Taming the Technological Beast: The Case of the E-Book

By Ohler, Jason | The Futurist, January 2001 | Go to article overview

Taming the Technological Beast: The Case of the E-Book


Ohler, Jason, The Futurist


Each technology connects us to some opportunities while disconnecting us from others. We should get in the habit of evaluating the likely impacts of a given technology before we adopt it.

One useful exercise in technology evaluation is to assume that we are employed by the Science and Technology Administration (STA), a fictitious agency modeled on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Our job is to analyze the effects of a technology before it is released to the public.

At the end of this process of evaluating a technology we are required to synthesize the results of our considerations and make a judgment about it. As investigators in our own Science and Technology Administration, our task is to fully endorse a technology, conditionally endorse it, return it to the laboratory for modification, or reject it outright.

How do we go about making this judgment?

I require each student in my technology assessment course to assess a technology based on the answers to a series of the STA-type questions. For example: Who commonly uses the technology and what for? Does it encourage or discourage autonomy and privacy? The students must conduct the assessment in writing as concisely as possible, synthesizing and clarifying what they understand--which is, of course, the ultimate goal of most worthwhile educational activities.

Suppose you are one of my students. And suppose further that you, adopting the outlook of an STA investigator, are trying to assess a new piece of technology, perhaps with an eye to buying and using it yourself or for your school or business. The task of asking and answering the many possible questions in such a short space may seem impossible. In my book I reference 23 criteria for technology assessment. How would you approach this task?

Fortunately, given the great deal of overlap among the assessment questions, it is unnecessary to address each and every one of them. In fact, I recommend considering the questions under three broad aspects of technology assessment: the technology itself, the goals of the technology, and the effects of the technology.

It is up to you to investigate the e-book's nature, goals, and impacts and ultimately to decide what kind of contribution it will make to education, business, and society in general. So, concentrating on this relatively new technology, let's revisit the three facets of technology assessment.

What technology shall we assess? Let's say that the object of your interest is an electronic book. The e-book is a splendidly mysterious and engaging technology to consider because of its wild-card status. It continues some traditions, modifies others, creates entirely new ones, and in general promises to wreak a slow havoc on life as we know it.

Revisit the Technology Itself

For assessing electronic-book technology, the best presentation tool may be a list of bulleted paragraphs. In such a list the paragraphs constitute independent observations that group well but do not necessarily follow one another logically as paragraphs in an essay are supposed to. Bulleted paragraphs--as short as possible--keep us focused on the electronic book as an artifact that is both tool and machine, with characteristics of involvement, extension, limitation, capacity, and dependability:

* Features. The concept of a virtual, "intelligent" book is not new. Many teachers use online, downloadable textbooks or hyperbooks. The limitations inherent in hyperbooks appear in hindsight to have made e-books inevitable. Because hyperbooks download directly to the reader's hard drive, portability can be a problem. The reader who wishes to use the hyperbook in more than one location must carry around a portable computer.

The e-book is much lighter and more durable than a laptop, and it focuses on doing just one thing: being a book. It approximates a conventional paper-based book, substituting the screen for the page. …

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