Saturday, June 22, 2013

Reflections through a laptop screen, hopefully

This is my final blog post for the course EDER 679.07 at the University of Calgary.  Because I was in the old cohort and did not take the other 3 Ed Tech classes, I will have to confine my reflections to just this one class.  As I write, floodwaters are surging all around Calgary in the great summer flood of 2013, and I am finding it impossible to ignore this fact as I put my thoughts together one last time.  My heart goes out to the victims. 

There is one, new literacy that is most prevalent in my mind as I reflect back on my learning in this course:  Tool literacy.  This is the literacy I worked on most closely because it was my topic for the Literacy Jigsaw Project.  At first, I thought it would be a challenge to make this topic interesting for myself, let alone others in the course.  However, as I started getting into the research, I began to find the topic very interesting.  One article, in particular, fascinated me.  This was Washburn’s old piece, “Speculations on the Interrelations of the History of Tools and Biological Evolution,” originally published in 1959 -- long before the advent of what we have begun to call The Digital Age.  In this article, Washburn, positing on the impact of tool use on human evolution, wrote:  “Our brains, then, are not just enlarged, but the increase in size is directly related to tool use, speech, and to increased memory and planning” (pp. 28-29).  He later went on to add,

            …it was bipedalism which started man on his separate evolutionary
character.  But tool use was nearly as early.  Biological changes in the hand,
brain and face follow the use of tools, and are due to the new selections
pressures which tools created.  Tools changed the whole pattern of life
bringing in hunting, cooperation, and the necessity for communication and
language.  Memory, foresight and originality were favored as never before,
and the complex social systems made possible by tools could only be realized
by domesticated individuals.  In a very real sense, tools created Homo
sapiens (p. 31).

Although Washburn could not prove these conjectures in any empirical sense, he was nevertheless unabashed in putting them forward (he even freely admitted his lack of hard evidence by including the word “speculations” in his title).  I personally find the article to be a tour de force, particularly when I place it within the context of The Digital Age -- and where the latter fits in with the larger view of human evolutionary history. 

For me, there is thus much more to “tool literacy” than merely figuring out how to use the latest app on my laptop.  I consider the laptop itself to be the tool, not the new applications; the latter are just the ways in which the tool can be used, and are not tools in and of themselves.  If the laptop, then, is considered as the latest transformational tool in human evolutionary history (along with such other transformational tools as the harnessing of fire, the development of written language, the invention of the printing press, the development of nuclear power, to name just a few) where will it lead us? 

Of course, it is impossible to say at present.  One thing many commentators and neuroscientists seem to agree on is that the use of the Internet and digital technology is affecting the human brain (Champeau, 2008; Keegan, 2012; Richtel, 2010; Tapscott, 2008).  Much of the impact on thinking, according to many in the mainstream media, has been negative (Ashley, 2006; Rich, 2008; Wolpert, 2009).  I myself prefer to reflect through the laptop screen hopefully rather than darkly.  This powerful tool human beings have developed has a tremendous potential for good as well as ill; and it only remains for us to ensure that the use of it is in accordance with what we value in our human societies.  Thus, tool literacy does not simply imply learning how to use the latest digital tool or application on the newest electronic device; it implies also that we understand how The Digital Age fits into the larger context of human evolution, and that we recognize the ethical dimension of using the tools we develop for good rather than ill.  For example, how can knowledge of tool literacy help us to alleviate that suffering of people during disasters like the Alberta flood of 2013?  It is the possible answers to questions like this that will reveal the true benefits of The Digital Age to humankind.

Thanks for reading.


Champeau, R. (2008), UCLA study finds that searching the internet
increases brain Function.  Retrieved from

Keegan, S. (2012), Digital technologies are re-shaping our brains: What
are the implications for society and the research industry?, Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 3 (15), 328-346. 

Rich, M. (2008). Literacy debate: R U really reading?  Retrieved from

Richtel, M. (2010), Outdoors and out of reach, studying the brain. 

Tapscott, D. (2008), How digital technology has changed the brain. 
            Retrieved from

Washburn, S.L. (1959), Speculations on the inter-relations of the history
            of tools and biological evolution.  Human Biology, 1(31), 21-
            33.  Retrieved from

Wolpert, S. (2009).  Is technology producing a decline in critical thinking
            and analysis?  Retrieved from

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