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Technology is Space - Rationale

Okay, folks, this post is NOT for everyone, definitely not if you are looking for great home-cooked teaching and edtech ideas. You are warned! Skip this post, ok! I am going to try to explain the reasoning between my proposition that 'technology is space'.

It just might be of interest to Adrian Camm, and beyond that all bets are off. A few months ago Adrian mentioned an aside in a tweet that he was fascinated by my proposition that 'Technology is Space' but wasn't sure of the rationale behind it. This is no surprise since I have never set out the reasoning in full and at face value it does seem a slightly strange thing to say.

The idea doesn't even need to be explained to be useful. You can just take it as a poetic metaphor, and it will take your perception of learning, ICT, and physical considerations, and hopefully lead your thinking into some original directions.

(video summary of this post)

But, to me it is more than a poetic metaphor. I actually mean it. Yes there are distinctions between physical space, and technological space - certain dependencies, for instance. I don't even mean to limit 'space' to these two. When I say space I mean to include any domains with consistent & repeatable cause/effect interactions.

And this, dear reader, is where I recommend you stop reading unless you are in the mood for some heavy philosophical groundwork in messy dotpoint form.

Space = cause/effect

  • Physical space emerges from cause / effect relationships.
  • e.g. laws of physics, four interactive forces, propagating at speed of light.
  • no coincidence that cause/effect travels at maximum speed of light and speed of light C is fundamental property of space/time. Information can only travel at this rate, cause/effect only at this rate. Even gravity.

Reality Scales up in a Simple Sense: Repeated Iterations

  • When we talk of 'scale' we might mean 'iteration', i.e. repeating the same cause/effect interactions over and over again.
  • e.g. I have 10,000 McDonald's cheeseburgers. This is one cheeseburger, scaled up. This scaling does not involve greater complexity.
  • The universe is full of iterated scaling. There is more than one electron in the universe. We have lots of electrons, atoms, carbon atoms, planets, solar systems, galaxies etc.
  • in this sense, we can talk about 'scales' of space, but we mean something very simple: the very small, the very big... the atomic scale, the galactic scale. Or we mean over time: a brief scale of minutes, or a long scale of years, millenia, etc.
  • This meaning of 'scale' does not imply complexity, just iteration: more time and space for the same cause/effect relationships to reoccur over and over again.

Scales of Reality in a Complex Sense: Emergent Domains

  • A second type of 'scaling' is very different to simple iteration. This is the scale of complexity.
  • Complexity builds on iteration. i.e. iterations of cause/effect relationships are a precondition of complexity.
  • compare: 10,000 planets, or 10,000 orbits, or 10,000 cheeseburgers = iterations of simplicity. One living cell = 10,000 interconnecting and irreducibly complex cause/effect relationships. These too are iterative, but the repetition of a broad spectrum of cause/effect relationships is simply a substrate for miraculous complexity.

Complexity leads to different 'domains' or 'worlds'.

  • We need a word to refer to stable levels of complexity.
  • We can call them 'domains'. We could also call them 'worlds'.
  • Here are some particular domains:
  • 1. the physical universe
  • 2. life
  • 3. thought
  • 4. representation / communication (I call this 'symbol space')
  • 5. artificial computation (by design)
  • Life is predicated on the underlying cause/effect relationships that operate everywhere in the physical universe. So we could call the physical universe the 'substrate' of life. But it wouldn't get us anywhere to say that life is JUST made up of the physical universe. There is a complexity that deserves its own separate label and consideration. This is why we have to accord living things a separate domain to non-living physical universe. Note that for life to continue existing, the laws of physics and the processes that these cause, have to keep iterating.
  • Similarly, 'thought' requires the substrate of 'life' (specifically, a nervous system). You can't think without a brain, although some people try to, including me at times.
  • Human beings are able to represent aspects of reality in symbols.
  • Finally, human beings have created machines that process and compute symbols ( such as 1s and 0s), transmit them.

The Domain of 'Symbol Space'

  • The fourth domain deserves special treatment. It consists of methods used by humanity to communicate or process information. I call it 'Symbol Space' and make no distinction between the method
  • vocal chords
  • a cave painting
  • printing press
  • radio broadcast
  • SMS
  • wiki, Twitter, morse code, etc

From First Principles: Technology is Space

Definition of Technology

  • I can now define technology as 'shaping space', or in shorthand as 'space'.
  • Technology is space.
  • Technology means deliberately creating cause/effect relationships in the various domains such as those discussed above.

Some Initial Examples of Technology as Space

Let's see how this definition holds up:

  • e.g. a human builds a roof out of leaves or something! This is technology. They have manipulated physical objects in order to interrupt the normal cause/effect relationship of falling rain with gravity, and have shaped it with a new cause/effect - the drops hit the roof and now roll off to the side.
  • e.g. the wheel
  • e.g. a pulley
  • e.g. a spear, a bow and arrow
  • all primitive technology is a re-wiring of space with an end goal in mind, via manipulation of cause/effect interactions

Rewiring Existing Space or New Space?

Yes, obviously a spear is made out of physical space. That's easy enough. Is it a push to say that creating a spear creates a new space? Remember I defined space as cause/effect interactions.

  • it does not create a new space in terms of a new 'domain'. In my definition of domains, I've said they need to have their own internal complexity that consistently flows from the iterations of cause/effect interactions at a more primitive scale.
  • and yet, although a spear-like object could, conceivably, come into existence by chance, something profoundly unique has taken place when the first spear (or roof, or wheel) is created by an intelligent mind. We need to explore this further.

Inter-Domain Interactions

  • We traditionally think that more primitive domains affect more complex ones. This is 'reductionalism' - explaining life as a complex interaction of non-living components. This is indeed how I build up my definition of domains, because there is a dependency hierarchy.
  • What we now see is that higher level domains can also effect lower level domains.
  • Here is an example from David Deutsch: what is the best explanation for a copper atom being part of the nose of the statue of Winston Churchill's in Parliament Square in London? The only meaningful explanation is in terms of the higher-complexity domains of life, thought, & representation. The atom is there because of World War 2.
  • Why are the water molecules in my tummy? Because I decided to drink!
  • Therefore higher level domains enter into reverse cause/effect relationships with the simpler domains. Atoms jump around like magic, because of thought and action of living creatures.


Technology is Space: when there are lots of spears

  • When a human being makes a spear, or a wheel, they are rewiring the physical universe in a very unique sense. They are creating purposeful, pre-meditated cause/effect interactions for purposes that are only meaningfully explained with reference to a higher level domain.
  • Like the copper atom on the nose of the Churchill statue, technology is the deliberate intrusion of cause/effect from one domain on another.
  • when we iterate a technology, e.g. spears, we can see the domain of thought is going to shape the domain of 'life'.
  • Just like the laws of physics iterate, so we have lots of electrons, lots of planets, lots of mountains etc, when you iterate a spear you are reshaping the 'laws of physics' (so to speak figuratively) of the domain of 'life', The iterated 'spear' changes the rules of life. Animals might go extinct, humans might multiply, or kill each other, but in short, the spear is a game changer. What do we mean by 'game changer'? We mean it is a domain-changer. It is structually re-shaping the space.
  • Yes, the effect is localised to whatever living society the spear has been invented in. Unlike the physical universe which appears to follow uniform rules throughout, technologies create localised versions of domains. This insight in itself is enough to explain all kinds of dynamics when domains interact with each other.

Technology is Space: Symbol Space

    For me, this is where the proposition 'technology is space' gets really exciting.
    You will see why we had to establish a notion of 'symbol space' first.
  • Imagine you and I are speaking to each other in a field. I might say 'jump', and you jump. I have passed information to you in the symbol form of sound waves: the information that I want you to jump. The information facilitates a cause/effect interaction whereby I speak and then you jump into the air.
  • Or I yell, "they're coming" and the effect is you turn and run.
  • Now, imagine that I am 100 metres away and wish to communicate the same message. I can still yell. This time there will be a delay due to the speed of sound, but quasi-instantaneously you will receive the information. My deliberate yelling has created a cause/effect interaction mediated by vibrations passing through physical space. Thanks, physical space!
  • Now, I walk over a hill and keep walking for two kilometres. How is the cause/effect interaction now possible?
  • If I had the technology of a flashlight, or a fire with smoke, or a beating drum, I can still deliberately create a cause/effect interaction. This feels a little fragile, so let's look at something more reliable:
  • I can call you on a mobile phone.
  • I can walk 20 kilometres away, farther than the reach of a flashlight, smoke, or drum.
  • 1000km away, and I can still call you on the phone and say "they're coming" and you can run, or "jump" and you jump.
  • Just like all communication between any part of the universe and any other part of the universe, this information can only propogate at the speed of light, maximum.
  • To the extent that the mobile telephone network is reliable, our phones charged, our bills paid, we can assert that there is a new, stable, space that has been created. This has a new quality, an 'always on, always available, transcends space' aspect that is more profound than the iteration of spears discussed earlier.
  • In a very real sense, you and I can be in the same space via mobile phone. We can replicate one aspect of being in physical space together: the aspect of information transmission via vocal chords. We have not been able to replicate every aspect of being in the same physical space, but we have taken a profound step in that direction.
  • In a very real sense, we have created a derivative space.
  • In fact, this is an example of the domain 'life' creating a new domain 'symbol space'. To the extent that we iterate the process: i.e. keep on charging our phones, repairing the transmission towers, this new 'symbol space' domain exists as a legitimate and consistent reality - a new shaping of reality, indeed a new space in its own right (althogh dependent). Therefore technology is space.

A Special Case: Technology as a Tool

The proposition 'Technology is Space' appears to fail to do justice to the our understanding of technology as a tool. In fact, technology as a tool requires a further step. To my mind, technology as a tool only makes sense if you first establish that technology is space.

  • regarding primitive technologies such as clothing or the wheel, technology is in the most obvious of senses a shaping of physical space. Technology is space.
  • Clothing is a particularly good example to ask the question: in what sense does clothing exist, functionally, as a separate entity to my 'self'?
  • Of course there is a very real sense that my clothing and I are separate. Yet the clothing takes on the same function that other animals would use fur or somesuch biology for.
  • in many climates, take away my clothing and I die. So what am I without it?
  • Now look at the spear, and research how human brain maps treat that spear when handling it, calculating throwing power, etc. Or, if you don't personally have a spear, think of driving a car, and reflect on the sense that the car is part of you.
  • This is called 'haptic touch' and the brain functions loop out of your body to the consistency of the technology you are using. In a very real mental sense, and remember that the world of 'thought' is a legimate domain in its own right, the spear or car is part of you. Your wiring loops out of you. The 'you' is not limited to your bag of bones. Many biological functions expect external reality to complete the functional loop. Put me in solitary confinement and I die. Go and google 'mirror neurons' for another example, or 'haptic touch' or simply 'haptics'. Other animals do this too, but humans off the scale! It's one of our superpowers.
  • Let's now up the ante and look what happens when you use a piece of paper to scribble thoughts or do mind-mapping, an organiser to keep track of facts or due dates, or a calculator to do sums. These technologies expand your cognition in ways otherwise impossible.
  • In short: we are already cyborgs. The domain of 'thought' extends into the domains of 'physical space', 'symbol space' and computation in consistent causal loops that do not deserve separation beyond shallow trivial separation. Many wise sayings, proverbs, etc, emphasise the very functional connectedness I am emphasising here.

Ontology - Who am I, You, Or Anyone?

    If you find it alienating or disconcerting for me to imply that the self loops out into other domains and back, you can find a similar exploration in many religions, spiritualities, philosophies. You don't have to take it in that direction, you can also examine the phenomenom in a Science laboratory or FMRI machine. Pursue at your leisure. For my purposes here:
  • The point it is impossible to extricate the domains from each other. You can't just say 'I am my thoughts'. My thoughts depend on my body and my body depends on the physical universe. My heart beat has to keep iterating or I am toast. If I smile, I cheer up. Our intiuition on a lot of these cause/effect relationships is wrong. Google 'adaptive unconscious' for one avenue. I am angry because I am hungry, not because you insulted my car!!
  • Who am I, apart from the other people I know - my family, friends?
  • My culture (symbol space writ large) made me: my language, presuppositions, scripts, schema, narratives, etc. My role models.
  • My bacteria, living throughout my body, that are not me, and yet without them I could scarcely continue to live.
  • I am not even my body, since every particle, atom, in my body eventually leaves my body.
  • The technology-as-a-tool definition really comes back to functional identity that loops out - very untidily we might say - from the intuitive sense of "ME IN HERE" out into the other spaces in the other domains, upscale, downscale.
  • Who I am is a centre of gravity of interactions, interactions between people, DNA, thought, symbols, physical space, 'technology', and so on. It's blurriness does not under-cut the reality of ME or of YOU. We are more real than ever, more interconnected.

    Conclusion: Technology is Space

      You might be thinking: what on earth, Steve Collis, are you going to do with this big philosophical mess you just dot-pointed?
      Well, in fact if you can get the principles, you arrive at a very practical, down-to-earth toolkit for improving education (or any situation).
    • What sorts of phrases come up in the staffroom again and again? (thought-domain creating culture as a space as legitimate and REAL as physical space)
    • The classroom itself is a technology, with four walls and a roof. Fresh air can't penetrate. Where is the light. The commerce student can't talk to the visual arts student because there is a wall between the two classrooms - no cause/effect interaction is going to happen there!
    • What if we got rid of the walls (reshaped the space) to allow collaboration (cause/effect interactions between people).
    • How is the domain of symbol space (emails, staff meetings, learning programs) constraining or shaping the domain of life and thought? (I have to teach it this way so I can tick the outcome box on the form).
    • How can the broader symbol space created by Twitter, blogosphere, & live Teachmeets, influence the culture of a school?
    • What cause/effect interactions are shaped by the technology of a teacher desk at one end of a room. This non-neutral physical technology appears to be shaping relationship interactions, predisposing them toward conflict and resistance.
    • Dr David Thornberg's taxonomy of Cave (1:self) Campfire (1:many) and Watering Hole (many:many) are classic 'shapings of space'. We can ask "how does the physical layout of this learning space configure for the flow of information or for human relationships?"
    • We can now discuss Moodle, Edmodo, Google Docs, etc in the very same breathe as the technologies of paper, posters, vocal chords, even body language. For example, Edmodo creates a cause/effect space between countries. However, if a student simply wants to BE HEARD in a discussion, and the physical layout of the class precludes line-of-sight to their body language or facial expression, well we can compare the affordances and constraints - the cause/effect interactions - between Edmodo and classroom furnishing in the same breath. Similarly we won't hesitate to discuss the sound-engineering of a space in the same breathe as we discuss wifi connectivity. It's all symbol space, information flow, space-shaping across domains. 
    • IS THE STUDENT COMFY? WHY OR WHY NOT! (how have we shaped the space)
    • Even more fundamentally: who is configuring this space and for what purpose?
    • If this space (in the broadest sense: physical, computational, symbolic, thought-life, relational) were a living creature - a holistic, emergent identity of its own, what sort a person would it be?
    • In the same breath: our school as a community, our IT infrastructure, our carpets, our iterated rules and procedures.
    • I could go on with 100s more. This taxonomy gets me thinking outside the 'take for granted'. That's the point: to study the taken for granted as a recognisable domain.
    • and we haven't even look at other inter-domain bridges like DNA, 3D printing and factory-manufactoring in general, emblems/icons as expressions of culture, sensors, the 'internet of things', augmented reality. Look for the connections between domains, and look for ways 'technology is space', and you'll find new insights under every rock!

    Post Script: On Not Being A Fish In Water

      A teacher once asked me on Twitter "How do we get teachers to use technology more?" And the question was nonsensical to me.
      To me, the question translated into my head as "How do we get teachers to use space more?" Wot?
      Well, we are made up of space. We shape the space and the space shapes us. We ARE a space - a domain. We also live at the intersection of domains that interact upstream, and downstream, and in every which way.
      A much better question, in my opinion, is therefore "How do we shape a great space for learning?"
      (A space that will allow us to shape each other, and be shaped by information flowing in from afar, and allow us to shape physically and temporally distant people with our own creativity...)
      The answer will shift from day to day, even from moment to moment. It will need to be iterated, each transaction leading to a recalibration.