Wall with painted shadow and light in balance

Synchronous and Asynchronous Technologies: When Real Worlds Collide

Many of us are drawn in by the allure of digital technology, tempting us to structure our daily personal and work routines increasingly on asynchronous communication. Making choices to act asynchronously, often by default and in ways that will limit the scope of such choices for future generations, feeds an environment that is structured for the development and well-being of technology rather than the development and well-being of humans. This is what I imagine it means to be infatuated by technology.

Technology is born from the world around us — long ago, at some rather extended point, humans developed spoken language, the closest thing we have to what can be called synchronous communication. Also long ago, humans looked at the world around them and recorded with marks on stone tablets the cycles and patterns of the moon, the stars, and the seasons in the sun. The technology used for recording these cycles and patterns was about as asynchronous as it can get — the recordings used minimally varied and simplistic symbols, they deteriorated easily, and they were not very transportable over distance. Since then, humans have been developing communication technologies that were either faster or that could travel over distances easier — oral mnemonic devices, papyrus, paper, the printing press, radio, tv, electronic text, and now all types of smart-media. (See Innis for one example of many who have written about this)

With the development of electronic and now digital technology, the spectrum between these two extreme communications — spoken language and etchings on stone — has been filling in much more rapidly. Towards the synchronous end, we are approaching closer and closer with very rapid and very durable, but still asynchronous, technology. The spectrum of communication technology now provides humanity with a (nearly) full set of interaction options, or tools, removing the restraints of technology access and discarding the idea of technology progress, for the better. I may choose to use the medium of Radio, for example, not because Radio is inherently better than the newer technologies of TV or YouTube, it just holds different communication obligations that may best suit my current personal or instructional design needs.

Contrary to a progressive lens of technology where asynchronous patterns replace older asynchronous patterns, I like to think that the big picture here is that the gathering collection of asynchronous technology over time — with all of its varieties of communication frequency and durability — gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact and what we interact about. Radio has not been replaced by television or even podcasts, but only declined in popularity and taken its place among what is now available. An abundance of asynchronous options is not really a shift that we have been experiencing, but liberation from a narrow range of vastly different options.

The prevalence of asynchronicity is indeed one of the central facets of society in this day and age that will do us good to confront, downloading and opening the attached questions and implications. Networks, for example, have emerged as a common way for the average person to interact with and understand the world. A milieu of asynchronous activity has enabled individuals to extract the skeletal network out of the community, acting at the center of environments that are construed by his or her decisions, presumably to fit his or her own wants and needs. Society benefits from a healthy exploration and development of the network perspective, a perspective that requires high amounts of individual control over technical means. So far, this individual control has made a network orientation prone to privilege the how of interaction over the what — an attachment forwarded along to us from our history of experiencing technology as a progression.

Ursula Franklin, writing between 15 and 25 years ago — before the social media boom — thought even then that our society had become far too dependent on asynchronous communication. In her 1989 collection of lectures The Real World of Technology, she builds on observations about technology as practice and experience (hence the “Real World”), bringing and keeping context at the forefront of discussion. Her perspective seems fashioned out of that traditionally progressive view of technology, and includes an idea essential to consider: asynchronous developments changed the established patterns and cycles that originated from nature, but these established patterns still existed as a base, or as the soil from which asynchronous technology grew. In digital environments, originating and surrounding contexts can become detached as easily as it is to switch off our vision and voice in a Google Hangout.

Society has come to a point, thinks Franklin, where the prevalence of asynchronous activity is so dominant over synchronous activity that there is little reciprocity left between the two. Her observations are based on a definition of the word “synchronous” that has perhaps changed under our noses over the few decades since she recorded her ideas. Drawing on the aspects of synchronous that are communal and undetachable from context, her concept is distinct from digitally situated, real-time activity. Asynchronous enhanced synchronous communication tools (like Hangouts and Skype) are commonly referred to as ‘synchronous’, and have afforded instructional designers with powerful educational options, distinct from asynchronous communication in their own right. Yet, the synchronous activity of digital environments is also distinct from off-line synchronous activity which cannot be overridden by a slew of asynchronous features, in the way that a Skype call bridges geographic distance digitally, and can be augmented with text, video, or countless other types of human controlled digital manipulation. It is the unmediated concept of ‘synchronous’ that Franklin draws our attention to, where we are forced to delegate control and choice to a greater context.

Our human social world is becoming detached from the real-time context where it began and has always dwelled — the soil, as she says. These origins of technology also comprise the basis of our human identity, a common knowledge that unites us under the concept of ‘civilization’ as we know it. Franklin links the synchronous/asynchronous divide to the concepts of organism and mechanism. A dominantly asynchronous society has more to do with being a mechanism rather than an organism, she suggests. Machines are assembled from parts that have the potential to lie dormant, without purpose, when not contributing to the functions of that machine; organisms grow their ever-changing parts from the flow of movement within, never apart from the whole. (See this resource for a more detailed discussion.)  And, thinking of ‘presence’ in online environments as an example, it is not that difficult to see what she means — presence online, unlike wind on the face, requires action in order for us to emerge into that world, lest we remain nothing but a default ‘lurker’ staring into the glow of a screen. Without a greater context, humanity is less like a living organism and more like a machine — ‘being’ is reduced to our transactions in and of an asynchronous world, a world where the structure of our environment is strictly under the command of some individual in some place.

The warnings of Franklin are realized when “most people live and work under conditions that are not structured for their well-being. [When] The environment in which we live is much more structured for the well-being of technology.” Infatuation — what seems to me to be at the heart of Franklin’s discussion — comes about when we put into practice a bias for that infatuation so passionate that it obscures the view of available choice. Perhaps we have never had to confront our dominant environment as anything other than the given world that we were born into, making a synchronous/asynchronous balance unfamiliar and inconspicuous as a choice. However, many of us live now with at least one foot planted in an asynchronous environment that has the potential to become our dominant environment. The nature of ‘agency’ for digital contexts makes it all too easy to slip into neglect of any asynchronous/synchronous balance, framing it as a digital divide in which those who lag obviously need to try to catch up. If we want humanity, rather than technology, to be the focus of progress, then staring at us in the face are emerging questions about our lifestyle and educational choices. Are our asynchronous schemes planted in the synchronous world, or are our synchronous functions now embedded as attachments in an asynchronous world? Will this answer still be the same in another 15-25 years?

Evident in some newly forming foundational educational goals is a detachment from our past. 21st Century Skill slogans like “prepare our children for their world, not ours” is a path that originates from today, a day defined by our asynchronous prowess. In attempting to recognize the multitude of options which future generations have the luxury of exploring, these options are unnecessarily limited when society emphatically answers the what questions of content with the how of practice. Ian Bogost recently made the point that sure, it’s great to worry about wires and connections, but a neglected concern for the what of interaction makes the how struggle a bit pointless.

A balanced approach to the synchronous/asynchronous divide is essential if we want to keep our context relevant, at the forefront and in our foundations. It is not enough to not ignore the “real world” — our synchronous, non-human environment needs to be part of educational prescriptive technology. Our use of technology is both altering some of our basic communication skills, and reinforcing them; both exploring classrooms settings that embrace technology abundance and embrace technology avoidance; both encouraging progressive educational movements and warning against the intensifying “alienation of individuals from the natural environment”. As a society we eventually need to negotiate a balanced approach, where educators in any field can acquaint current technology with more than all or nothing options. I can’t help but feel that the onus, at least right now, is on the field of educational technology to slow down and listen a bit more, if edtech hopes to enhance areas of study other than itself.

Do we want to proceed down the path of Franklin’s warning from a few decades ago? Franklin claims not to be a technological determinist, so this question poses a real choice. And, as long as we have public educational systems, some part of this question will remain a collective decision, regardless of any technology developments. The stage of contemporary society is set for education to step in and come of age — not our methods of education, but our choices about what to learn. In addition to greater individual control over how we interact, asynchronicity has given us greater control over what we want to communicate about, what we want to learn intentionally — and included in this re-allotment of control is our collective decision whether or not we want to detach from our synchronous origins.

The dominance of asynchronous activity and the gift of choice demands that, along with developing concepts like Networks, we also refine our understanding and practice of education as intentional learning. Learning happens all the time; educating is what we choose to learn, what we want to become. A world of technology is amassing before us. Exercising our choices will keep it our world of technology — and only by doing so in moderate ways that respect and reflect the larger context, larger than technology and larger than humanity, will it become Our Real World of Technology.

Hybrid Pedagogy uses an open collaborative peer review process. This piece was reviewed by Alex Fink and Valerie Robin.

[Photo, “Balance with gray“, by Tanakawho licensed under CC BY 2.0.]

2 Responses

  1. For those of us interested in Luddism this is a thought-provoking piece.

    A quick suggestion: Perhaps you need to put these two fragments side by side: 1) “…gives humans more choice and autonomy over how we interact and what we interact about”, and 2) “The environment in which we live is much more structured for the well-being of technology.” Perhaps what drives the current system is a strange symbiosis between the insistence on a certain kind personal freedom and the taste for the technical. (See also Georg Simmel’s nice description of how the extremes of personalisation and impersonalisation develop in parallel in “The Philosophy of Money”.) If there is this symbiosis, it is not enough to point out the predominance of mechanisation, but also to critique the shallow understanding of personal freedom that keeps the whole mechanising-personalising show on the road.

    You are absolutely right about the terrible predominance of the how over the what in current talk about education. But what is the what? You suggest it boils down to a choice between humanity and technology. But what if the issue is actually competing notions of freedom (personal vs something uber-personal)? And if that is the case, your last paragraph amounts to a bit of a shot in the foot – stressing the importance of personal choice and moderation in all things (a sort of stoic capitulation to fate). The most important education is not learning how to exercise our freedom with moderation, but reflecting on the untruth of the prevailing ideas about personal freedom – the very ideas that sustain what is experienced as an inhuman world.

  2. Pingback : Our Real World of Technology | A Point of Contact

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