time at F-ALT, the ALT’s Fringe event, and I was looking forward to meeting up with the F-ALT organisers and participants, many of whom I’ve met previously or may not have met but read their blogs or follow on Twitter.

From what I’d heard of last year’s F-ALT, the Fringe event would provide an opportunity to discuss topics related to elearning in a informal and friendly setting. I’d heard anecdotes of last year’s debate on the “Edupunk” meme and was looking forward to a similar light-hearted evening of geeky fun.  However the topic of the opening F-ALT session was “Postdigital” and the description on the F-ALT wiki  read:

What does this mean? Why is it not two words? Is it just Dave making-up another term in an attempt to get keynote gigs? No, it actually has some substance to it and could be a very helpful way of framing the learning-tech discussion over the next few years. If you are sceptical about all this then you should definitely turn-up. The chances of an argument breaking out are very high.

Perhaps this year’s F-ALT wouldn’t turn out to be  the informal evening and drink and chat that I had expected! The participants at the event were asked to give a two-minute response to a number of ideas we were presented with. Mine was, if I recall correctly:

The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change.

Being presented with this serious topic in the pub on the opening evening of the conference I tried to response in a light-hearted fashion. I suggested that it was appropriate that this topic was raised in a traditional Manchester boozer, possibly a pub which Fredrick Engles drank in when he spent time in the city. And just as we call for ownership of our scholarly works in ours IRs (institutional repositories) so Engels called for ownership of the means of production in the better known IR – the industrial revolution.  So the arguments we are having now aren’t about primarily about the technologies, but reflect arguments which date back hundreds of years (indeed Martin Weller has suggested that the debates go back many centuries).

The publication of the video summary of the evening (which is embedded below) provides an opportunity to revisit ‘postdigital’ debate …

If, as Dave White suggests in a post on “Postdigital: Escaping the Kingdom of the New?“, we tend to overhype the new and exciting, and fail to appreciate the aspects which are actually useful, what are the implications? Perhaps this is a topic which is worthy of more considered thinking. 

Now maybe it is correct to suggest that we in the development community, who consider ourselves to be agents of a transformational change to a better environment, fail to appreciate that our users often ignore our developments and our vision. After all, if the initial evidence reflects a more general trend, we seem to be living in a world in which most users use an MS Windows platform to access institutional resources – they’re not interested in Linux, for example, despite many years of evangelism from the open source community. A computer’s a computer, just like a fax machine is a fax machine – only nerds care about what goes on underneath the bonnet.

But if this is true, what are the implications for accepting that we are in a postdigital age?  Don’t we then accept that our IT environment will be owned by the mega-corporations – Google and Microsoft. And let’s forget debates about device independence and interoperability – unless the mega-corporations feel such issues may provide a competitive edge.

It strikes me that the postdigital agenda is a conservative one, in which we are asked to accept that we (in our institutions and in our working environment) cannot shape our digital environment. And for me that is a worrying point of view which I don’t accept.


  1. I thought that the thrust of the argument was that we needed to stop worrying about the ‘next big technology’ (or even small technology) and start worrying about the political and economic issues – exactly like the amount of power that large corporations have when they own a large percentage of any particular ‘tech’ market.

    I also don’t think that the discussion was particularly addressed to ‘the developer community’, but rather the ‘learning technolgoy community’ – which no doubt includes some developers, but is a much broader church than that. I feel this is the point that Martin Weller makes – there are multiple audiences here, and not all have the same outlook or approach.

    You suggest that “A computer’s a computer, just like a fax machine is a fax machine – only nerds care about what goes on underneath the bonnet.” – actually I think this isn’t true, and this is part of the problem. No one cares what software or hardware goes into a fax machine as long as it carries out its function effectively. However, ‘users’ (for want of a better description) manifestly do care whether they use Windows or not. Witness the struggle OLPC has had in selling Sugar based machines rather than Windows based ones – and the switch from Linux to Windows as the default installation on netbooks. This is consumer led demand (informed by advertising, cultural norms etc.) – not an ‘I don’t care as long as it works’ attitude.

    The most important part of the discussion for me was a rebuttal of a point that I made (arguing that ‘we’ weren’t pedalling technology as a panacea). The rebuttal (which is in the video) suggests that unless we actively question the provenance and impact of the technology we promote then we are complicit in doing exactly what you describe – handing over responsibility to large corporations.

    • Thanks for the comment.

      In his introduction to the session, and the video, Dave White asked “Who cares about email?”. The (expected) answer was ‘hardly anyone’. And, for me, this means users don’t care about the protocols (POP vs. IMAP), open source vs proprietary solutions or inhouse vs out-sourced solutions. This provided the context for my post.

      • I thought the point that Dave was making when he asked ‘Who cares about email?’ was that it was now regarded as unremarkable. I agree users don’t care about protocols – but they never did, even when email was novel – it is the move from novel to everyday which is the difference.

        I don’t personally take an extreme position on this by the way – Martin Weller’s take on it (http://nogoodreason.typepad.co.uk/no_good_reason/2009/09/the-technology-isnt-important-argument.html) is a good one in my opinion, and I would concur with much of what he says.

  2. The only hope I have against the megacorps directing everything is that the digital age can perhaps bring together support that in the past was disconnected – as Obama’s online fund-raising managed to rake in far more than the traditional ways.

  3. Ok, this interpretation of the postdigital is a new and unexpected one for me. I wasn’t expecting a conservative label to be attached to it!

    For me there is a transition point where technology moves from being shiny to being culturally normalised. That is our window of opportunity to influence the manner in which the tech is taken-up or engaged with. My fear is that our love affair with the ‘shiny’ diverts us from the positive influence we can have in the interplay between tech and social issues.

    I think that the debate does need better framing but that it’s crucial that we regularly think about tech in non-tech terms. It was interesting to me that the keynotes at ALT-C tended to take this route but that the majority of the parallel sessions didn’t.

    I’m currently exploring ways of focusing this debate so that it starts to move forwards. I hope that sessions like this F-ALT one mark the reinvigoration of a broader, non shiny, debate. Time will tell.

    • Hi Dave, thanks for the response. Whilst I am sympathetic to the political stance, I think there are dangers in avoiding the technilogical aspects. As well as the ownership issues I referred to in my post and in response to Owen’s comment, belittling ‘the shiny new toys’ may also lead to an endorsement of the status quo (Blackboard, perhaps) or a refusal to engage with technologies at all.

  4. My understanding of “Postdigital” is derived from the work (thoughts?) of John Maeda who argues that the medium is less important than what you do with it. What you do with the technology is what matters.

    “Recently I have had the sense that no matter what new digital territory may arise, we end up where we first began – back in an infinite loop. My instinctive response to this personal perception has been to proclaim a new effort to escape to the post digital . . . which I am certain lies in the past.”
    —John Maeda

    Interesting that he looks to the past for inspiration not the future because we can’t know what is in the future but we can learn from the past.

  5. Having said, there are lots of benefits that you can get from elearning. Those benefits would include: convenience and portability, cost and selection, flexibility, higher retention and many more. This is why there are lots of people prefer getting online education from these e-learning solution companies nowadays.



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