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The Lure of the Technological Sublime: Morozov and the Makers

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"The lure of the technological sublime has ruined more than one social movement," writes Evgeny Morozov to conclude his latest essay in the New Yorker on the Maker Movement. For anyone interested in making in education, in education technology generally, and the history of technology, I'd recommend "Making It" highly.

The central argument of the piece is the thrust of all of Morozov's recent work: we ascribe too much power to the magic of technology, and we think too little about questions of values and politics. We believe--sometimes we are led to believe by techno-optimists and technology investors--that a technology will magically improve some domain of life on its own. Dazzled by shiny new devices, we insufficiently engage in the messy work of engaging in the kinds of dialogue around values and political constituency building that really determine our freedoms, our opportunities, our equity, and our happiness.   

In an educational context, we might say that whatever makers hope will happen by buying 3-D printers, Arduinos, and Makey-Makeys will not happen just from buying these things. Whatever outcomes we hope for in our students--creativity, innovation, ownership of learning, design thinking, tinkering, the freedom to explore--will not happen because we bought these things. Technology isn't magic; teachers are magic. Buying new technology is easy. Creating the cultural, policy and political contexts where innovative teaching can thrive is really hard.

As Morozov writes: "Society is always in flux, and the designer can't predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed."

 We know all too well how school systems blunt or redirect the power of the tool of educational technology.

In making his argument, Morozov, now enrolled in a history of science PhD program at Harvard, takes us on a Larry Cuban-esque historical journey through a century of pre-history of the Maker movement. He starts with the Arts and Crafts movement of the progressive era, which began as a critique of industrialization but ended up as a movement of hobbyist artisans and dilettantes. He traces the theme again forward to the Whole Earth Catalog and the communities around Berkeley and Stanford in the 1960s. He draws a particularly sharp contrast between Whole Earth publisher Stewart Brand, who saw savvy consumerism and hacker-ethos as means of political activism, and Steve Jobs who engaged in the same circles and saw hacking and personal computing as a means to self-fulfillment: computers as the a "bicycle for the mind." Morozov argues that it was Jobs vision of personal fulfillment rather than political activism that carried the day. The technology did not inherently or magically support a particular societal vision; the technology was put into the service of competing political and cultural forces, and some of those forces won out over others. 

This history suggests that today's generation of 3-D printers will no more destabilize school culture than did our efforts over the last two decades to put computer labs in hallways and smartboards in classrooms. If we want the Maker movement to inspire changes in schools, that change will come through challenging conversations not purchases. I'm perhaps more hopeful than Morozov in thinking that this generation of educators can choose to learn from our history.

As a postscript: Bret Victor, always an astute critic of educational technology, raises similar issues in examining the efforts of Code.org and others who want to "teach kids to program." Folks like Seymour Papert argued that we actually want to teach kids to use programming to carry powerful ideas, not to teach programming for its own sake. Victor's visual essay is worth reading alongside Morozov.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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