Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 7
Constructing Technology Through Discourse
with Ann George

Haas begins this chapter by pointing out how a decrease in articles about computers and writing in composition journals may "suggest that discourse about technology has reached a high enough volume to constitute a subfield of English Studies with its own journals, language, and experts" ( p.169). Indeed, computers and writing has become its own distinct subfield, with its own journals, (Computers and Composition and the one in which you're reading this review), its own listservs (ACW and Megabyte University), and its own conference (Computers and Writing).

However, Haas sees some danger in this specialization, using Habermas' critique of specialized forms of discourse to argue that "an issue that would seem to have important implications for English Studies at large (i.e., how new technology will be integrated into existing theory and practice) is being debated by a narrowing subset of the profession.... The narrowing sphere of debate about technology within English Studies only serves to compound another troubling characteristic of recent discourse about computers: its lack of critical perspective" (169).

Equally problematic for Haas are antidominant forms of discourse about technology in which computers are seen as being "bad." Haas feels more "useful distinctions can and need to made" about technology, and toward this end, she embarks on a rhetorical analysis of several recent articles and book chapters about computer technology in English Studies, using Stephen Toulmin's analytic method as outlined in his 1958 The Uses of Argument. The text analyzed include, but are not limited to, the introductory chapter of Richard Lanham's Electronic Word, Gail Hawisher and Charles Moran's College English article, "Electronic Mail and the Writing Instructor," and Frank Boyle's CE article, "IBM, Talking Heads, and Our Classrooms." Most Kairos readers probably know these first two texts quite well, but may be less familiar with Boyle's fairly strident condemnation of technology in our classrooms.

In her analysis, Haas found that almost all of the authors in her study founded their arguments on the warrant that "technology is an agent," using this assumption more than any other. A number of the authors also used two other related warrants -- that "technology develops along a revolutionary model" and that "computer technology is unique." As Haas argues, "These three warrants represent technology as all-powerful, as do the warrants that technology is self-determining and technology is harmful" (p. 183).

Haas concludes that one of the main goals of the authors in her analysis is to "generate enthusiasm for this project of examining technology within the humanities" (p. 199). Yet at the same time, Haas believes that such a position leaves very little space for human agency:

As long as technological theory and practice are guided, even determined, by a discourse in which technology is an agent and history is a cycle of technological revolutions, then the role of scholars and teachers, especially those in the humanities, will be minimal. (p. 199)
Haas admits that given our present divisions of labor, it will difficult for humanists to shape their own active role in the development of computer technologies. But one starting place is to change the nature of our discourse about that technology in order to open up space for greater human agency.

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