Technology concealing power relations

Concerning Educational Technology FAQ's

Before the New Zealand civil war of the 1860s Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipi, the statesman-chief of Ngati Haua of the Hauraki Plains and Waikato region wrote to Governor George Grey and pointed out to him the inconsistencies of his rhetoric with his actions. Grey’s rhetoric was about securing peace with the Maori tribes south of Auckland, and his actions included amassing large numbers of troops, and building a great road which, Tamihana said ‘pointed like a spear at the heart of Waikato’. Tamihana was right: Grey’s intentions were military and he successfully engineered the conquest of Waikato. The road remains, and still fulfils its function: insurrection in Waikato is unthinkable, despite 150 years of resentment of defeat and the economic and political submersion which it entailed. But now it is not seen as a military weapon but as a piece of economic infrastructure. Maori and Pakeha alike use the road for communication and transport. The power relations which the road was instrumental in achieving have become if not totally accepted, matters of civil not military debate, and the existence of the road is no longer in question – indeed it is not even visible in political terms, except insofar as questions might be asked about its safety, its maintenance, or its development.

In the Question concerning technology Heidegger’s anxiety about the Atomic Bomb is pervasive. Yet he describes in different, mellow, terms the existence of a bridge, ‘the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years’ (QCT. P.16). It is hard to find any skepticism or anxiety at all about this bridge: here, evidently, we have an example of technology which does not invoke the question of danger. This is consonant with Heidegger’s tendency to romanticize the past – the ‘peasant does not challenge the soil of the field’ (p.15) for instance, despite clear evidence from Africa, Ireland, the Dustbowl of America and other places that traditional forms of agriculture can create deserts and wastes which rival the effects of modern technology. But Heidegger wants to position modern technology as something distinctly new and different from older forms of technology (‘handwork’). In this I think he is mistaken. The giganticism which he associates with America (AWP, p.153) may be new (or it may be a new form of Alexander’s global self-delusions), but technology is not naīve or innocent just because it is in the past: rather it is the case that we are now accustomed to the technology of the past: it creates our present, we cannot think our present or our past in other ways, and so it becomes innocent, the alternatives being suppressed and unable to speak for themselves.

If we apply the same kind of historical imagination to this romantic bridge of Heidegger’s as we have to Grey’s road, perhaps it will become a different kind of bridge. There were undoubtedly people living on the edge of the water who made at least an occasional contribution to their living by ferrying people across the water, or warning when the ford was impassable. There may have been people on one side of the river whose market was destroyed by their customer’s access to cheaper or better or simply different produce on the other side of the river. The minor lordling may have lost considerable power over his side of the bridge. The motive for building the bridge undoubtedly was a profit of some kind, whether financial or military, and almost indubitably implied a loss for someone else.

And yet, not to make such changes is in itself also a political decision and is just as likely to embed an existing set of political relations. There is no neutral territory here: the concealment of a possible technology, like the suppression of knowledge is also an act which has political and ethical implications. If the bridge is not built, perhaps the people on one side or the other starve, perhaps an oppressive landowner continues to exert feudal demands while on the other side of the bridge peasants sell their labour. So the story becomes one of change in general, or at least of deliberate change. Is change necessarily bad, or necessarily good, or is this not the right question to ask?

These stories illustrate the nature of the suppressed violence in successful technology- or in the successful repression of technology. The stocking which does not ladder, the car which runs on water – these may be urban myths, but they encapsulate an important understanding, that successful technology is related to the potential profits of the developer and marketer. The question which applies to both implementation and suppression is, whose interest is suppressed? Whose assumptions are rendered concrete in technology? If a new law is under consideration it is usual for a debate, often heated, to be held on these questions. Even for some forms of technology – a new motorway, nuclear power, and for some of the issues arising from technology – the disposal of toxic waste for instance, there has been debate. But there does not seem to be any such debate over the introduction of educational technologies. It is as if the answers to any possible questions are already there: education technology makes education cheaper, more accessible, physically and socially – these are Good Things and the questions about ‘in whose interests’, ‘at whose expense’, in order to institutionalize what forms of power, or power/knowledge are not being asked.