“Emergent” or “Emerging” Technologies: What’s the difference and does it matter?

Water bubbles

The JISC has identified a group of technologies, services and practices that they have variously labelled as “emerging” or “emergent” technologies. In JISC documentation the term is defined in terms of the following six elements

  • The web as a platform;
  • Things that think;
  • An architecture of participation;
  • Data consumption and remixing from other sources
  • A rich, interactive, user-friendly interface;
  • Elements of social networking.

Examples of emerging or emergent technologies given by JISC include: online word processors and spreadsheets; embedded computers, mobile telephones, smart phones and entertainment devices; wikis; and mashups. However, the notion is clearly intended to include many other practices and activities.

What ties all these things together? Is this just a collection of the latest buzz words or is it something more coherent?

The JISC argue that what is brought into question by these technologies is the “locus of control” in relation to rights to, and responsibilities for, physical devices, information and services.

Historically, information technology was complex, risky and expensive. It was therefore thought of as primarily the responsibility of educational institutions, which had the necessary finance, technical expertise and security capability to acquire and run technologies. Users (students and staff) were then “allowed” to access these resources (e.g., through computer clusters or PCs on the desk). In the past, universities and colleges were often the institutions that provided users with their first experiences of networked information technology services such as email and easy access to the web. Today, however, uses arrive at universities and colleges often, but not always, with years of experience of these technologies, acquired at home or at school. As a result, the ways in which individuals use technologies, and their expectations about how they are going to use those technologies, are already ell established. Institutions not longer introduce users to information technology; instead, information technology is often the main context in which users are introduced to the institution. What is more, it is increasingly the case that users are bringing their own devices –lap tops, smartphones, PDAs – onto campus. Users are now expecting to be able to connect and use these devices on campus as well as at home.

These developments don’t only concern physical technologies and services such as broadband or wireless connections. They also concern the ways in which users think about content – information. The traditional informational models in higher education, which have stressed the use of formally accredited information through carefully constructed and managed channels and the ‘delivery’ of ‘course content’ to students, have been challenged by the availability of new services which provide more direct, if also often opaque, routes to find information, new ways of sharing information on a peer-to-peer basis and the expectation of a much more interactive experience of online education. These developments have been partially made from within academic institutions – for example through the development of new and more interactional VLE and MLE systems – but, once again, many of these developments have their origins and impetus mainly outside of HEIs.

So should we talk of emerging or emergent technologies?

The idea of emerging technologies implies that there is something novel about the technologies themselves. This makes little sense in terms of the bundle of physical technologies and practices which we have identified. Many of these basic technologies, standards and even practices are quite stable and well established. Indeed, it is this very stability and reliability, coupled with falling costs that come from mass production, that have led to their take up by individuals and households. If these technologies are emerging, then they are not emerging from the labs as cutting edge technology.

In systems theory emergent properties of the system are those that can’t be explained in a reductionist manner, that is to say, by the actions of the constituent parts of the system, but rather which arise from the interaction from those parts. The basic idea is well captured in the ordinary language phase ‘the whole is more than the sum of the parts’. Emergence can be observed in both the natural and the social world. A common example from nature is colour. Elementary particles have no colour, but when they are combined into atoms, they begin to absorb specific wavelengths of light. By analogy, what is interesting about the emergent technologies is the ways in which the outcomes of these technologies deployment cannot be treated in a reductionist manner. What is important about emergent technologies is that they aggregate together large numbers of individual decisions to create, sometimes unpredictable, outcomes

Both emerging and emergent relate to the concept of emergence. Emergence is often related to the ideas such as evolution or ecology which stress interdependence of varying kinds (both the symbiosis of flowers and insects and the less harmonious kinds of reliance found in the food chain). The key terms here, however, is interdependence. For a long time HEIs were able to treat information and communication technologies as a field where they felt that they had a high degree of control and were relatively independent in choices that they made – choices that could be relatively unproblematically passed on to users. The notion of emergent technologies signals the end of this phase and the recognition that institutions and users are much more interdependent, their respective choices conditioning and interacting in new, and perhaps unpredictable, ways.

James Conford – IRET Team

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