Are Humans and Technology Separable?

Educational theory has been marked by a steady progression of ideas:

  • Instructionism posited knowledge could be transferred from outside a learner’s brain into it, and one stored there, it was available for use to solved problems and build new knowledge.
  • Constructivism posited social interaction led learners to build new knowledge inside his or her brain.
  • Connectionism (the most recent and least used theory) posits learning can be internal and also external to a learner’s brain. To the connectionist, the knowledge gained by using a calculator (for example) is equal to other forms of knowledge.

I am increasingly seeing value in the connectionist perspective. Especially, now that the cognitive tools we carry are so much more powerful that those carried by pervious generations, educators must adapt our views and value the cognition that is downloaded to our technology as much as that stored in our brains. I find the technology-mediated cognition tends to be the least complex, so we are left with “the good stuff” anyways. While I am only becoming aware of this change in my thinking in recent months, I see evidence that it has been affecting my thoughts for some time. In my 2015 book, I wrote:

Even if one rejects the extreme conclusion that technology uses humans in the same way humans use technology, the connections between humans and the developments of technologies are clear. The observed progression from simple to complex technologies becomes expected once humans’ nature as technology-creating social creatures is recognized; humans use technology to create more technology and to create social groups. In a contrary view, David Nye (2006) a historian of technology from Denmark observed that “the central purpose of technologies has not been to provide necessities, such as food and shelter, for humans had achieved these goals very early in their existence” (2). Nye and others find that the adage “necessity is the mother of invention” is just the opposite of what we observe in humans’ use of technology; as humans invent technologies, they redefine what is necessary. Kevin Kelly (2010) appears to concur with this conclusion as well, as his definition of the technium includes the observation that “the generative impulses of our inventions [are] to encourage more tool-making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections” (12). Our biology has adapted to the environment that we created in large part through our own technology and technologies were adopted to meet our biological (including social) needs. Using technology is fundamental to human nature, building social connections is fundamental to human nature. Those aspects of human nature will form the generalizations upon which the 21st century education is built.


Kelly, Kevin. 2010. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking.

Nye, David. (2006). Technology Matters: Questions to Live With. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.