Fixing Clocks, Negotiating Systems: Yes, And…

In which Melissa summons the courage to critique her doctoral advisor’s post, asserting that over-simplification of artifacts leads to many of the design problems in education that we are trying to avoid.

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Recently, Punya published a post entitled “Design: Fixing Clocks, Negotiating Systems.” Although I agree with the main argument of the post–that designing systems requires different skills from designing artifacts–something about it didn’t sit quite right with me. As Punya’s doctoral advisee, some might suggest I nod and smile and move on. I’m not listening today (after all, he already approved my dissertation prospectus).1 So here we go.

First, it’s not that I disagree with Alan Kay’s quote: “You can fix a clock, but you have to negotiate with a system.” In fact, I found a perfect illustration! In the 1800s cities and towns calculated time based on the position of the sun in their specific location, resulting in no standardization of time. For example, according to the podcast embedded below, there were 38 time zones in Michigan and 23 in Indiana. It worked great when people mostly stayed in one location, but then the railroads disrupted the time-space experience. Railroads needed detailed schedules–processes–to serve their purposes, but the time system in place caused problems such as train accidents and confused passengers. Long story short, a few people came up with the idea of standardized time zones, but actually implementing it took a lot of negotiation (including hold-outs in congress, nothing new there).

In the case of the standardization of time and creation of time zones, the ultimate goal was to synchronize (fix?) clocks, but this required the harder task of negotiating a new system of time. Alan Kay’s statement–“You can fix a clock, but you have to negotiate with a system”–validated. ✔

The problem I have with Punya’s post, though, is the way these ideas were placed in our five spaces framework. In the example above, what was actually designed? We wouldn’t argue that the clock was designed; rather, it shifted a bit to enable changing processes and systems. All that was needed from the clock itself (an artifact) was to move the minute hand a bit. However, this doesn’t mean that artifacts always play supporting roles. They can be designed, not just fixed.

When we talk about “fixing” clocks, we are no longer talking about design. Fixing implies turning something back to a previous working order, it is not creating something new. The subservient role of clocks is validated in the time zone story; however, it’s important that we recognize that artifacts like clocks are complex and carry a whole host of affordances, limitations, assumptions, and values. To really design a clock is to redefine the clock. It means we intentionally redefine what a clock is and what it means, we question the values it holds and propose something new, something that is better adapted to the purpose2 or more effective in a specific context3.

The power in the five spaces framework is that it pushes against the over-simplification and haphazard implementation of designs (artifacts, processes, etc.). The framework calls for more intention and awareness into the complexity of our artificial world, starting from the conceptually smallest piece: artifacts.

For example, Punya, Ben, and I delivered a presentation at the 2019 Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) conference4 where we discussed the hype and despair of new educational technologies. Consider this statement:

The modern school is forced to meet the demands of a rapidly changing civilization. Today the world of the learner is almost unbounded. He must acquire facts relating to a bewildering variety of places and things; he must acquire appreciations of far-reaching interrelationships. The curriculum and methods of teaching must undergo a continuous appraisal. New subject matter and new devices for instruction are being scrutinized for their potential contributions to the learning process.5

Devereux et al. (in 1933!) connected culture and experiences with learning processes, curriculum, and methods of teaching (processes) with new devices (artifacts). Good work 👏! However, they then leave behind complexity and offer an uncritical appraisal of a new device:

The introduction of the use of the talking picture into education may prove to be an event as epochal as the application of the principle of the wheel to transportation or the application of steam power to the industrial age. No development in education since the coming of the textbook has held such tremendous possibilities for increasing the effectiveness of teaching as the educational talking pictures.

Unfortunately, the “educational talking picture” did not prove to be an epochal event. Although most would claim the technology itself (the artifact and perhaps related processes) failed, I would argue genres related to “educational talking pictures” have had a large effect on learning. Think about make-up tutorials on YouTube, documentary phenomenons like Planet Earth or March of the Penguins. Or “Dr. K: Exotic Pet ER,” which my cat Amira and I have been enjoying on Disney+.

cat watching TV
Amira learning about hedgehog surgery

My cat’s world has been blown wide open 🤯

Amira is not the only one. I have also learned much from our procrastination-driven binge watching. If I lived in 1933, I doubt I would be able to explain how to anesthetize fish. Perhaps more useful, I have a better understanding of the differences between species of animals, including both physical and behavioral patterns. Now I have a backup career if this PhD thing doesn’t turn out.

It’s not that “educational talking pictures” couldn’t have an impact on learning; it’s that they didn’t become embedded into the educational system in the way hoped for by Devereux and friends in 1933. Why? In our SITE presentation, we argued that it is because we often work from a narrow perspective of educational technologies–we don’t consider how the artifacts, such as educational talking pictures, must integrate with the processes, experiences, systems, and culture of education. It’s not that it can’t, it’s that the artifact was designed from a narrow perspective, from an assumption of simplicity. We think, “Here, drop these movies into the classroom and it will change everything. Not working? Just fix it. It’s just a movie, after all.” No luck. What did work, however, was the design of a reality veterinarian show delivered through a streaming service embedded in a binge-watching culture. Something intentionally created for a specific context.

We could argue that many disappointing outcomes in innovation are the result of adding artifacts without changing systems. I agree. However, I also believe that carefully designed artifacts can spark changes in systems themselves. Successful change requires design in both directions. It requires respecting the complexity of artifacts and systems.

cat looking at moose
Amira admiring antlers

For example, Redström6 wrote that when we design, we are creating new definitions of what something is. Take the iPhone. The iPhone (an artifact at its most basic level) didn’t just fix or improve the phone–it redefined what a phone is. Instead of just a device that allows people to talk across distances, iPhones (and other smartphones) are hubs for connecting people and information. They allow us to constantly interact with friends, strangers, and information through text, email, video, memes, emojis, etc. The design came about amidst other changes (many systemic) such as increased internet connectivity, early social networks, and mp3 players. But the iPhone also sparked changes in systems and culture itself. This new phone required a different type of cellular network, reconceptualization of mobile phone contracts, distracted driving laws, etc. The design of the artifact pushed changes in the system7 because it was design, not fixing. It was created with an eye towards processes, experiences, systems, and culture, ultimately changing them in both expected and unexpected ways. In summary, the design honored complexity.

This is the power of the five spaces framework–that artifacts are related to and impact processes, experiences, systems, and cultures and vice versa. When we consider artifact design as a simple process–such as designing the educational talking picture in isolation from related processes, experiences, systems, and culture–it is unlikely that the artifact will have a significant impact beyond itself. However, when we recognize the complexities of artifacts and intentionally leverage this to our advantage, we can, quite literally, change the world.

1Joking aside, I’m lucky to have an advisor who supports my independent thought and critique. Thank you Punya!
2See Perkins, D. N. (2013). Knowledge as design. Routledge.
3See Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2012). The design way: Intentional change in an unpredictable world – foundations and fundamentals of design competence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
4Warr, M., Mishra, P., & Scragg, B. (2019). Beyond TPACK: Expanding technology and teacher education to systems and culture. Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference, 2233–2237. https://www.learntechlib.org/primary/p/208009/
5Devereux, F. L., Engelhardt, N. L., Mort, P. R., & Stoddard, A. J. (1933). The educational talking picture. Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press.
6Redström, J. (2017). Making design theory. MIT Press.
7I am oversimplifying here–changing systems also enabled smartphones. The effects work in both directions. Also, Steve Jobs’s vision went far beyond the smartphone. The point, however, is that an artifact can be designed in a way that has an impact beyond itself.

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