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Technological Literacy and Digital Democracy
A Relationship Grounded in Technology Education
P John Williams
The history of technology education has been characterized by continual reinvention; because the nature of technology is dynamic, the nature of technology education also should be dynamic. Current developments in digital communication technologies present further opportunities for technology education to contribute to dispositions in students that are fundamental to their participation in the developing global digital democracy. The nature of the global context, within which the exercise of democracy takes place, warrants discussion.
In its broadest sense, globalization refers to the effects of recent significant changes that have occurred in the international economy. These include the demise of communist states and the spread of capitalism; the increasing mobility of capital, labor, and goods and services; acceptance of market forces; new international divisions of labor and a diminished role for the state; and the international network of financial institutions in which decisions made in one sector of one country have a ripple effect of influence throughout the world.
J.R. Dakers (ed.), New Frontiers in Technological Literacy © John R. Dakers 2014
These factors have resulted in a homogenization of production, consumption, and cultural values across the world (United Nations, 1995).
However, there are all kinds of qualifiers to this perception of globalization. A large (though diminishing) proportion of the world’s population remains out of touch with globalization’s influences. As communication networks become more pervasive, ubiquitous, and instrumental within the forces of globalization, the “balance of power” shifts to those who are able to participate in these networks, which may be counterbalanced by those who control the networks. So as Keirl (2003, p. 57) points out, globalization “can be seen as aggressive or benign, overt or covert, welcomed or loathed, and that one’s perceptions are very much a matter of politics or place in the whole affair.”
Some would posit that the outcome of this continuing trend of globalization, which so far has as a common theme the sublimation and domination of the third world, is an elimination of the boundaries between the traditional categories of first, second, and third world (Dirlik, 1997). Unfortunately, this does not mean that poverty, inequities, and social exclusion have been eliminated, but that the categories of exclusion have changed to become more technological. Now certain groups are even more marginalized and inequities are more dramatic as a result of the various sociological factors that determine access and control. This “Fourth World” (Castells, 1998) represents severely disadvantaged black holes of inequity across the globe that have increasingly little chance of reclamation. They are open to exploitation by the negative aspects of globalization but have no technology to take advantage of any counteracting, potentially positive democratic opportunities.
Another perception of globalization is that it is the next stage in a process of exploitation that began in the colonial period, in which the dominating power of the formerly colonial nations such as Britain, France, and Spain are replaced by powerful global corporations and in turn supported by international agencies such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization (Raghavan, 1997). It is interesting to speculate about the form of globalization after the stabilization of the international financial crisis, which began in 2008. Just as corporations replaced colonial powers, what might replace the corporations?
Other outcomes of globalization include the spread of liberal democracy, the decline of authoritarian regimes, and a developing interconnectedness of the global community. Friedman (2006) calls this the “globalization of the local” (p. 505). “Indeed it is becoming clear that the flat-world platform, while it has the potential to homogenize cultures, also has, I would argue, an even greater potential to nourish diversity to a degree that the world has never seen before” (p. 506).
Globalization is not just about the economics of labor, capital, and market forces. It has also resulted in new forms of knowledge, new modes of communication, new ways of sharing work, and alternative forms of entertainment. These new tools possess a potential power equivalent to that of global corporations and international organizations. It therefore seems reasonable to utilize a postmodern perspective in which understanding is developed by viewing society in terms of knowledge power (Scholte, 2005), which is, likewise, a discourse about democracy when that is perceived as a function of power relationships.
In this sense, Dirlik (1994) characterizes postcolonialism as a child of postmodernism. For example, Foucault (1970), as a proponent of postmodernism, suggests that each historical era is characterized by a particular form of knowledge. Postmodernists attribute a form of rationalism as the dominant knowledge framework in society, emphasizing the subordination of nature to human control, objectivist science, and instrumentalist efficiency. The valuing of such a discourse ferments societies wherein economic growth, technological control, and bureaucratic surveillance provide the basis for globalization. An aspect of globalization then becomes the imposition of Western rationalism on all cultures.
Scholte (2005, p. 150) describes this rationalism as having four main features through which it promotes globalization. First, it is secularist and does not acknowledge transcendent and divine forces. Second, it is anthropocentric and seeks to understand reality in terms of human interests. Third, it has a science focus, which understands the world through incontrovertible truths discoverable through the application of objective research. Finally, it is instrumentalist and values an efficient solution to immediate problems.
So rationalism, as the basis of globalization, seeks to dominate natural forces for human purposes in order to promote capitalist production and economic efficiency throughout the cycles of global development. Technology, in its broadest sense and in all its forms, has been, and continues to be, integral to the effectiveness of globalization forces. Hence, a critical understanding of the role of technology within this milieu is an essential literacy for global citizens to possess.