What is technology is as much defined by our attitude as by the innovations themselves. This is well illustrated by Douglas Adams, in a prescient and apparently famous article in the Sunday Times in 1999 on How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet:
1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;
2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;
3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.
He goes on to popularise my favourite definition of technology:
‘technology’, as the computer scientist Bran Ferren memorably defined it, is ‘stuff that doesn’t work yet.’ We no longer think of chairs as technology, we just think of them as chairs. But there was a time when we hadn’t worked out how many legs chairs should have, how tall they should be, and they would often ‘crash’ when we tried to use them. Before long, computers will be as trivial and plentiful as chairs (and a couple of decades or so after that, as sheets of paper or grains of sand) and we will cease to be aware of the things. In fact I’m sure we will look back on this last decade and wonder how we could ever have mistaken what we were doing with them for ‘productivity.’
and he clearly anticipates Web 2.0 with the comment that:
One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.
Fast forward 8 years to the present and we find many commentators agreed that those in control of IT must adapt to meet our changing attitude to it.
Control has shifted away from a powerful few, into the hands of the me generation, and they will not be told what to do, either in their personal lives or once through the revolving doors into the office.
‘They want to take whatever technology is around and do whatever they want with it,’ says Bob Marsh, chief information officer (CIO) at financial services specialist Friends Provident.
…‘So rather than controlling and locking systems down, companies should think about how they can empower and help,’ he says. ‘It is all about attitudes, in particular attitude to innovation. The role of IT has to be to allow access to services to help employees do their jobs,’ says Marsh.
and John Naughton, in Welcome to IT class, children; log on and be bored stiff (Observer, December 2006), makes a similar point about IT in the classroom:
computers are intrinsically emancipatory devices, whereas schools are basically institutions of control. The problem is intensified by the fact that kids know more about computers than teachers do, which means the technology threatens to undermine the latter’s authority. The response is to try and impose control, for example by creating roped-off spaces called ‘ICT rooms’ or ‘computer labs’ where pupils can use the technology only under ludicrously restricted conditions.
This also explains why so much ICT teaching consists of training in the use of Microsoft software – preparing kids to use the ageing tools of an old paradigm – rather than educating them for life in a networked society where they will need different kinds of knowledge and skills as yet undreamt-of by the QCA. By failing to recognise this, we are not only boring our children but also doing them a great disservice. Our schools are providing ICT training, whereas what is needed is ICT education.
Technology will always be with us: there will always be “stuff that doesn’t work yet”. But with computerisation driving innovation, there is I in almost every technology and hence the I in IT has had its day (do we talk about “mechanical technology”?). And, with the ubiquity of the internet, e touches almost every field of activity: so e-commerce is just commerce, e-government is just government and e-business is just business. Ask LexisNexis, who’ve realised that there is no longer (after just a few years) a place for Electronic Business Law (hat tip: Scott Vine).