The missing skill of technological reflexivity

In this essay from Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, Howard Rheingold recognises his “complicity in the creation of today’s digital culture” and “outright seduction by high-tech tools” (16-17). He suggests that the orthodox tradition of scientific thought has left us in a pre-scientific predicament when it comes to the application of technology:

We lack a crucial mental skill. I contend that our position today regarding the way we make decisions about technologies is similar to the dilemma that pre-Enlightenment scientists faced in the sixteenth century. We simply don’t have a good method for thinking and making decisions about how to apply (and not apply) the powerful tools of rationality, the scientific method, reductionism, the combination of logic and efficiency embodied by technology. That we don’t now know how to think and make decisions about technology doesn’t mean we are incapable of discovering a “new method” for thinking about technology. If ever our species needed thinkers of the caliber of Descartes and Newton, it is now. But first we need to think about a new way to think about technology.

Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, pg 21

This is what I’ve written about technological reflexivity (drawing upon technology in a way that is satisfying and sustainable, consistent with our existing purposes and projects while sensitive to its capacity to exercise an influence over them and us) rather than technological use (picking it up and putting it down as if it were a neutral tool). This involves, as Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel put it later in the same collection in a discussion of digital literacies, “a shift in orientation and acknowledgement that the Web works upon its objects and people in specific and nuanced ways” (30).

My work over the last decade in higher education has been about supporting academics to develop technological reflexivity about social media, while critiquing a dominant pedagogical culture which is focused on the use of social media. However there’s a much broader philosophical question here which I want to explore in the coming years. This certainly involves digital literacies in the sense described by Morris and Stommel in terms of exercises which can help culture them:

We start by seeing what the tools say they do and comparing that to what they actually do. But the work asks educators to do more than simply look at the platform’s own web site, which more often than not says only the very best things (and sometimes directly misleading things) about the company and its tool. We encourage participants to do research—to find forums, articles, and blog posts written about the platform, to read the tool’s terms of service, and even to tweet questions directly to the company’s CEO.

Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, pg 30-31

Who owns the tool? What is the name of the company, the CEO? What are their politics? What does the tool say it does? What does it actually do? What data are we required to provide in order to use the tool (login, e-mail, birthdate, etc.)? What flexibility do we have to be anonymous, or to protect our data? Where is data housed; who owns the data? What are the implications for in-class use? Will others be able to use/ copy/ own our work there? How does this tool act or not act as a mediator for our pedagogies? Does the tool attempt to dictate our pedagogies? How is its design pedagogical? Or exactly not pedagogical? Does the tool offer a way that “learning can most deeply and intimately begin”?

Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, pg 32-33

However this capacity to explore, categorise and analyse the platforms we use – which I would rather term platform literacy – doesn’t in itself support how we use them. An understanding of surveillance capitalism can easily coexist with an unchanged use of Facebook. A rich appreciation of Twitter’s economy of reaction can easily coexist with the frantic pursuit of followers on the platform in the hope this can be leveraged into some other kind of non-platform capital. In this sense, I think digital literacies are a necessary but insufficient condition for technological reflexivity.

3 responses to “The missing skill of technological reflexivity”

  1. I really like this idea of digital reflexivity. I like reflexivity in general, but I think it is so important when it comes to the digital space, in education, research and life in general. I’ve been always been conscious of my digital and tech use (never had Facebook), and last year made the switch from a smartphone to what they call a “dumb phone”. It has been very insightful (and surprising), as was my lengthy Twitter break.

    I’m looking forward to seeing your future work on the topic of digital reflexivity and digital literacy. I think there is much more work and thinking to be done in this area.

  2. Thank you! I was worried I’m over-theorising it but this really has come out of my training work. I’m trying to make sense of the point at which the conversation shifts from “how do I do X?” to “why would *I* be interested in doing X” iyswim

  3. Mine comes from my NVivo training work! So often NVivo is the default, when it isn’t the best tool for the research. The software does influence the way research is done, as well as the analysis. Being reflexive in research is essential, and I think digital reflexivity is a big part of that. I see it even with my own use of tech when it comes to the way I work, engage, and even the platforms for meetings, workshops and messages.

    There is agreement by and large that tech and smartphones have altered our lives, and even our minds to a degree. I think digital reflexivity is an important part of being in the digital space. My own experimentation with my use (or lack thereof) of tech and devices has brought to light many of the day-to-day assumptions about what we need that I found surprising. As well as the impact it has had on my life.

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