Sunday, November 11, 2012

Socrates and Technology

Perhaps in much the same vein as Socrates’ dictum, “the unexamined life is not worth living”, was a warning to the masses to take notice and understand why and how we know and believe things, the tenets of Ohler’s (2010) technology assessment call us to bring our innovations and media to the fore and into focus so that we can understand “how?”, “why?”, and “to what extent?” our technology impacts us.

Using the investigative tools of a good “de-tech-tive” (Ohler, 2010), we have a methodology to assess the physical characteristics, enhancements, reductions, predecessors, implications, contexts, biases, benefits and impacts (Ohler, 2010) of virtually any innovation or technology. Two technologies I’d like to assess are the smart phone and PowerPoint – in part, because my professional life revolves around these two innovations. These two technologies have become part of the “ground” of my professional life because I use them virtually everyday, whether on the road or in the office. I don’t get paid to understand them; I get paid to use them as part of my arsenal of tools in managing people and communicating effectively. What may be even more important is that I never think about the person or people who are affected by my use of these technologies.  It’s almost as if I’ve placed a higher priority on my communication than on their understanding. So, let’s bring them to “figure” and make an assessment on the “how?”, “why?” and “to what extent?”
The smart phone is an innovation that over half of American adults own; over 27% of the world’s 5 billion cell phones are smartphones.  It is a wonderful amalgamation of technologies – all in one little package, small enough to fit into a pocket. Physically, they consist of a small, printed circuit board that has a PCS radio, a WiFi radio, a GPS receiver, a processor for calls, an ear piece and mouth piece for a phone plus a microphone and speakers, a processor for data, electronic RAM (random access memory), silicon traces, glass (not just any glass, but special glass with a thin layer of liquid crystal in it to detect touch), plastic, an antenna, a camera, and some very sophisticated software. It’s difficult to imagine but the average smart phone has almost 1,000 times more processing power than on the original lunar landing module (Apollo 16).
The smart phone takes cell phone technology to a whole new level. It provides for not just phone calls, but e-mail, scheduling, contact databases, internet surfing, and application use : so far, more than 700,000 applications across four main operating systems (Blackberry, Apple, Android, and Windows). It amplifies our mobile experience for communication modes.
At the same time, however, it diminishes our face-to-face contact with people. The more modes of communication we have at our disposal at one time, the less inclined we are to travel to go see someone. Presentations can take place simultaneously with a call in progress.
The smart phone’s predecessors were the “plain old” cell phone – you know, the thing that you could carry in your pocket but only made phone calls and sent and received text messages. And the plain old cell phone replaced the plain old phone; that device that was bolted to the wall in the kitchen, and which limited your mobility to about 15 feet.
What do the current versions of smart phones imply for the technology? The office, as we know it today, may not exist in the next 5-10 years.  In fact, by 2014, mobile internet usage will overtake desktop internet usage. The class room is changing, the “gathering place” is changing, and the office will follow suit. These smart devices are rapidly becoming one’s information, entertainment, communications, and social media hub.  
What are the social expectations that produced our desire to have this smart phone? The social environment of the office has placed an expectation of location-independent productivity on the average front-line worker. One must choose between carrying a plethora of devices (a cell phone, a PC, a camera, an mp3 player or an iPod, a wireless modem card, a Kindle, and a GameBoy) or carrying a smartphone.
Smart phones favor those with money – they’re much more expensive than a regular ol’ cell phone. They also favor those who have sight and who have working hands and fingers.  Certain functions can be performed with the voice, but to get maximum productivity out of a smart phone requires a tactile operating environment.   Who gets left out? Clearly those without money, those without sight, and those without the use of their hands have been excluded from using the technology.
The qualities which drove the creation and adoption of smart phones were their compact design, their multiple functionality (keyboard, camera, reader, video watcher, web-surfer, and a phone), and their mobile nature.
Smart phones connect us to information and media sources we didn’t have access to – except on hard-wired networks. They connect us to audiences and communities we didn’t have access to. But smart phones simultaneously disconnect us from physical presence – audiences, meetings, the office, communities, friends and family.
Now a look at an older technology: PowerPoint. It is a much older technology than the smart phone, but is every bit at the center of productivity in corporate America. Physically, it can exist on paper with multi-colored ink, or it can exist electronically on the screen of a PC, Tablet, smart phone or screen.
PowerPoint enhances our communication and our ability to communicate complex concepts with phrases and pictures; however, it can diminish our ability to write critically and clearly. Too much gets communicated with cryptic phrases, acronyms, and “ducks and bunnies” pictures, graphs, and visual aids.
The predecessor to PowerPoint was the “slide deck”. I use to travel with my slide deck in my slide carousel. Flying between meetings, I would arrange the slides to fit the presentation I wanted to make. The predecessor to the slide show was the sepia slide with an overhead projector. Unfortunately, I also remember those days of using the sepia slides to make presentations.
An implication for PowerPoint is the ability to share point-to-multipoint in a conference environment, where each person is viewing a shared PowerPoint – appearing simultaneously on everyone’s computer or tablet- while the presenter is talking on a conference bridge.
The social expectations in the business world for using this technology are unspoken but nearly universal. Rarely does a meeting take place without someone asking the question, “do you have a deck for us to follow along?”
PowerPoint is biased toward those with sight, as well as those present in the meeting or with a video-share sight. Who gets left out? Those without sight, those who aren’t present in the room, and those who don’t have a computer or tablet or who don’t have access to an electronic exchange for video connect.
The benefits of PowerPoint which drove its creation and adoption were that a predominantly hardware and firmware-based presentation technology was reduced to software. This new software is highly editable, and is almost completely hardware-independent.
PowerPoint connects us to a presenter through concepts, thoughts, data, and trends, but it can disconnect us from the printed word, from critical writing and from scholarly articles. Especially in the corporate world, where billion-dollar decisions are made with the use of two to four succinct PowerPoint slides. Here brevity is king and verbosity is a liability.
Being able to assess technology in this manner gives me the same platform that Socrates’ students had. Upon hearing his wisdom, they could apply it to themselves, and once internalized, could turn around and ask the probing questions of those around them.  Ohler’s de-tech-tive assessment tools now give us, as media psychologists, the job to ask the questions of “how?”, “why?”, and “to what extent?” in order to bring our innovations into focus, lest they “roll over us” (McLuhan, 1964) completely unawares.

American Cell Phone Usage Statistics – 2011. Retrieved on 11/10/12 from: 
McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding media: The extensions of man. Critical Edition, Terence Gordon (Ed.). Berkeley, CA. Gingko Press, Inc.
Mobile Phone Statistics retrieved from Digital Buzz on 11/10/12 from: 
Ohler, Jason (2010). Digital Community: Digital Citizen. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, CA.
Processing Power for the Lunar Landing Module. Retrieved on 11/9/12 from:


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