Technology, Aesthetics and Culture in Education

This blog was stimulated by a short twitter exchange on technology, technics and STEM, and articulates some thinking for my PhD.

The grouping of science, technology, engineering and mathematics into the STEM acronym to form a target for educational policy consideration is curious through its exclusion of aesthetics and culture.  An argument could be made that mathematics, science and engineering are abstract endeavours, but technology is infused with cultural and aesthetic considerations.

The 1965 video for the Martha and the Vandellas’ hit ‘Nowhere To Run’ is a great illustration of how technology, aesthetics and culture are linked. Without doing a ‘Full Roland’ (my term see “The New Citroen” Barthes, 1993, pp. 88–90),  this video shows the vitality of the generation, the vibrancy of youth, automotive as the technology du jour, the cultural icon of the Mustang car, Fordism as a  means of mass production, alienated labour, attitudes towards race, and attitudes towards gender.  Many manifestations of technology contain these elements, so why are these not explicitly included within STEM?

Technology is not free from ethical or moral considerations, technology involves choice and it involves power(e.g. Wajcman, 2004). Technology is a fundamental human endeavour in pursuit of functionality, utility and aesthetics. In this endeavour there are good choices and bad choices, there is beautiful and ugly, and there are winners and losers. How do we then make sense of technology in education when it’s placed side-by-side with science, engineering and mathematics?

Richard Stanley Peters’ notion of education as initiation provides a framework for exploring the nexus between technology and education. Education as initiation addresses the traditional notion of education as cultural transmission as well as the progressive notion of education as regeneration. The progressive notion of regeneration includes critical scrutiny of technology and to concern about its management (following from Cuypers & Martin, 2011, pp. 38–39; Waks, 2013). First, in broad terms, the traditional transmission aspect of education could be considered to involve initiation into using and consuming technology. In this sense consuming might also involve a secondary or derivative form of production such as the use of medical diagnosis equipment, the use of car maintenance equipment, or the use of musical equipment. The second progressive regeneration aspect of education can be further divided into educational activities that promote students attaining a critical capacity towards technology, and educational activities that promote a student’s capacity to technologically innovate. These three aspects of technology education are illustrated in the diagram below.


How an education system balances its energies across these aspects of education will both influence, and be influenced by, the economy, society and culture in which the education system is embedded.  Service oriented economies that rely on technological innovation from external economies may focus on the traditional transmission of technology know-how.  Transmission here could include how to operate the technologies used within the economy as well as repair and service for these technologies.  Economies seeking regeneration through technological innovation may focus on developing the required depth of science and engineering skills to facilitate regeneration and innovation in a particular field of technology.  It is in this spirit of innovation that the current focus on ‘coding’ within the curriculum might be understood, and also in which the STEM acronym might be best understood. However, the STEM framing of technology ignores the broader progressive regenerative aspects of education that require students to be initiated into the critique and management of technology.

Several writers have examined the relationship between technology and culture (e.g. Stiegler, 1998; Wajcman, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2015). This relationship is often expressed and framed in different ways, such as technics and humanity, or, the artificial and the human.  This work illustrates that technology cannot be factored out of cultural and aesthetic considerations as readily as mathematics, science and engineering might be.  These writers explore how technologies change the relationship that humans have with space and time, and how technological systems can facilitate as well as hinder dialogue between cultures.  While these changes can be beneficial the changes are also arenas of considerable political contestation.  Societies that wish for its citizens to participate in these contests and developments need to ensure that students have the appropriate skills to critique and manage technology at the personal and broader levels.

Among all the curriculum areas, technology related subjects are amongst the subjects whose curriculum is most closely tied to local historical and cultural contexts.  Technology directly relates to the means of production and cultural expression of societies and economies in which school systems operate.  The technology taught in schools to support the aerospace industries in Seattle would be different to those supporting the motoring industry in Detroit, and different again to the IT industries in California’s Silicon Valley.  Technology in schools therefore needs to articulate with local, state and national government initiatives, and technology teachers should be involved in forums at all these levels of government.

Aesthetics is a key area in the use of technology.  Technology can be crass and alienating, or it can be beautiful and engaging.  Societies express their values in their built environment through technologically laden disciplines such as architecture and industrial design.  Societies also use technology to express themselves culturally and to export that culture.  Institutions such as London’s Abbey Road and the New York’s Brill Building come to mind for music, as does the Pixar Animation Studios when it comes to movies.  New forms of cultural expression through technology now exist in the form of games and virtual realities.  Each society, and their governments, will need to decide if they are to take a consumer or producer stance towards these developments.

Societies, economies and governments need to make choices about technology  – either organically through markets or through government interventions – on which technologies it will consume and which ones it will produce.  One example of a government making such a decision is the imminent closure of Australia’s automotive industry, a decision that will have consequential effects for many educational institutions.  In selecting which technologies it will produce governments will need to facilitate an appropriate environment including infrastructure networks the provision of related services such as education. When selecting which technologies to consume societies and their governments will need to establish appropriate legislation and regulations to monitor their use (e.g. drones).  These decisions entail considerable consequential coordination across societies.

Of all the subjects taught in schools, the content of ‘technology’ is one of the most dependent on broader aesthetic, cultural and economic considerations.  Tethering the technology discipline to science, engineering and mathematics is therefore fraught.

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). London: Vintage. Retrieved from

Cuypers, S. E., & Martin, C. (2011). Reading R. S. Peters Today: Analysis, Ethics, and the Aims of Education. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and Time: Disorientation. Stanford University Press. Retrieved from

Wajcman, J. (2004). TechnoFeminism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wajcman, J. (2008). Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time. British Journal of Sociology, 59(1), 59–77. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00182.x

Wajcman, J. (2010). Further reflections on the sociology of technology and time: A response to Hassan. British Journal of Sociology, 61(2), 375–381. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2010.01317.x

Wajcman, J. (2015). Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waks, L. (2013). Education as Initiation Revisited: General Rituals and the Passage to Adulthood. PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION, 133–141.