How do we understand and evaluate the workings of these technologies?

Over the past quarter century, digital technologies have become signature change agents in all aspects of our domestic, working and public lives. Whether it is our awareness of the world through the media, formal or informal learning, shopping, banking, travelling or communicating, digital technologies are everywhere. The hardware is getting less expensive relative to the power of the technology. Meanwhile, a battle is being fought in the domain of intellectual property between software that is proprietary and sometimes closed, and software that is open and sometimes free.

How do we understand and evaluate the workings of these technologies? To answer this question we need to recruit the disciplines of computer science, software engineering, communications systems and applied linguistics. We need to develop and apply the conceptual tools of cybernetics, informatics, systemics and the theory of distributed networks. And how do we understand their effects? Here we may consider the impact of the new media, intelligent systems or human-machine interfaces.


How do communities form?

In earlier modern times, information and communications technologies centralized power, knowledge and culture. They were built with heavy plant and physical infrastructure — the printing presses, the transmission stations and the transport and distribution systems that only the larger corporation or the state could afford. They were centralized, driven by economies of (large) scale and dominated on a day-to-day basis by those with economic resources, political power and elite cultural networks.

The new digital technologies are free or cheap. They are instantaneous and global. They are decentralized and distributed. And so, it is argued that they open out and provide broader access to the means of production and communication of meaning. They are the bases for an electronic democracy, participatory design and communities of practice. They allow a myriad of cultures, interests and knowledge communities to flourish.

Or at, least, this is one interpretation. In bleaker views, they add a digital divide to older historical cleavages of inequality. They daze us into passivity, They place our every movement under surveillance. They enforce a sedentary compliance.


How do technologies transform learning relationships?

There is little doubt that ‘e-learning’ is destined to become a larger part of the experience of learning at school, in universities, on the job, at home — indeed, lifelong and lifewide learning. Technology is now a central concern of education, not only from the point of view of preparing students for a world of work where networked computers are pervasive, but also from the point of view of community participation and citizenship. Learners who are excluded from the new information spaces, will clearly be economically, socially and culturally disadvantaged.

At its best, e-learning is a refreshingly new medium with a pedagogically new message. However, as the critics of e-learning rightly point out, much of what passes for e-learning is lock-step, mechanical and individualized (one user/one screen), reflecting and reproducing pedagogies that are best dubious and at worst regressive.

On the other hand, a more optimistic view notes the capacity of the new information and communication technologies to transform learning relationships. Instead of being the recipients of transmitted knowledge (syllabuses, textbooks, ‘information’ resources), institutions of learning might become places where teachers and learners develop knowledge banks, and where traditional classrooms, dominated by teacher talk, are replaced by open learning in which groups of students work autonomously and collaboratively on knowledge projects within a structured ‘content management’ environment. By these means, the role of the learner is transformed from knowledge consumer to knowledge producer.


How is knowledge shared and transformed?

The world is moving into a phase that is widely, and perhaps too glibly at times, referred to as a ‘knowledge economy’ or ‘knowledge society’. Information and communications technologies, and their human effects, play a central part in this development.

These digital technologies allow new, bottom-up structures of knowledge to emerge, building from the collaborative endeavors of knowledge creating communities — in, for instance, workplaces, schools and associations of common interest. In each case, they provide the means by which personal knowledge may be shared and transformed into common knowledge. From being receptors of knowledge, persons, organizations and communities become makers and publishers of knowledge, reversing at least in part the fundamental epistemic flows of modernity and replacing this with a new ‘dialogics’ of knowledge.

This conference, journal, book imprint and online media provide a forum for discussion of the connections between technology and society. The perspectives presented range from big picture analyses which address global and universal concerns, to detailed case studies which speak of localized applications of technology. Conference presentations and publications traverse a broad terrain, sometimes technically and other times socially oriented, sometimes theoretical and other times practical in their perspective, and sometimes reflecting dispassionate analysis while at other times suggesting interested strategies for action.