Computer technologies and computer-mediated information and communication are increasingly parts of professional practice and learning. They are part of the programmes of preparation for professionals and the assemblages of professional work and learning once in situ. These technologies are often taken simply to be tools to be used to enhance professional practice. Technology has always been important to work, but it is arguable that the speed and scope of innovation in computer technologies is at a faster pace and more pervasive than we have seen previously.
While such technologies take many forms – for example, sensing, communicating, analysing, doing – their ubiquity is arguably matched by their increasing invisibility. The technologies are often black boxed and naturalised. They are there and they do the work we need them to do… until of course they breakdown or do something that we do not expect. The black boxing and invisibility is almost deliberate, designed into the technology in the sense that few understand how things work or can repair them. To replace a silicon chip in an ipad is not something most of us would try. Newer cars are diagnosed in garages by being plugged into computers because the on-board computer has all the necessary data.
How then do we research, frame and theorise the entanglements of technology in professional work and the learning associated with this? These are not new questions. Examining the effects of computer technology on work organisations and practices has been a concern for many years, with issues about de-skilling and re-skilling, and the resultant struggles over shifting statuses and rewards. There is also interest in the changing relationships with users or clients of professional services, as for instance, with the self-monitoring and remote sensing of data and conditions by patients enabling less face-to-face contact with doctors. The capacity to quantify the self through digital monitoring is growing rapidly. There is also increasing interest in what can be done through the data gathered, scrapped and mined from computer technologies, both in relation to enhancing services through big data analysis and in terms of the monitoring and accountability of professionals to ensure effective and efficient services. Mobile technologies enable communication with professionals in the field, but also the monitoring and tracking of their movements. And there is increasing interest in the ways in which such data is used in policy and managing to enable forms of governing by data.
These are important areas for research. However, what has yet to be fully explored is the ways in which the software that make these technologies operate assume and produce certain affects in their development and uptakes. In other words, in examining the role of computer technologies in professional work and learning, we need to denaturalise them and open the black boxes to examine the work of code, algorithms and standards in the entanglements of their enactments.
Technology is part of the materiality of professional practice. Yet computer technology also has an immateriality about it, as what lies behind the screen is invisible and unknown to many who use such artefacts, even as it represents increasingly sophisticated visualisations and environments with and in which we participate. However, in recent years, a range of cross-disciplinary studies have started to point to the work of code, algorithms and standards in selecting and shaping the information and forms of knowledge made available to professionals in their studies and work. Code is technical, social, material and symbolic. Concerns have been raised about the ways in which data is selected and shaped by software in ways which are not always apparent to those using the technologies. For some this work is hidden, for others it is inscrutable. What is clear is that code is influentially entangled in many aspects of professional work and learning and requires closer research.