Book Review: What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

I finished What Technology Wants a few weeks ago and I am still trying to sort out all that writer Kevin Kelly postulates in this interesting book which takes a step back from technology and tries to articulate a larger understanding of the world around us and the future ahead of us. What technology wants, according to Kelly, is a symbiotic relationship of sorts, with us, in that we keep developing new ways of using technology as technology advances in order to provide us with new ways of using technology.

That’s the simplified version, in my own words, and Kelly makes it clear that technology– or the technium, as he refers to the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us (p.11).” — is not alive in a living, breathing sense. But by examining trends of technological advancements, in relationship to advancements in other biological fields, Kelly argues that there is a logical and somewhat predictable pattern to technology, even though we don’t know what is coming next or how that will affect us. Like living creatures that push forward over time, the technium is also on the same course, according to Kelly. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the technium is that new devices or tools that have significant impact on our lives are hardly ever used for what they were designed for. This unknown adaptability is key to the technium.

Kelly writes, “The technium gains its immense power not only from its scale but from its self-amplifying nature. One breakthrough invention, such as the alphabet, the steam pump, or electricity, can lead to further breakthrough inventions, such as books, coal mines and telephones. These advances in turn led to other breakthrough inventions, such as libraries, power generators and the internet. Each step adds further powers while retaining most of the virtues of the previous inventions (p. 38).”

The meaning behind the phrase of  “what technology wants” is that it wants to keep moving forward, according to Kelly, by providing us humans with the tools for adapting technology for our own needs. There’s a certain circular pattern to this argument, which Kelly admits to. He cites Moore’s Law (of smaller, more powerful, technology) and other data models to show how the trends of technology is marching ahead on a mathematical curve. But, Kelly notes, this whole notion of technology being on par with biological trends is complicated — this idea of technology wanting something — and he sees three forces at work:

  • The concept of preordained development — that technology is designed to always improve itself and become more advances, and more ubiquitous;
  • The influence of technology’s history — that what has come before it is what shapes the present and lays the groundwork for the future
  • The free will of us, the people — our choices in how we use the technology is critical is what technology becomes.

Kelly does not always view technology through rose-colored glasses. In fact, he profiles a number of examples of how people can and should step back from technology in their lives, if only to gain some perspective on how it shaping what we do and how we think. He uses examples such as the Amish, who resist the lure of technology for cultural reasons and yet, they are adaptable to using what suits them (as long as it is mostly “off the grid” technology).There is a whole chapter about Amish Hackers that is interesting to read, and shows how complicated the lives of the Amish can be in the modern world. And, it shows how our (my) perception of the Amish stuck in time is not even remotely accurate.

In the more controversial section of the book, Kelly also showcases The Unibomber’s manifesto as an articulate examination of the ways that technology is influencing our lives and the reasons for resisting the technium by shaping its progress ourselves. Kelly condemns the violent nature of The Unibomber, of course, but he says that some of what Ted Kacyznski wrote makes sense in terms of retaining some of our humanity as technology’s influence in our lives takes hold and expands. Kelly acknowledges, and then refutes, this view that technology “robs us of our humanity and steals our children’s future (p. 213).”

Kelly ends on a positive note, arguing that our relationship with the technium opens up new possibilities for our lives and for our ability to be creative, and expressive. “The technium expands life’s fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life’s fundamental goodness … Technology amplifies the mind’s urge towards the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite (p. 359).”

Is that a bit much? Perhaps. But Kelly has always looked ahead at the bigger picture (first with Whole Earth, and then with Wired, and now with his various books) and while I sometimes found myself shaking my head at what he was writing, I was always thinking, always pondering. What Technology Wants will sure get you to step back and reflect on where technology is and where it is going, even if the path is uncertain.

Peace (in the reflective thought),

Book Review: Teaching the iGeneration

Look inside Teaching the iGeneration: 5 Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills With Web 2.0 Tools!

This new book by Bill Ferriter and Adam Garry can join the ranks of Troy Hicks’ Digital Writing Workshop and Will Richardson’s Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom as a reliable guide that I can hand off to teachers who want to know how to take that first step into bringing technology into the classroom.

Teaching the iGeneration: 5 Easy Ways to Introduce Essential Skills with Web 2.0 Tools is jam-packed with useful information about the rationale of technology and also, with easily adapted reproducible hand-outs that will do a lot to ease the concerns of some teachers around assessment, reflection and exploration. And, the hand-outs are linked online to the book’s website, making it even easier to use (and you don’t have to buy the book to use the resources, although it would probably be nice to support the writers if you can). The handouts are geared both towards students at work in the classroom and the teachers, themselves.

Here, for example are the resources for the chapters around multimedia:

I really like how the authors (Disclosure: I know Bill through various online networks and he sent me this book as a complimentary gift, just to be open about the review) group the topics in the book around the themes of Information Fluency, Persuasion, Communication, Collaboration and Problem Solving. Those do seem like important themes for the classroom, and the writers argue successfully about students harnessing technology to meet those goals.

At one point, the authors list out what draws teens to digital projects:

  • Self-directed exploration (the freedom to find something of interest and delve deep into that topic, with multimedia as one tool)
  • Peers to demonstrate authority and expertise (by turning to teach other for learning as much as to the teacher)
  • Students to wrestle with meaningful issues (as they use technology to enter the public sphere and engage in matters that impact local and global communities)

It is also admirable that Ferriter and Garry present many of the projects that use technology around the theme of global poverty and social justice. They note that the target audience for the book is middle and high school teachers, whose students passions around injustice can often be motivation for creating projects that can make a difference in the world. “… global poverty can provide a natural context for digital projects that have meaning and motivate kids,” they write, although noting that any of the projects outlined here can be adapted for other important topics.

The book begins by addressing ways in which students can learn to manage information in the era of information overload, and then moves on to writing to persuade world leaders on issues, using digital storytelling, collaborating on challenging topics and ends with an interview with a student, Michael, talking about what he learned from using technology in the classroom. I liked the way the student voice framed the ending of the book and brought us into the classroom through Michael’s voice.

I’ll end by noting something Ferriter and Garry  wrote in the introduction:

Today’s learning environment — influenced by the technology already being used by students outside of school — ” ….requires nothing more than a teacher who is willing to show students how the tools they have already embraced can make learning efficient, empowering and intellectually satisfying. Are you ready to be that teacher?

I hope so. Teaching the iGeneration is one of the many emerging resources that can help you on that path.

Peace (in the sharing),

Book Review: Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology

Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and Schooling in America, by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson, seeks to tackle the changes that are underway in the ways youths are using technology to learn and the disconnect with schools. Collins and Halverson first lay out the historical perspective of education, weaving in the argument that people learn best when given choices for engagement within a framework of curriculum. They also note the many barriers in place that thwart change, including our scheduling of blocks of learning time, uniform learning approaches to all student of all abilities at the same time, and learning by assimilation as opposed to learning by doing. When schools move towards a “one style fits all” pattern, we start to find students disengaging from their learning and turning elsewhere to become engaged.

This “somewhere” is all too often outside of the school, and often into the myriad realms of technology, including social networking and gaming, argue Collins and Halverson. The two writers do a good job of acknowledging the opponents of technology (under the umbrella of the “classical curriculum”) while pushing forward with the view that we must make some changes to the classroom now because the changes in the way young people learn has already begun, and can’t be dialed back by schools.

They note that resistance to new technologies are as old as the concept of schooling, and cite three ways this resistance takes place:

  • Condemn the Technology by arguing that the technology diverts attention away from the real learning taking place.
  • Co-opt the Technology by using elements of the technology for other means, such as converting a computer lab into a place for standardized testing.
  • Marginalize the Technology by having educators utilize a small component of something larger, using it for a specific purpose and calling it “technology integration.”

Some of the suggestions for a way forward into harnessing the potential of technologies, as put by Collins and Halverson, include developing a knowledge “certificate” program for high school students that would allow them to pursue an area of expertise on their own terms and then graduate at any age (although, they note that the rigor of the certificates needs to be high); have students choose a discipline field that has real-life value at an early age and then develop learning opportunities (including the use of mentors on project-based learning) as offshoots of that discipline through the years; and encourage teachers to look at the world of gaming as a model for learning.

Gaming, according to Collins and Halverson, encourages collaborative problem solving, use of scarce resources, understanding complex instructions and a motivation to push forward to the end.

“Helping teachers understand how system-modeling games like Civilization, Railroad Tycoon and The Sims could help students better meet content goals could serve to introduce technologies into everyday school practice.” — Collins and Halverson (119)

This book also calls on teachers and administrators and parents to work together to form a foundation for integrating technology into the lives of young people in meaningful ways, and urges us to know and understand the technologies of our children and students. It’s only by understanding the technology that we can consider the possibilities for the classroom.

I agree, and this book — while somewhat dry in places and often rehashes similar ideas from different angles — is a good one for teachers and parents to mull over. I like that the last section is directed towards school administrators and government officials, who are urged to do more to balance accountability with freedom of learning, and also to pay heed to the deepening digital divide that is taking place between the wealthy (whose schools can either afford new technology and qualified teachers or whose parents have the cash for the after-school programs that seem to be the home to much innovation) and the poor (whose schools struggle with the basics and easily get hemmed in by the need to meet standardized curriculum goals that leave little room for exploration by either the teacher or the students.)

Peace (in the future),

Book Review: Reality Hunger

Such a strange, interesting book. Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields is an examination of the evolving nature of the personal essay, and yet, it really isn’t that, either. Shields’ technique is like a collage, using small passages of his own thoughts remixed with the words of others, stitched together into more than 500 pieces of writing take out of context of their original home around themes of writing. What comes across from this wonderful book (I happen to like the non-traditional narrative that Shields promotes and uses here) is that the act of writing itself is the act of reinventing and stealing and appropriation and reformatting ideas of others through our own lens of interpretation. And, he notes, the most interest forms of writing are the ones that push against boundaries and forge new terrain.

His larger point about writing is that we, the writers, never tell the truth. We never know reality. We only know our version of it, and then we writers twist and turn and rework our reality to make it flow on the page. So, he believes that biographies and autobiographies and most non-fiction is false work, and the truest way to show reality is through fiction, since it is clearly made up yet becomes an interpretation of the writer. And both writer and reader are in tacit partnership on this.

The book garnered some headlines when it first came out because Shields did not want to cite or credit any of the hundreds of authors that he steals from here and Shields tells us, his readers, that ” …I’m trying to regain a freedom … (but) Random House lawyers determined that it was necessary for me to provide a complete list of citations …” which Shields does. He then tells the reader to pull out their scissors and cut away the citation pages.

I didn’t.

In fact, one of the greatest pleasures I had with this book was digging back to the citations and seeing just where and from whom it was that Shields stole from. I found that quite fascinating to try to figure out the voices and I played a sort of game with myself, the reader, in trying to determine if it was Shields the writer, or Shields the stealer.

Peace (in high art plagiarism),

Book Review: You Can Never Find a Rickshaw …

  • You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One  Cartoon a Day

I’ve been slowly savoring Mo Willems’  You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons for a few months now. This book — with its subtitle: The World On One Cartoon A Day —  is a collection of one-page comics and illustrations that Willems did when he went on a low-budget backpacking tour of the world, starting in the United States and then heading out to Europe, Asia and more. The tour began before Willems was a published author of crazy kids’ books  (the Pigeon books and more) and before he was married, so he was a single man on an adventure with his pen and paper.

Unlike most tourist guides, Willems’ illustrated insights capture the daily color of life (shining through Willems’ own sense of humor) and what makes the book special is that Willems went back to his drawings and added short narratives of his memories of the scenes. Or his faulty memories. Or, in some cases, he admits he doesn’t even remember drawing the scene.

The use of comic illustrations is another lens into culture, I realized, and I think I learned as much about Nepal and Paris and China as I have from any other book that I have read.

Give Willems’ book a try. You won’t be disappointed.

Peace (in the sharing),

It’ll be Cartoon-a-palooza With Mo Willems

Tomorrow, I am bringing my little guy to a benefit show that features the wonderful and talented Mo Willems. I just realized this week that Willems now lives in my small city (along with a host of other illustrators, writers and artists) and he is donating his time, and  few of his animated shorts, to this event to raise money to revamp the children’s wing of the city library.

Willems has created the Pigeon books, which will bring the giggles to just about any little kid (or big kid with little kid still inside)  and the Knuffle Bunny picture books, and more. He has a great sense of humor and his off-kilter stories hit you in the heart as well as the head. They are simple, but great.

As it turns out, I am reading a book by Willems called You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons, which is a day-by-day travel journal from when Willems spent a year in Europe and Asia, traveling mostly on foot and without much money. He drew a comic each day, and years later, he he wrote a short narrative. The comic journal is hilarious, and insightful about an American in different cultures.

Peace (in the cartoon/picture book world),

Reviewing: To Teach- The Journey, in Comics


I finally had some time to read through To Teach: the journey, in comics by William Ayers and illustrated by Ryan Alexander-Tanner and I have to say that Ayers message and Alexander-Tanner’s illustrations meshed so powerfully together that I decided I need to pass this book along to my student teacher (who left the other day as her time with me ended).

In this graphic interpretation of Ayer’s reflections on being a kindergarten teacher (which were told prior in a book format), but also his philosophies of teaching in general (particularly the conflict between inquiry-based teaching and standardized curriculum) hit right home with me. I could have lived on Ayers’ words alone, but by bringing the medium of comics into the story, the entire thing just came to life perfectly.

Ayers gives us stories of real teachers, and real students, making discoveries around learning and he doesn’t sugarcoat the hard work of teaching, either, noting that the teacher is often learning alongside their students, even in the younger grades.

“The intellectual challenge of teaching involves becoming a student of your students, unlocking the wisdom in the room, and joining together on a journey of discovery and surprise. The ethical demand is to see each student as a 3-dimensional creature, much like yourself, and an unshakable faith in the irreducible and incalculable value of every human being.”

Tell me that is not a powerful statement! Again and again, Ayers relates how he, and how we, must try to resist the pigeon-holing of our students as special needs or labeling them with ADD when what we are seeing is the curiosity, the inquiry and the impact of home life on school life.

The comic illustrations here are modeled on Scott McCloud’s work and the images are not just for fun. Alexander-Tanner effectively uses the medium to move from the concrete to the abstract, using visual representations of teaching and education, along with fine doses of humor, to help move Ayers’ writing along. The comic element is not just a throw-away device here — not just some selling point in this time of graphic novels — but a real addition to the storytelling.

I highly recommend this book.

Peace (in the book),

More use of Glogster: Independent Book Report

We just finished up an independent book unit and students had to choose some way to present their final thoughts about the book they chose. A few of them used Glogster, and I sort of wish more had. My room is filled with posters, which are wonderful but soon to be sent back home. This report by one of my students is well-done, and is about the 38 Clues series. Notice how she used a good design that combines the media with text and your eyes flow over the page. She “gets it,” I think.

Peace (in the glog),

3D Picture Book Experiment w/Zooburst

I saw this new site — Zooburst — somewhere or another, and given that my student teacher is right now doing pop-up poetry books, I was intrigued. The site is still in beta and they are only allowing new memberships on a vetted basis, I think, but you can make 3D pop-up books. Sounds strange, right?
There are are few levels going on here, including using your webcam and a special printout that allows you to view your picture book on your hand (!), but check out what I have embedded as an example of a picture book from the site — this is my first book called The Writer Within.

(Hmm – the embed code was too big and when I shrunk it down, I seem to have lost the controls to move to the next pages. There’s just a bit of the arrows on the left and right side. See them? Click on them. If not, go HERE to read the book).

But here is where the site is fascinating — if you print out the special image they provide (branded with their logo, of course), and hold it up to your webcam, you get to “see” your 3D book come alive in the webcam window. I’m not sure how to explain it. I was hooked, though. And ZooBurst wisely has a button that will take a screenshot of you and your book, together, and email it to you as a jpeg. How cool is that? Wicked cool, man.

Peace (in 3D),

PS — If you are wondering how a teacher finds time during the day to do this, I am home with a sick kid. I tried to get him to try it, but he wasn’t all that interested right now. Too busy being a sick pre-teen, I guess. But he did come over when the webcam kicked in and stared at it with me.