Demystifying Social ↔︎Technology

Martin Wolske

My goal when providing technology education, whether conducted in the Master of Library and Information Science classroom or in a community workshop, has been to advance the technical and troubleshooting skills of participants in such a way that we are able to not only achieve immediate goals, but also translate learning to new technologies that may be coming around the corner. At the same time, I continuously strive to counter technological elitism and determinism that is so prominent in U.S. culture, regularly referring to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s charge that:

We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (“Beyond Vietnam”, delivered April 4, 1967)

In 2008, Junghyun An published her dissertation Service Learning in Postsecondary Technology Education: Educational Promises and Challenges in Student Values Development. The dissertation was an ethnographic, situated evaluation of my class Introduction to Networked Systems. An’s research was immensely helpful over the course of 18 months in elevating my awareness of the importance of owning and exercising a critical perspective that is beyond critical thinking, and using that to strategically guide students in making connections between technical artifacts and the embedded social (broadly considered to include economic, political, cultural, etc.) values encompassed in the design, distribution, policies, use, and end-of-life of the artifact. In that social shaping, technology also shapes society, or more accurately, the socially embedded values subsequently shape society through our uncritical use of that technology.

This unit study builds from these and a wealth of other experiences to posit a Demystifying Technology approach to digital literacy curriculum. From the very first encounters with digital technologies, there is an urgent need to not only demystify the hardware and software nuts and bolts, but to also demystify the social layers of a technology. Demystifying technology is a method that seeks to encourage movement from passive use to co-creation of innovations-in-use by community, in community, for community. It is being implemented both in digital literacy workshops and one-on-one technical support sessions with community members, and also in graduate level courses. And it readily adapts to those interacting directly with digital technologies for the first time, and those who have years of experience with the nuts and bolts. The goal isn’t to develop an army of technicians who work daily at the nuts and bolts level of technology. Rather, as highlighted in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition’s list of principles:

Digital justice demystifies technology to the point where we can not only use it, but create our own technologies and participate in the decisions that will shape communications infrastructure.

Indeed, if we are to achieve goals of co-creation and informed decision making, we need to demystify the mutual shaping of technology and society as much and more than we do the physical aspects of technology. 

The Demystifying Technology approach seeks to explore the question: how can we add wrapper critical, inquiry-based programming to various digital literacy programming to advance not only familiarity with the technology, but also a critical perspective regarding the social layers of the technical artifact? I am also wondering how critical and feminist pedagogy, for example Freire’s conscientization through literacy programming and feminist coalition consciousness raising, can serve as models for a popular education approach to digital literacy?

To help with the discussion of these questions as part of the unit-study, we will participate in a Demystifying Technology mini-workshop. In advance of the mini-workshop, participants will identify a particular area – hardware, software, computer programming, networking, etc. – within which to do the workshop, and potentially a more targeted activity within that area. We will have an opportunity to explore how wrappers can be built around the starting theme to move from traditional digital literacy to a demystifying technology approach.

Helpful background reading in advance of the unit-study:

Other possible readings:

  • Chapter V of Shauna Butterwick’s dissertation provides a comparative description of Consciousness Raising and Conscientization. It’s got me thinking about the extent to which Demystifying Technology is a process of Conscientization. The dissertation is online at:

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