Technology Matters

Posted on September 9, 2012


My colleagues and I have an ongoing debate–or maybe “discussion” is a better word–about whether or not the technology matters for our broadcast and video students. That’s the phrase that comes up: the technology doesn’t matter. What matters, according to this position, goes by many names: Story, Storytelling, The Big Ideas, The Fundamentals, The Basics. Sometimes this position is fleshed out like this: the technology doesn’t matter; it’s all the other stuff that matters. What “other stuff” is remains mysterious, but it’s obviously not technology.

It has become sort of a nostrum that all a student needs in our field is knowledge of good storytelling–that if a kid can learn that, she can go far. And I understand where this idea comes from. Teachers, by their nature look for big overarching narratives that lend coherence to the curriculum. And technology seems to be ever-changing: new applications arrive every year and are quickly superseded; new code languages appear; new platforms emerge. Every new thing is “groundbreaking” or “revolutionary” and the landscape seems to be in constant tectonic shift. So we look for the constant: story, the fundamentals, whatever you want to call it. Thus, story is what matters, and the technology is “merely” a tool. I get it, and I want to believe it’s true.

But I don’t. I disagree with this position for two reasons: on the grounds that it may insufficiently prepare students for jobs or further experience; and on the more philosophical grounds that the curriculum today cannot afford to relegate technology (our tools) to a position of secondary importance.

1. The Preparation Argument

About a year ago, I began blanketing the internet with solicitations for information from industry professionals–developers, editors, journalists, freelancers, whomever. I asked a simple question: from your perspective, what should students know in order to be ready to either enter your field? And the answers were consistent: having vision, knowing how to tell a story, will get you the interview, but knowing the technical details will get you the job. Among the most useful responses came from Gabe Cheifetz at CrumplePop, a company that develops broadcast and film effects and plugins. I’ll quote his response at length, both because it is so thorough and because it perfectly encapsulates the drift of the responses I’ve received over the last year:

 “I know that educators like to talk about how the technology doesn’t matter, and what you really need is to be able to structure a story, etc. – the fundamentals.  While there is some truth to this, the thing that is going to get you a job is technical skills. Video is just extremely technical right now.  I recently hired a guy right out of college, and it was because he had incredible technical skills, and anything technical that he didn’t know he could learn in a weekend.  He also has solid skills in many areas – shooting, editing, titling, color correction, motion graphics.  So I’m able to throw entire projects at him, and he can cover all the bases technically. He’s also incredibly motivated to work in this field, which is of course huge.”

 It’s clear that big-picture thinking–story–remains important, but that technical acumen and flexibility are also vitally important. And I guess I’d say that “technical skill” probably doesn’t mean expertise in particular tools or techniques as much as a general understanding of how these operate and how each one solves particular problems presented by the work itself, which brings me to point #2.

2. The Curriculum Argument

I’m not the first to note that every technology embodies a philosophy–certain priorities and expectations that the technology itself makes upon its user. Hammers, for instance, are designed to solve the various problems of construction or craft labor. Curved claw hammers are designed to facilitate both driving and pulling nails, but they aren’t especially good for prying or demolition. Straight claw hammers are designed to be used for prying and demolition, but as anyone who has tried knows–they aren’t very good tools for pulling nails. Each tool elevates a particular problem of the job at the expense of another; each tool presupposes certain sorts of uses, and to be effective with these tools, one must understand the expectations that each tool embodies.

This means that students need to understand that digital storytelling, like renovating a house, is a process that requires both vision (how to tell a story) and technical skill (negotiating formats, frame rates, compression, etc.). You need a design scheme and the right tool for each part of the job. You can’t overcome the second part of that without having fundamental understanding of the technology at your disposal. Each part informs the other.

There’s an awful lot of hand-wringing among broadcast and video teachers (at least in my circle) about the best way to face the problems presented by shifts in our field (largely the result of the explosion of internet video). These problems range from the technical (the role of consumer equipment in a “professional” workflow) to the philosophical (the role of cinematic technique in news or nonfiction storytelling). There’s also a tacit understanding that these are our problems (i.e. the teachers’ problems) to solve, when in fact these are the problems of the field generally–the medium of video generally–and, in turn, these become the problems our students need to solve based on what they are trying to accomplish. Each of these problems has a context in which it makes sense, and each problem has a number of possible solutions.

And in most cases, each of these problems is the result of the introduction of a new technology. DSLRs, for example, have inaugurated a heated debate about the “look” of documentary, news, and other nonfiction video. To say that this technology “doesn’t matter” is to ignore one of the most profound and interesting changes underway in the medium of visual communication. Is it still about story? Of course, but questions about, say, whether or not to employ shallow focus are not story questions; they’re technical questions that are enmeshed in bigger-picture concerns about audience, about how we make meaning from images, about truth.

It’s not an either-or discussion. Our technology is now among the fundamentals of our craft. Technology matters.

Photo Credit “Existentialism” (CC BY-NC 2.0)