I have been developing a theory for approaching our human involvement with technology, including digital technology, as an ecology of cognition, or, my preferred concept, an ecology of learning.
Amos H. Hawley, a sociologist, presents a theory of human ecology as society interactive with the environment. Hawley looks at human organization holistically. He develops his theory on the work of sociologists from early 20th century American cities. Sociologists from this era, Park, Burgess, and McKenzie, developed the study of human ecology to account for changes in cultural practices and relationships within the dynamic contextual conditions of American cities in the early part of the 20th century, a time of rapid technological change.
Here we are, once again, in an extended period of rapid technological change that is influencing the ways we communicate, interact, and conduct our interpersonal relationships. As autonomous citizens, we use technology to amplify our capabilities, to enable, enrich or enhance our experiences. As corporate and government organizations, we use technology to constrain our capabilities, to control movement, collect data, and monitor activity. These uses are not weighted in favour of one use or the other, this is how we have organized ourselves to cohere as a society.
Our uses of technology are much more intimately linked than simply choosing to select a ‘tool’. We may develop an emotional attachment to our technology – ever had a hard drive crash? We certainly invest economic capital into our technological infrastructure and our individual capacities to take advantage of the technologies we have at hand. We are also finding profound social, cultural, and cognitive associations with digital technology – even resulting in suicides arising from online relationships and communication.
Rather than looking at individuals using digital technologies to conduct communicative activities, I look at networks of relationships amongst human beings and the technological resources they have at hand. I look at the quality of the communications, and the ways these communications foster connectivity, or dis-connectivity. When I consider our human involvement with digital technology as multiple layers of multi-directional relationships, I see our human cognition, culture and technology as inseparable ecologies of cognition.
When I consider our human connectivity through our uses of digital technology as an ecological system, there is real significance in the amplification of communication made possible by the characteristics of the technology. Whose points of view are being amplified? Whose perspectives are dominating discourse? Whose voices and points of view are being left out, dismissed, minimized? And at what cost to our sustainability – as individual living beings within this web of life, as composite unities of neighbourhoods, villages, towns, cities, provinces, nations, global living entities?
These are the questions that we are failing to address in our education system, as year after year, educators fail to take up the significance of digital technologies and lead the way to new understandings and new ways of fostering generative, rather than destructive, human interaction.