Paper is a technology too

As I type these words, I am at a teacher’s conference, the theme of which is “technology and education.”  The organizers of the conference have not printed any schedules or outlines on paper; in fact, they announced that it was their intention to have a “paperless” convention.  The reason, we have been told, is that dispensing with paper “is in keeping with the theme of technology.” Also in line with this theme, all materials related to the conference are available online, via computers or mobile devices.

The strange thing about this idea, of course, is that paper is as much of a technology as computers or cell phones.  Although there is some debate about the details, it seems that the technology of papermaking was invented in second century China.  And of course, it is difficult to overestimate the impact of the invention of a closely related technology, the printing press, in the fifteenth century.  Surely the ballpoint pen, invented as recently as the 1930s, counts as a remarkable technology.  Anyone who doubts this is welcome to try writing a page of prose with a quill and ink jar.

So why is it, then, that at an educator’s conference that celebrates “technology”, paper, pen, and printing press are deliberately ignored in favor of digital technologies? What we have here is a profound, if subtle, shift in the meaning of “technology.” Throughout all of human history, the concept of technology has meant a system, tool, or method of organization used to solve a problem.  The alphabet is a technology.  The organization of time into hours, minutes, and seconds is a technology.  The wheel is a technology.  Fire-building is a technology.  Yet increasingly we are faced with people who are using the term “technology” to refer to one thing: computers.  You see this everywhere in education, and it is a pretty safe bet that any time a teacher or school administrator talks about “technology in the classroom” they are actually referring to computers. 

Essentially, this is an instance of what may very well be a dangerous linguistic and semantic appropriation, the effect of which, of course, is to marginalize non-digital or non-mechanical technologies.  It’s amazing to think that there are school children who do not believe that a book or a pen and paper are remarkable examples of technology; it is even more disturbing that there are educators who agree with them.

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