Tug of war – Convenience or Losing Control – A comment on the brief history and the future direction of the Internet
Alternate title: Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone) (Cinderella)
Sometimes, if you says enough stuff, you end up contradicting yourself. I find myself in this quandary. When writing for educators, I argue that efficiency is important when asking students to work with apps, online services, or software. Spending time learning a tool takes time away from time learning with the tool so select wisely and use frequently. However, on the personal level and taking the long view, I hope we do not settle in to the use of such a small number of services that the rest are unlikely to survive and no options are unlikely to emerge.
The case for efficiency
It is not about the technology, it is about …..
This is a popular refrain. Among educators, the wording might go – it is not about the technology, it is about the learning. I doubt any educator would argue the extreme version of this straw man argument. “No biology this semester. We are going to master Google Spreadsheet!”
The true concern is that advocates should push a tool only to extent that the tool offers some advantage. This is a popular theme in education. For example, Microsoft Word is worth learning only to the extent that the product improves the efficiency or quality of writing. Extensive use of a few products might make more sense than one-time use of many products.
The case for diversity
A big part of my original attraction to web authoring was the feeling that it offered me a voice. This may have been an illusion, but the feeling of visibility was sufficient to encourage a great deal of effort. I read more and I read more widely. This increase in the content I reviewed in combination with the thinking required to craft a public product seemed productive for someone in my line of work. Again, maybe an illusion. Still, I encourage these activities. Cognitive psychologists might describe activities such as these as generative. Activities that push a bit and make us think.
Here is where a different perspective emerges. As activities become popular certain forms of change are inevitable. Popular apps and services present opportunities for those looking to make a buck. The expertise that money attracts can offer users greater ease of use and power. Simply put, those with money have an advantage. Money attracts skill.
Attraction to the tools and services that are easiest to use consolidates users making options less attractive. Over time, however, a narrow focus can limit rather than improve productivity. You probably realize how this might work. Sometimes there is something better, but you already know how to do what you are already doing AND your friends are using the same tools. Facebook makes a great example. Using Facebook represents the limit of many of my relatives digital skill and I must spend time in that environment if sharing with them is something I want to do.
Without arguing the quality of the attributes of Facebook or similar popular services, an unintended consequence (or intended if you are part of the company attempting to attract users to generate create greater profits) is a reduction in options and a dumbing down of users. The case made in Program or Be Programmed is that users fit their use to the affordances of the service – we do what is easy to do. The author argues that we may give up more than we intend as a consequence. Power and money (too often the same thing) are concentrated within fewer and fewer companies and further within the high ranking officials of the companies that attract the users. Companies begin to product what they have done rather than moving on to better products.
The solution – I suppose the solution is to recognize the narrowing of opportunities and to commit to using a variety of resources. There is more to the online world than Facebook and Twitter. There is more than the iPad.