In a world of iPhones, self-driving cars, drones and virtual reality, technology may appear to be a brand new facet of human development. Committee members of the Fire to iPhone theme, however, would argue otherwise: technology has existed for most of human history.
The Fire to iPhone theme, soon to be renamed “Technology and Society,” offers a curriculum of classes revolving around technology and how it both changes over time and affects human life. The theme, entering its third year, now has its own certificate as well, Rosemary Rossiter, the coordinator to the theme, said in an email.
From pondering ethical issues concerning privacy and global positioning systems to discussing new mediums like Twitter and Snapchat, students in the course are introduced to classes from a multitude of departments, including English, geology and economics.
The theme, consistent with all themes offered at OUexists primarily to give students a sense of order to the many general requirement classes that they must take, rather than pointing them toward any particular career path, according to the OU website. While many students outside of themes take a hodgepodge of unrelated classes, the theme offers a bundle of related classes that explore various concepts of technology.
“The theme and the certificate are a way to get students organized,” Rossiter said in an interview.
She said many of the classes are from subjects students “don’t think of when (they) think of technology.”
Gaurav Sinha, an associate professor of geography and a steering committee member of the theme, teaches a class about geographic information systems (GIS). He takes a particular interest in the human element of technology, and stresses the importance of understanding the way certain technologies, and the lack of them, can affect everyday life.
“What kind of expectancy should you have with technology?” Sinha said. “Yes, they’re great, but what if you never learn how to read a map and you only trust your GPS, and then your GPS doesn’t work? What are you going to do?”
Sinha said the conception of GPS technologies has led people to develop a “fundamentally” different way of looking at the areas around them due to the reliance on digital maps. But, regardless of how complicated mapping technology can get, Sinha stressed there is always a “human” element involved, which leaves room for certain abuses or ethical issues.
“Once you make a robot, it pretty much does what it does; there’s not much interference going on from humans,” Sinha said. “But GIS involves humans at every step. Even a slight color change on a map will make it look different. … If you want to do propaganda, it’s very easy to mess around with a map.”
Because of the inseparable mix between human decision-making and GIS technology, Sinha said he teaches his classes with a focus on “critical thinking” rather than a simple skills-based technology class.
While English classes may not appear at first to be related to technology, Sherrie Gradin, an English department chair and a steering committee member of the theme, believes there is considerable overlap between the two subjects.
In some of the English courses offered, Gradin said students are introduced to new forms of media, like Twitter or other social media, and then engaged in discussion about their various uses.
“What does it mean, composing in this kind of media?” Gradin said. “What does it matter? What’s at stake in a language world? What does it tell us about our relationships with us as humans and the communication that we’re trying to enact in these media?”
In addition to the classes offered, coordinators of the theme host events related to technology and its uses to both bring attention to the theme and to get the surrounding public interested in and engaged with discussions of technology. In March 2016, the theme assisted in the Tedx talk “What Does Islam Mean to You?,” in which a panel discussed perceptions of Islam and how they are spread through platforms like social media.
“We’re trying to do things that are of interest to other faculty. Students, of course, are our primary interest,” Gradin said. “What we’re trying to do is synthesize. We have physicists, geographers, humanists of all kinds involved. ... These questions, for us, cross multidisciplinary boundaries.”