Educational Technology: A Bioregional Critique

by Brian Hagemann

Central Ohio River Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

This essay provides some thought-provoking discussion on the use of educational technology from a bioregional perspective and suggests that bioregional educators have a responsibility to enter the debate. Although he does not conclude that we must abolish our use of computers, Hagemann suggests reasons we should consider severely curtailing our use of modern educational technology in order to promote an ecologically sustainable society. The ultimate question is posed as to whether it is even possible to promote bioregional ideas through a “non-bioregional” technology.

Recently, while participating in a 2-week long summer institute in academic and instructional technology, I heard the president of my university speak on the issue of educational technology. Among other things, he discussed his belief that the university library, as we know it, is on the way out, being replaced with on-line information networks and electronic holdings. He went on to say that state support for university libraries is disappearing while increased funding is available for expanding our technological infrastructure. Books are to go the way of the card catalog? What surprised me was not at all the content of his talk (it only reflected what I already suspected), but the fact that none of the 50 or so faculty members in attendance raised an eyebrow, and in fact seemed to think this was a great idea. The general message of his talk was identical to the hundreds of other such speeches that have uncritically lauded the introduction of every new technology from TV and computers to the atomic bomb and genetic engineering. The basic message is that technology is inherently good, and somehow connected to what we view as “progress.” Not everyone thinks this, of course, but the technology advocates believe that the burden of proof is on the critics. The fact of the matter is that modern technologies rarely, if ever, are able to follow through on their initial promises.

So how does this relate to ecological or bioregional education? Simply put, there is nothing bioregional about modern educational technology, and bioregional educators are in a unique position to provide a much needed critique of educational technologies. The bioregional framework connects aspects of critical thought from many perspectives: social, economic, political and ecological. As bioregional educators, it is our responsibility to become informed in the debate around educational technology and enter the discourse with more than educational reform in mind.

True transformation of our educational system, which bioregional education hopes to accomplish, can only take place if we consider the directions educational technology is very likely to take us. In this process, we must be careful to insure that the underlying principals of our philosophy are not compromised. To do this, we must be honest about our values as well as our goals. It is my belief that if bioregional education becomes part of the status quo regarding educational technology, it will subvert itself on the most fundamental level before it even succeeds in reaching the student.

I hope to provide here a few ideas to begin this critical thinking process and suggest some of the ways in which bioregional philosophy can help us discuss and rethink educational technology. For the purposes of this essay, when I speak of educational technology I am referring to everything from educational videos and cable TV in the classroom (ie: Whittle’s Channel One) to CD-ROM software and multimedia computer programs including hypercard stacks. I do not discuss the education dimensions of computer networking or the Internet, but direct the reader to Clifford Stoll’s recent book Silicon Snake Oil (1995) which covers several of these themes.

A Message from Corporate America

Teachers are presently faced with a very different classroom experience than they had even ten years ago and the rate of innovation and change is rapid. Classroom technology, like other forms of technology, is generally introduced without much debate or input from educators—in fact we rarely stop to think about it. We must first acknowledge that the driving feature of modem educational technology is that it is in large part being developed, funded, and placed in schools by multinational corporations and business consortiums. This raises many of the same issues that are involved when a school curriculum on proper nutrition is funded by the meat and dairy industry, “Earth Day” materials are distributed to the educators by the Clorox or Monsanto chemical corporations, and “alternative energy” is discussed with the pro-nuclear materials provided by the US Department of Energy. The greatest interest in multimedia technologies today is seen in the entertainment and telecommunications industries. We should take note that those currently developing our educational multimedia (such as Time-Warner and Microsoft) are also heavily investing in home shopping, commercial on-line services and video-on-demand. Although the CD-ROMs themselves don’t contain blatant advertising (yet!), they reflect quite clearly the commercial and ideological interests of “Corporate America.” It is also clear that these corporations will utilize any inroad into the school systems to further their overall marketing scheme. There are many volumes written on the politics of educational funding under capitalism, so I won’t go into it any further here: I recommend the works of Jonathan Kozol, Joel Spring, and Peter McLaren for more on this subject.

The educational software titles available today show great variety, but this is destined to change as the larger companies continue to grow and dominate the market. As long as production and distribution channels remain under the control of these media-conglomerates, it is doubtful that they will market titles which challenge our current values and behaviors to any meaningful degree. The ecologically-oriented CD-ROM titles available now reflect the corporate friendly message that it is the individual that is to blame for our current ecological and social crisis—not the chemical, nuclear, or automobile industries. Home recycling, water and energy conservation, and purchasing “green” products are presented as the “radical” message of these educational products. Do we really want to trust Microsoft, Time-Warner, or Westinghouse to provide our children with a lesson in ecological sustainability? An even more fundamental question for bioregional educators is whether or not a bioregional message can even be delivered through this kind of technology. I don’t believe it can as long as the technology is inherently non-bioregional; alienating, toxic, and economically prohibitive.

The Mediation of Experience

Much has been written on how media operates to shape our ways of thinking and what we know (see the works of Marshall McLuhan; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964); The Medium Is the Massage: an Inventory of Effects (1967), or Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (1977)) Offering only a slight interactive benefit over television, computers undeniably reinforce passivity and uncritical comprehension. Socially and politically we have been forwarned regarding a possible future for this technology in Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Indeed, Big Brother’s “doublespeak” came of age during the Reagan administration and virtual reality promises to be the “soma” of our generation.

From a bioregional perspective we must realize that modern educational technologies, even the seemingly beneficial ones, estrange the educational circumstance of the student from real and meaningful interaction with others and with nature. As Hakim Bey describes in T.A.Z. (Temporary Autonomous Zones),

“All experience is mediated—by the mechanisms of sense perception, mentation, language, etc…

However, mediation takes place by degrees. Some experiences (smell, taste, sexual pleasure, etc.) are less mediated than others (reading a book, looking through a telescope, listening to a record). Some media, especially “live” arts such as dance, theater, musical or bardic performance, are less mediated than others such as TV, CDs, Virtual Reality. Even among the media usually called “media,” some are more & others are less mediated, according to the intensity of imaginative participation they demand. Print & radio demand more of the imagination, film less, TV even less, VR the least of all—so far.”

Applied to the bioregional framework, this describes the process that occurs when students read about nature, watch a nature video, or play with an interactive CD-ROM about nature, rather than experiencing nature themselves. The mediation that takes place between us and nature (or between us and each other) is part of the overall alienation of humans from nature, and with modem educational technology this happens to an even greater degree. This process is certainly known to most environmental educators, but at best we have been silent concerning these effects of media technologies. At worst, the environmental educator uncritically uses the multimedia CD-ROM about the rainforests or the ocean with the belief that it offers students an experience they could not get in real life. A bioregional critique suggests that those students are being dangerously misled to believe that this is an appropriate substitute for real experiences.

Virtual reality (VR) attempts to take this to the extreme by creating a computer controlled artificial environment so real that we accept it as real. At best, VR drastically mediates between us and the real world, at worst, it replaces it. At the current rate of innovation it won’t be long before we see this introduced into the classroom and lately some of the multimedia CD-ROM software has been making claims of VR. Just as was the case with other technologies, the VR proponants want us to assume that VR is a beneficial innovation that may even help us out of the ecological crisis. Michael Zimmerman writes,

We must re-immerse ourselves and our children in the natural world of real cricket chirps and chorusing birds, of pine scented forests and clean running water. We need to re-attune to the changings of the seasons and cycles of the moon, not the clock-cycles of a microprocessor.

According to Jaron Lanier, however, founder of VPL Research, Virtual Reality could help solve the ecological crisis. He maintains that men have been raping the planet because they have had nothing “virtual” to act out their desires to mold and shape. Virtual Reality will let them rape and murder, control and exploit without leaving the comfort of their own living rooms. Lanier fails to mention, however, that the high-tech equipment necessary for such “trips” is not only expensive, and thus out of reach of most people, but also requires sustaining the technological empire that seems to be making the planet uninhabitable, (in Contesting Earth’s Future: Radical Ecology and Postmodemity, 1994, p. 372).

Considering the omnipresence of the videogame console in many children’s lives, it will not be easy to pull them from the addictive grasp of the latest VR-like games and environments. We must remember, however, that there is a qualitative difference between VR and reality. Bioregional educators can insist on the importance of immediate natural experiences as contrasted to VR or some of its multimedia predecessors. We must re-immerse ourselves and our children in the natural world of real cricket chirps and chorusing birds, of pine scented forests and clean running water. We need to re-attune to the changings of the seasons and cycles of the moon, not the clock-cycles of a microprocessor. Ultimately, human society needs to reorient both it’s attitudes and pace to that of nature, not create a “natural” world more acceptable to the modem circumstance.

The Decline of Western Civilization?

Another aspect of this process, and again it varies in degree depending on whether the media is print, video, or CD-ROM, is that students are being given a subtle but continuous reinforcement of Western Enlightenment thinking (see the writings of Chet Bowers and David Orr). An example I find quite appropriate in our context is the classroom experience of frog dissection. Fortunately, in large part due to animal rights advocates, this is not as common as it once was, and there are sometimes alternatives offered to the student. One of the alternatives is an interactive CD- ROM version of a frog dissection which is done entirely on the computer and can be quite realistic and accurate. It would seem on the surface that this is a perfect example of how computer technology can aid environmental approaches in education, but if we look a little deeper, we might come to a different conclusion. Bioregional philosophy, deep ecology, and green thought have all come to believe that our mechanistic, positivistic worldview (again Western Enlightenment thinking) has pretty much led us into our current ecological and social predicament. Although it is certainly much more humane, the CD-ROM frog experiment is still sending the message to the student that we can discover “truth” and “knowledge” only by manipulating and dissecting, by exercising “power-over” the world around us. In addition, the CD-ROM version demonstrates that modem technology itself (in this case the computer) is our tool of choice for harnessing our power over nature.

Toxic Technologies-Toxic Classrooms

When sitting on a relatively uncluttered desk, the Macintosh computer may seem like a very clean and stylish marvel of post-modern, technological design. In reality, this technology represents a web of ecological destruction and toxic processes. It would be a useful research project to write up an environmental impact statement for the creation of a single computer (see Marti Crouch’s article, “Learning About the Common Things in Daily Life,” Ch. 15). Just briefly thinking about this, it seems one would have to include; the origins of the raw materials that go into the computer, the production process itself (including worker’s health in the factories and the toxic waste produced), the shipping, sales and finally the use (electricity from fossil fuels or nuclear power) of the computer by the end user. Although it is claimed that electronic offices, electronic publications and e-mail save natural resources, we have yet to see the results of this promise. Even if it did dramatically reduce the consumption of paper, the ecological effects of the replacement technology is much worse. Modern electronic technology is not ecologically sustainable in the least. As we continue to use such technology we must also consider the following (paraphrased from a letter to the editor printed in the Samhain (November 1) 1994 edition of the Earth First! journal):

  • “Silicon Valley” located in the San Jose region of California has experienced a long and continuing problem with air and water quality as a result of the industries which have located there. Groundwater studies have identified contamination of surrounding communities.
  • Silicon industries have three times the worker illnesses of general manufacturing industries. Almost half of all occupationally related illnesses are caused by “systemic poisoning” from exposure to toxic substances.
  • Some of the solvents used by the computer industry arc ozone depleting CFC’s and HCFC’s.
  • Computer manufacturers and the supporting industries (silicon chemicals and plastics) routinely utilize hazardous waste landfills which exist as environmental time bombs left ticking for future generations.
  • Computers and video equipment generate high energy electromagnetic fields (EMFs). EMFs have been shown to induce biological changes in living tissue including genetic materials and cell growth and reproduction. Exposure to EMFs has been linked to systemic neurological disorders such as chronic depression, as well as birth defects, miscarriages, brain and breast cancer, and leukemia. Children are thought to be especially susceptible.
  • Modern technology requires a vast techno-web of support. This ranges from the devastating plunder of the living Earth for raw materials (massive copper and mineral strip mines) and the toxic petrochemical industry to the electric transformers (filled with PCBs) powered by coal, nuclear plants, or hydroelectric dams which choke off our formerly wild rivers.
Centralized & Specialized Knowledge

Bioregionalists and Greens seek to promote the benefits of a decentralized society on many levels. Economic relations, transportation, agriculture and even social relations that are hierarchical and centralized must be replaced in an ecologically sane manner with decentralized, essentially non-hierarchical structures. Modem educational technology simply does not reflect this ecological vision of a decentralized society. Whether it is a video, or especially a CD-ROM or online database, educational packages are highly centralizing products, claiming a certain sense of “completeness” on a given subject. Even if not an explicit claim, we seem to operationally believe this whenever we use such a database or interactive educational software. This becomes particularly disturbing when we realize the patterns of monopoly and ideological hegemony in today’s large media conglomerates. Fewer and fewer corporations are providing an increasingly larger percentage of all information; TV, movies, books, newspapers, magazines and now CD-ROMs. For a complete treatment of this subject see The Media Monopoly, by Ben Badikian (1992).

In addition, students in the modern classroom are learning to defer their curiosity and ability to find out things for themselves to the authority of the computer program (or programmer). The very nature of software design, however. dictates that a CD-ROM presents a certain highly filtered, mediated and selective bit of information in a particular way to the end user. Although traditional cultures deferred many questions about the animals, nature and human relations to elders, shamen, and interpreters, theirs was a world of immediate experiences, and they were immersed in these webs of relationship on a daily basis. In contrast, the modern classroom seeks to isolate children from the world around them, compartmentalize their learning, and teach obedience to authority. This in fact is what the classroom was historically designed to do and it has succeeded quite well. Modern educational technology is a logical conclusion to this long process. Bioregional educators must seek to reverse the process of alienation that occurs in the classroom, essentially to “de-school” the children and open them up to the world of immediacy, experience, and curiosity that they have been denied.

Conclusion and Suggestions

Bioregional education has a lot to offer our vision of an ecologically oriented society. Whether or not we can use modern educational technology to accomplish this is a critical question. I am simply suggesting that our acceptance and personal use of this technology should not happen without debate or careful evaluation. We should at least demand input in the curriculum planning process where we might best raise these questions and promote ecological alternatives. Of course, even I recognize that some of our use of this technology is unavoidable or pragmatic (I am using a computer to write this essay and design the layout of this book). As one writer eloquently put it,

For those who feel they MUST use computers, to accomplish what REALLY NEEDS TO BE DONE, by all means do so. But don’t get so lost in techno wonder-blunderland that you forget computers are no “baby” merely taking a bath, but are part of the malignant tumors of out-of-balance civilized domesticated hierarchical wage slave corporate society. (letter to the editor, Earth First! Journal, Samhain (Nov. 1) 1994).

There are alternatives that might help put us in touch with each other and the world around us. Rather than referring the students to the book, video or CD-ROM database, bioregional educators should, as Alexander Pope has said, “consult the genius of the place.” Whether we live in the city or the country, we all have a dynamic and vibrant world to explore, interpret and from which to learn. The local place—the wilderness, rural communities, or the urban environment and its human inhabitants—is our real and only teacher. Growing up in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio, I had the opportunity to explore my immediate world which included a wooded neighborhood park, and many creeks and ravines in which I imagined all of wild nature to live. My world of learning also included the small backyard garden that my parents nurtured back to life every spring, the many interactions with neighbors and friends and my local elementary school (which did quite well without computers), urban environment the green movement has explored this experience by creating urban and community gardening projects where hands-on cultivation connects the people with the Earth that sustains them. Finally, let’s never forget that whenever a child (or adult for that matter) is sitting in front of a computer or television, that represents time that could be spent interacting with others, with nature, and self. In today’s MTV world, we need to promote more of the latter.

Some Recommended Readings on Ecology, Education, and Technology

ADBusters – Journal of the Mental Environment. ADBusters Quarterly is the only magazine of its type. Funded primarily by the Ira-Hiti Foundation for Deep Ecology and published by the Media Foundation, this is a hard hitting journal of media activism. Want to know how to fight offensive ad campaigns, rid your classroom of Channel One. manipulate the media, resist consumerism and encourage others to do the same? Its all in here. The Media Foundation has a lot of other materials and resources available for educators. Unfortunately ADBusters has chosen distribution through Hearst, a mega-media corporate conglomerate rather than alternative print distributors, so the future for this journal remains questionable.

Bowers, C. A. (1993). Education, Cultural Myths, and the Ecological Crisis: Toward Deep Changes (paperback ed.). New York: SUNY Press. An excellent introduction to thinking about our educational system from an ecological perspective. Weaves together political and educational sociology with critical theory and bioregional philosophy (deep ecology). Exposes our educational system for its underlying support of “Western Enlightenment Thinking” which Bowers maintains is a root cause of our problems. I consider this to be an essential addition to field of educational theory and practice. Very highly recommended.

Coupland, D. (1991). Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin’s Press. This first novel by Douglas Coupland has become a manifesto for Generation X, the twenty-something generation of the 90s, the first agc-group that exists as a product of an information society. Fun and frighteningly accurate, enter the world of McJobs, slackers and aspirations lost; a bohemian world of embodied coffee house philosophy laid over a constant stream of TV references from the 70s. In here you will find the interesting results of the first wave of “video-game education”. If you think computers and videos will change the world for the better, this may change your mind. Its also an enjoyable read for anyone like myself who grew up in the late 60s and 70s.

Dobson, A. (Ed.). (1991). The Green Reader: Essays Towards a Sustainable Society (paperback ed.). San Francisco: Mercury House, Inc. An excellent introduction to Green Party politics and Green philosophy. Over 50 essays and papers on the diversity of Green thought including writings by; Rachel Carson, E.F.Schumacher, Fritjof Capra, Murray Bookchin, Ted Trainer, Vandana Shiva, Brian Tokar, Amory Lovins, Herman Daly, Petra Kelly, Rudolf Bahro, Aldous Huxley, Aldo Leopold, Arne Naess and James Lovelock. Sections focus on economics, political strategies, the Green critique, what a Green society would look like and Green philosophical roots.

Earth First! Journal, Published 8 times a year on the pagan holidays, the EF! Journal regularly includes: information and updates on Earth First! campaigns, news from other radical ecology groups such as the Sea Shepherd and ALF, reviews and critiques of the environmental movement, book, music and poetry reviews, and essays on deep ecology, culture, technology, and eco-philosophy. Subscriptions $25 per year domestic rate, $35 first class and international surface mail, $45 international air mail, $50 institutional/law enforcement rate, and $15-$20 for low income, nonprofit or libraries. Sample copy available upon request.

Leopold, A. (1966). A Sand County Almanac (paperback ed.). San Francisco: Sierra Club/Ballantine Books. This book is probably on more environmental education, conservation, ecology, bioregional and green reading lists than any other. A classic of wilderness writing, Aldo Leopold describes the need for the wild and a way of life that embraces the natural world with joy and celebration. Leopold’s “land ethic” is a model for sustainable living and a sane relationship with nature and with each other that is based on respect and understanding. Does not deal directly with modern technology, but I suggest that we all take a break here for some inspiration… Read this book!

Mander, J. (1978). Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (paperback ed.). New York: Quill. In this classic book from Jerry Mander, he advocates the position that television is not a reformable medium. Unlike the mainstream liberal view that it is the content that we should try to change. Mander believes that television itself as a technology has inherent characteristics that are far from neutral and instead arc dangerous to society. The four arguments are; the Mediation of Experience—how TV affects knowledge and education, The Colonization of Experience—TV and advertising as a centralizing force in society for the purpose of control and commodification. Effects of Television on the Human Being—a discussion of the psychological and physiological effects of TV and artificial light, imaging and suppression of imagination, and finally. The Inherent Biases of Television—the alienation of the viewer from participating in society and bias in content. The chilling conclusion of the book is that we must develop a social taboo against TV and eliminate it completely.

Mander, J. (1991). In the Absence of the Sacred: The Failure of Technology and the Survival of the Indian Nations, (paperback ed.). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books. This expands on the ideas of Mander’s first book, “Four Arguments”. The reviews of this have been overwhelmingly positive and from my cursory reading, I would tend to agree that it is raising issues of vital importance. Especially important for educators concerned with multicultural education.

Postman, Neil. (1992). Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (paperback ed.). New York: Vintage Books. This is a highly readable introduction to thinking about technology and culture. If you are not used to thinking about technology and how it has shaped society, this would be a good place to start.

Rifkin, J. (1985). Declaration of a Heretic. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul. In this short book. Jeremy Rifkin discusses in a highly readable style his opposition to genetic engineering and nuclear technology and why he feels our relationship with technology is on a road to disaster. Rifkin is one of the most vocal critics of technology and is currently heading up the campaigns against the beef industry and the bovine growth hormone (BGH) in milk. The book concludes with a comprehensive (27 page) suggested reading list. A good introduction to Rifkin and his views.

Singer, Peter. (1975). Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for our Treatment of Animals (paperback cd.). New York: Avon Books. This book is here to acknowledge the interrelatedness of these issues. Our technocratic world view is not only destroying our social fabric and the natural world, but arrogantly imposed upon other living creatures for the benefit of human greed and profit. There is also a strong relationship between modern technology and the issues Singer raises, such as Western medicine and factory fanning. Making us aware of our rationalizations for such inhuman treatment he discusses the horrors of subjecting animals to scientific experimentation, wearing furs and leather goods and eating commercially produced meats. We must face the fact that animals are deliberately poisoned, starved, dissected, and tortured—and for no good reason. He exposes the myth of medical advances through animal experiments and the collaboration between politicians, medical researchers, drug companies and finally animal suppliers. Very highly recommended, especially for those not already convinced of the issue.

Teich.A. H. (Ed.). (1993). Technology and the Future (sixth, paperback ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press. A good introduction to the philosophical and social concerns over technology. Includes essay’s both positive and negative, but the common theme seems to be that we never really think all that much about our technology and the ramifications of new technology. Sections are titled; Thinking about Technology; Forecasting, Assessing, and Controlling the Impacts of Technology; Reshaping Technology; and Using technologies and Confronting their Dilemmas. Includes the wonderful essay “Why I’m Not Going to Buy a Computer,” by the bioregionalist Wendell Berry.

Brian Hagemann is the Director of Administration for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus. Prior to this, he worked with a number of nonprofits and as the Director of Technology Services in Student Life at the University of Cincinnati, his alma mater. He has a master’s in Education and a certificate in Peace Education.

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