Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology & Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

On Noam Chomsky and technology’s neutrality

Posted on January 23rd, by George Veletsianos in E-learning, emerging technologies, my research, online learning, scholarship. 21 comments

In a recent interview, Noam Chomsky commented on the relationship between technology and education and one of his thoughts was the following:

As far as technology itself and education is concerned, technology is basically neutral. It’s like a hammer. The hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or whether on torture, using it to crush somebody’s skull, the hammer can do either.

Hammer – CC Photo by Birmingham Museum and Arts Gallery

I admire Noam Chomsky and his brilliance. I agree with this perspective, but this perspective does not paint the whole picture of what happens when we use technology in education. I’d like to unpack this just a little bit because there is a more accurate picture of technology use in education available to us. The broader picture I describe below helps us understand how technologies are used, why they succeed/fail, and how we can design better learning environments. From my observations of technology use in education, my research, my colleagues’ research, and my reading of the field’s research, here’s what I understand:

  • Technologies can be as neutral as described above. For example, Twitter can be used as a broadcasting medium, a conversational medium, or even a 1-1 support tool. YouTube can replace the VCR used in class. Or, it can bring together people from different locations to discuss topics of common interest. In this sense, technologies are neutral in that they can serve various needs and can be used in different ways.
  • Technologies themselves are rarely neutral. How can that be, you ask, when the bullet point above stated the opposite? Technology is not created in a vacuum. When technology is created, it is built with the developers’ worldviews, values, beliefs, and assumptions embedded into the technology and revealed through the activities supported and encouraged when individuals use the technology. For example, social networking sites (SNS) structure relationships in specific ways (e.g., followers, friends) and perceive privacy in different ways. Technologies hold particular views of the world, and in this way, they are not neutral. This is true for technologies that we repurpose for educational means (e.g., Twitter, YouTube, Ning, Elgg, Facebook, Flickr, and so on) as well as for technologies created specifically for educational purposes. For example, Learning Management Systems (LMS) espouse certain beliefs about the educational process and their default settings and suggestions may shape how they are used. Whn introduced in educational settings, said technologies tend to introduce tensions and conundrums (e.g., The way the LMS or SNS structured instructor-learner relationships vs. the way faculty envisioned instructor-learner relationships may be in conflict, leading to low uptake, rejection of the tool, etc).
  • Technologies can be put to different uses, but not all uses are productive or effective. A hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to “build a house… or crush somebody’s skull,” but it will do a poor job if you try to use it in lieu of a screwdriver. The problem arises when entrepreneurs, designers, instructors, etc treating the hammer as a tool that can help them address all needs. A recent example of this is Udacity treating its product as a solution in search of a problem.

The ways that technology is used on the ground are complex and negotiated. In preparing instructors to use technology in education and designers to envision ways that technology can support/enhance education, we need to expose them to skills and mindsets that allow them to use tools in creative and inspirational ways. We also need to help them understand the assumptions and beliefs that technologies espouse and remain cognizant of the pressures and tensions that these may introduce.


* References pertaining to technology being not-neutral:

Whitworth, A., & Benson, A. (2010). Learning, Design, and Emergence: Two case studies of Moodle in distance education. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 195-213). Edmonton, AB: Athabasca University Press.

Hall, R. (2011). Revealing the transformatory moment of learning technology: the place of critical social theory. Research in Learning Technology, 19(3), 273-284.

Lane, L. (2009). Insidious pedagogy: How course management systems impact teaching. First Monday, 14(10).

Crook, C. (2012). The “ digital native ” in context: tensions associated with importing Web 2.0 practices into the school setting. Oxford Review of Education, 38(1), 63-80.

21 thoughts on “On Noam Chomsky and technology’s neutrality

  1. Hi George, Nice post. I like Andrew Feenberg’s writing on technology. In particular, I find his take on ‘ambivalent technologies’ is a useful shorthand for navigating the kind of complexities and contradictions that you describe, and which exist between the arguments of technological neutrality and determinism. It recognises that stages of design, development, appropriation and use etc. are culturally and politically loaded, whilst introducing the potential for ‘democratising’ these processes. But how often is the ‘end user’ (in this case, the student) given such opportunity?

    • Hi Andy C.-
      Thank you for the comment! I like the term ambivalent technologies. How often is the student given such opportunity? Not often enough, I think. That is an issue with educational systems and institutions at large, one that is not limited to technology initiatives, and one that we should be discussing more and paying closer attention too.

  2. I like the three distinctions you’ve made here, distinctions that are difficult for many to see.

    I wonder where/how the notion of modern technology being protean plays in this discussion?

    The technologies used in the examples above (hammer, screwdriver etc) – as noted – can be used for different tasks. However, they essentially can’t be changed. Almost no-one – I imagine there are always exceptions – thinks about reshaping an individual hammer or screwdriver.

    Koehler and Mishra argued that a difference between traditional technologies and information technologies (ITs) is that information technologies are protean. They have the capability to be changed.

    The problem I have with this is along the lines of Rushkoff’s “Program or be Programmed”. Increasingly people don’t see ITs as protean (especially in the organisational space with enterprise ITs like LMS) and hence practice must be modified to fit the (perceived) capabilities of the tool. The people employed by organisations to help teachers are tasked with and chosen based on their experience of helping people use the tool. Hence increasingly technologies exert a force/an inertia in a particular direction.

    Perhaps this partially explains point 3 above?

    • Hi David,
      Your comment has me wondering: What skills, abilities, mindsets, and so on enable and encourage teachers/designers to mold technologies to fit their practice? I imagine it’s a list of variables that includes things like like expertise, being comfortable with technology, dedicated to values, and so on… And how do we equip individuals with these skills/mindsets? This is fertile research ground, for anyone reading and interested in these topics.
      Thank you for the food for thought!

  3. Hi George,
    Hope you are well!

    I agree, especially with bullet #2. There are obviously good reasons for the pendulum to swing away from technocentrism, but it’s easy to go too far and oversimplify things (see e.g., R Clark) as you rightly point out. Even while being indoctrinated by TPACK (, I questioned whether it was going too far to add technological knowledge to Shulman’s brilliant model of pedagogical content knowledge — at least in as much as it privileges technology to equal standing with pedagogy and content. Yet we lose a lot, as you say, if we ignore the ways technology is interacting with and influencing pedagogy and content on many levels: instrumental/structural, sociocultural, social psychological, developmental, etc.

    • Hey Andy S.,
      – I wrote my comments and then I realized that Andy C also commented, so I had to go back and insert initials – and this comment :)
      There’s little value in binary thinking (though, from what I am understand, it works well within the context of the attention economy). The reality is much more nuanced and and if we don’t pay attention to it, we lose a lot, as you correctly point out. Regarding TPACK: Have you see this recent paper: Brantley-Dias, L., & Ertmer, P.A. (2013). Goldilocks and TPACK: Is the construct “just right?” Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 46(2), 103-128.

  4. Pingback: Is Technology Neutral? | Notta Stuff

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