Choosing Tools – Part 1

From Kevin Kelly – What Technology Wants
“I began this book with a quest for a method, an understanding at least, that would guide my choices in the technium. I needed a bigger view to enable me to choose technologies that would bless me with greater benefits and fewer demands.”

I think this quote summarizes what many of us want; greater benefits and fewer demands. A common complaint of adults is that technology confounds, confuses and overwhelms them. While the media celebrates the announcement of the latest iPhone, the general public appears to struggle under the weight of the latest version, app and innovation. Social and business pressure implores us to ADOPT! The question is no longer, “What’s your phone number?” but, “How do you like to be contacted?” Email, phone, text, Google+, FaceBook?

In my former life as technology director I was responsible for implementing a wide range of devices and software, intended to help teachers and students organize and learn. I didn’t presume to choose what was best, but was responsible for implementing whatever was dreamed up. Driven by mandates from the state of Colorado and leading to well-intentioned choices to meet the learning needs of students in our District, technology was identified, chosen and implemented rapidly and incessantly.

School Districts are clearly caught between a rock (demands for higher achievement and accountability) and a hard place (a diversity of tools with a range of function and sophistication). Not only is there pressure to find magic bullets, there is the challenge of sifting through the options. Due to outside pressure or a lack of time and resources, most districts do not take the approach that Kevin Kelly aspires to. The opportunities and benefits of technology are lost in the demands of quick fixes and short timelines. The demands are evident in the face of teachers who are overwhelmed with the requirements and the technology used to meet those requirements.*

In the book from which the aforementioned quote is taken, Kevin Kelly describes alternative methods for selecting and implementing technology. The most notable is the approach of the Amish. Contrary to popular opinion, the Amish do not reject technology off hand. First of all, different parishes of Amish take different approaches to technology adoption. Kelly has found many of them to be “ingenious hackers and tinkerers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers.” I have made reference to the Amish and Kevin Kelly in previous posts.

I am fascinated by the Amish model of adoption that is described by Kelly. I am quoting and paraphrasing Kelly’s account  of them as it contrasts with popular approaches to technology adoption and it shines a light on alternative methods of adoption. First and most important, Amish practices change over time but technology is embraced at their own rate. “In contemporary society our default is set to say yes to new things, and in Old Order Amish communities the default is set to “not yet”.”

My support of the Amish method of adoption does not extend to an agreement with what they adopt. Whether I agree with what they adopt is not as important as the fact that they have standards by which to measure acceptance and a method for review and adoption. Here is Kelly’s summary of the manner of their slow adoption:

1. They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than they adopt.
2. They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
3. They have criteria by which to make choices: Technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
4. The choices are not individual but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.

In the posts that follow, I intend to explore the practice of technology adoption. What are some helpful guides for deciding what is right for us or for our enterprise or for the people we manage? What can we learn from our own and others (like the Amish) experience? How can we make technology work for us, not the other way around?

It is clear to me that there are more choices available than one person can practically employ. The flood of new devices and software will not abate; on that we can depend. Moore’s Law and Kryder’s Law describe the phenomena from a purely physical perspective. The most promising approach to managing this inevitable development is to manage our choices, manage our personal consumption of tech tools. Personally I would like to achieve greater benefits and fewer demands. I hope this exploration will be of benefit to you.

* On a different but (sadly) related note, technology is employed by adults to meet traditional educational goals rather than as a tool that students use to transform their learning.

Moore's Law Graph
Moore’s Law from Wikipedia

Continue to Part 2