Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas
Lawrence Earlbaum Associates, 1996
296 pages, index and references
Cloth: US$59.95, ISBN 0-8058-1306-3
Paper: US$27.50, ISBN 0-8058-1994-0
Reviewed by Lee Honeycutt (honeyl@rpi.edu)

In these days of dizzying technological change, it is difficult for teachers of composition not to be enthusiastic about the ever expanding arsenal of literacy tools at our disposal. From the myriad possibilities of networked classrooms to the disseminal opportunities of the World Wide Web, these technologies offer us promising venues in which to teach the craft of writing to our students, who seem more than eager to embrace these digital technologies.

Yet anyone who remembers the days before word processors realizes that the relationship between writer and text has changed, and not just because of poststructural theorists like Barthes and Foucault. While word processors undoubtedly have eased our production and revision of texts, they have also altered our spatial and tactile relationship to the writing process. And some would argue these changes are not necessarily for the better; perhaps all of us in the computers and writing community know a Luddite colleague who eschews the technological elegance of an Apple PowerBook for the simpler pleasures of an antique fountain pen and hand-bound writing journal. To the technological cognoscenti, such resistance seems at times like quaint nostalgia for a world that is quickly disappearing. But the more I scour the digital landscape to keep abreast of new technologies, the more a gnawing question tugs at my synapses: "What is being gained and what is being lost as the tools of literacy increase in complexity?"

Pondering the "Technology Question"

In Writing Technology, Christina Haas invites us to entertain this question in depth, to look beyond the enthusiasms and detractions currently infusing discourse about computer technology to a more balanced view that sees these technologies as material embodiments of our culture. Haas' argument, based on theory, empirical research, and rhetorical analysis, seeks to steer us away from the bi-polar technological myths that she believes are impeding serious research into computers and composition. In her mind, overcoming these myths -- that technology is transparent and that technology is all-powerful -- is essential to answering what she calls the "most recent iteration of the Technology Question: What is the nature of computer technologies, and what is their impact on writing" (p. 3).

Answering this central question is the business of "Technology Studies," which Haas envisions as a multidisciplinary field requiring "specialists with an ecumenical spirit able to use a range of methodological approaches to study technology" (p. 27). Such work is already underway, as Haas acknowledges, but what makes her vision of Technology Studies different from these current efforts is the "active collaboration, frequent communication, and professional interaction across disciplinary and institutional lines" that she feels is necessary for our understanding the symbiotic relationship between writing and the material technologies of production. As an example of such research, she cites the cross-disciplinary work of psychologist Michael Cole and his colleagues at the University of California at San Diego, who have conducted longitudinal research on the introduction of computer technologies into a host of educational and institutional settings.

Research on the Cognitive Effects of Writing Technologies

In setting such a research agenda, Haas seems to be arguing for more rigorous methods from a variety of perspectives, and a large part of the book details results of her own empirical studies during the past decade. Results of these studies on writers' online reading problems, the effects of word processing on planning, and writers' perception or "sense" of their digital texts have important implications on how we view the effects of computer technology on written literacy. Though Haas is very thorough in her research designs, the relatively small sample sizes in these studies prevent them, in my mind at least, from serving as strong empirical evidence for the wider generalizations she wishes to make. Nevertheless, results of these studies help identify important variables in computers and writing research and complicate some of our reigning assumptions about the supposed benefits of computer technology on the writing process.

Human Agency in Technological Design and Discourse

Paradoxically, the most convincing support for Haas' general argument comes not from empirical research, but from a case study narrative in which she describes design changes made to the interface of Carnegie Mellon University's Andrew System in the 1980s. The campus-wide Andrew system underwent revisions to its scroll bar and menus that set off heated disagreements among members of various departments. As a member of CMU's interdisciplinary User Interface Group, Haas was involved in many of the negotiations over these design changes, and weaves her own experiences into those drawn from interviews with other personnel involved. The result is a cogent narrative of the political and organizational tensions between entrenched, resistant technologists highly skilled in the existing counter-intuitive interface and those staff members and educators who wanted to move toward a design more friendly for first-time users. Her purpose in this narrative is to open the "black box" of technology development to show a picture "vastly more complicated than what might be suggested by the cultural myths of transparent and all-powerful technology" (p. 163). And in this she succeeds.

Haas follows this up with a much-needed rhetorical analysis of various books and articles written during the past decade within English studies on the impact of computer technology. Using Stephen Toulmin's analytical method, Haas (along with chapter contributor Ann George) goes about unpacking the claims, data, and warrants contained in articles both for and against computer technology. Her analysis concludes that the majority of these authors operate under ideological assumptions that technology is an independent agent, that it develops along a revolutionary model, and that it is somehow unique to human history. All three of these assumptions, Haas believes, tend to minimize the role of scholars and educators in shaping these technologies. To correct these assumptions, she calls instead for a "remaking of the language of technology" so that "humanists [can] take an active role in designing and implementing technology" (p. 199).

Historicizing and Theorizing Technology

In her conclusion, Haas seeks both to "historicize" and "theorize" technology for her ongoing purpose of granting scholars and teachers of literacy a voice in the design and use of literacy technologies. By "historicizing" Haas means "the reciprocal process of placing computer literacy technologies into historical contexts" in order to counter what she sees as the oversimplification of current historical analogies (p. 205). Such analogies are dangerous in her view in that they are "seldom accurate and usually obscure as much as they clarify; that is, analogous qualities of situations are highlighted, while differences are ignored" (p. 207).

By "theorizing" Haas means viewing literacy technologies through the lens of her earlier concept of embodied practice in order to contemplate what she feels are two questions crucial to our understanding: "How is it that material tools can shape mental processes? And what is the relationship of material tools to the culture in which they are embedded?" (p. 224). Seeing writing as an embodied practice allows us to understand how technologies shape our writing processes and also how these technologies carry with them an embedded history of design, which in turn tends to become more complex with each subsequent stage of development.

For Haas, keeping our collective fingers on this complexity is the mission of her multidisciplinary vision of Technology Studies, which she believes can help us understand the relationship between culture and cognition while at the same time avoiding uncritical and passive stances toward writing technologies. As she states in her closing comments:

Until we are willing to recognize the symbiotic and systemic relationship between technology, culture, and individuals, willing to explore the implications of technology on our own literate practice and mental lives, and willing to enter fully into the various discourses of technology, scholars and teachers of literacy -- arguably the group that has most at stake as technology remakes writing -- are abdicating responsibility and power in helping to determine how technology and literacy are made, through use, in our culture. (p. 230)

The Co-evolution of Literacy and Technology

Haas' work is an important one that urges us to sharpen our theoretical and empirical focus on writing technologies with the hope of replacing technological agency with a human one. In reading this book, I have come to understand better my own ambivalence about the discourse on computers and writing. As a user of these technologies, on the one hand, I share the enthusiasm of those excited about the prospects of electronic literacy and how these technologies might help us radically alter the course of education in this country.

On the other hand, as a researcher, I demand of myself a more critical understanding of just how these technologies are altering our traditional notions of literacy and of just who stands to benefit and who stands to be left behind as we increase the complexity of our literacy tools. It is not an ambivalence that will go away soon, but Haas' work offers all of us a framework in which to dialogically debate ourselves and one another as the future unfolds. At the core of this debate, however, should be an insistence that these technologies be molded to human purposes and to the goals of a collectively defined program of technological literacy. Such a critical perspective is crucial to determining whether we control technology or it controls us.

In his article "Machines and Storybooks: Literature in the Age of Technology," Saul Bellow argues that in many ways, technology "has weakened certain points of spiritual rest," and to tie a bow on his case, he rephrases the pre-revolutionary Russian writer V.V. Rozanov in a way that should resonate with all of us as we continue to ponder the co-evolution of literacy and technology:

A million years passed before my soul was let out into the technological world. That world was filled with ultra-intelligent machines, but the soul after all was a soul, and it had a waited a million years for its turn and did not intend to be cheated out of its birthright by a lot of mere gimmicks. It had come from the far reaches of the universe, and it was interested but not overawed by these inventions. (p. 59)

Book Table of Contents / References