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Culture, technology and (environments of) learning

Professor Gunther Kress
Head of the School of Culture, Language and Communication
Institute of Education, University of London

If it is the case that the notion of ‘cyberspace’ belongs now to “an earlier era of internet thinking”, then that can only be a good thing: it frees us up to think a bit more slowly, with a bit more deliberateness, about which things move at what pace.

It is a commonplace to say that technology and culture are always and everywhere closely linked, whatever the technology, however simple or complex. It could not be otherwise, as our human, social and cultural resources can only go so far ahead of or away from what they are and where they have come from. Culture is, in that sense, an inertial force, as are social factors; in two ways. First, cultural resources are involved in the shaping of technologies in the first place; in that sense we cannot jump over our shadows.  Second, in their social settings, that is, culture in the field of power, cultural resources set the field of potential application (and transformation) for that technology.

It is also close to a commonplace to say that technologies are linked – that is, while different technologies have their own rationale and dynamics, they are integrated in an environment where everything affects everything else. So for instance, one would not expect the changes in distribution and function of authorship, which digital technologies offer, to be independent of changes in authority, which characterize the much larger level social changes in which the users of digital technologies are embedded. Both must be seen in terms of the effects of changes in power from state to market, from citizen to consumer, which shape the lives of the users of the technologies.

If we regard learning as a process where ‘what is (to be) learned’ and ‘what is available for the learner’s engagement’ is shaped by the environments in which learning takes place, we might be able to get closer to disentangling technological effects and cultural and social environments of various kinds, from those things which maybe remain relatively constant –for instance, the human processes of learning.

It is within this broad frame that I wish to consider the specific questions posed by the convenors of this symposium.

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updated 26 February 2007