“Winona Ryder and the Internet of Things” by Jesse Stommel

Have a look at this really interesting article from Jesse Stommel (2016)  in “Why IT Matters to Higher Education”



“In the living room the voice-clock sang, Tick-tock, seven o’clock, time to get up, time to get up, seven o’clock!

—Ray Bradbury, “There Will Come Soft Rains”

“The 2015 film Experimenter is based on the true story of Stanley Milgram, the Yale University psychologist who became famous for his 1961 social behavior experiments that tested the obedience of volunteers who thought they were administering electrical shocks to strangers. In the film, the character of his wife, Alexandra “Sasha” Milgram, is played by Winona Ryder, and she serves as the on-screen stand-in for the film audience. Our ethical response to what happens in the film is registered on her face. In several scenes, the camera focuses on the face of Winona Ryder watching the experiment unfold—her skin twitching, her body shifting uncomfortably, her eyes wide with both horror and also a certain awe at what humans are capable of.

In his experiment, Milgram asked a “teacher” (the subject of the experiment) to shock a “learner” (an actor) for getting wrong answers on a simple test. An “experimenter” would order the teacher to give increasingly powerful shocks, and more often than not, the teacher complied. The study is not without baggage,1 but the results remain compelling nonetheless. At one point in the film, Winona Ryder as Sasha Milgram asks to experience the shock herself, the same very small shock that the teachers were also given during the setup of the experiment. The scene is played out with a certain menace as the various accoutrements are put into action. Visually, she is overwhelmed by the devices that surround her: the electrodes, the teacher’s microphone, a series of digits that light up to show the learner’s answers, a pen, a clipboard, the gray of the experimenter’s lab coat, a recording device, and the large box of switches through which the teacher delivers the shocks.2 All of the devices play clear roles in maintaining and even eliciting compliance. And the subtler and more intricate or inscrutable the mechanism, the more compliance it appears to generate—because the human brain fails to bend adequately around it. The camera works a similar magic on the film viewers as it ominously traces over these objects. Like our on-screen surrogate, Winona Ryder, we too sit still—complicit, both horrified and awed by what we see and our inability to stop it.

In the 1915 book Schools of To-Morrow, John Dewey wrote: “Unless the mass of workers are to be blind cogs and pinions in the apparatus they employ, they must have some understanding of the physical and social facts behind and ahead of the material and appliances with which they are dealing.” The less we understand our tools, the more we are beholden to them. The more we imagine our tools as transparent or invisible, the less able we are to take ownership of them.

At the interview for my current job at the University of Mary Washington, the inimitable Martha Burtis asked me to reflect on the statement: “It’s teaching, not tools.” What assumptions does this oft-bandied-about phrase make? What does it overlook? Like Martha, I find myself increasingly concerned by the idea that our tools are without ideologies—that tools are neutral. Of course, they aren’t. Tools are made by people, and most (or even all) educational technologies have pedagogies hard-coded into them in advance. This is why it is so essential that we consider them carefully and critically—that we empty all our LEGOs onto the table and sift through them before we start building. Some tools are decidedly less innocuous than others. And some tools can never be hacked to good use.3

In 2014, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) report “7 Things You Should Know About the Internet of Things” noted: “The Internet of Things (IoT) describes a state in which vast numbers of objects are interconnected over the Internet and can collect data and transmit and receive information. . . . The IoT has its roots in industrial production, where machine-to-machine communication enabled the manufacture of complex items, but it is now expanding in the commercial realm, where small monitoring devices allow such things as ovens, cars, garage doors, and the human heartbeat to be checked from a computing device.”4 At the point when our relationship to a device (or a connected series of devices) has become this intimate, this pervasive, the relationship cannot be called free of values, ethics, or ideology.”

Jesse Stommel 2016

***for the rest of the article please go to:



Jesse Stommel (Twitter: @Jessifer) is executive director, Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, at the University of Mary Washington. He is the director and founder of Hybrid Pedagogy and Digital Pedagogy Lab. His own personal site is at http://www.jessestommel.com.




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