Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 8
Historicizing Technology

In this chapter, Haas seeks to "historicize" technology by examining computer literacy technologies in their historical contexts and then using these contexts to examine present day uses of these technologies. In doing so, Haas offers us an extended critique of traditional scholarship on the history of literacy technologies, especially that of the history of print.

Haas' critique here extends to such books as J. David Bolter's Writing Space and George Landow's Hypertext, both of which draw heavily on Elizabeth Eisenstein's seminal two-volume work, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. While acknowledging the impact that Eisenstein's work has had on a host of scholars, Haas criticizes her work for its essential technological determinism and its view of print as a revolutionary model of cultural change. For a more complex portrait of the impact of print on Western culture, Haas refers us instead to David Kaufer and Kathleen Carley's expansive 1993 book Communication at a Distance, which argues that the impact of print was instead "gradual, complicated, and highly dependent. . .on 'co-evolving elements of society'" (p. 215).

In complicating the story of print, Haas also evokes Vygotsky's historical-genetic method as a means by which to analyze movement or change at different systemic levels. Once such level is the historical/cultural level, by which Haas means examining "historical precedents to gives some idea of the scope and nature of technology's effects on literacy, learning for instance from the history of print that technological change is gradual, less than unitary, and always dependent on other cultural and technological factors" (p. 221).

One other systemic level that Haas recommends is to examine technology at the sociocultural level, using a "diversity of empirical and textual methods...to examine technology in the making in labs, conference rooms, and design studios" (p. 221). A third suggested level of examination includes historicizing technology at the level of individual features, tracing, for example, the history of how interface features develop over time.

While Haas is correct to question our reigning scholarly conceptions about the revolutionary change wrought by the printing press, there is little in her argument to suggest that the features of a corrected history of print correspond to our own times. As Kaufer and Carley effectively argue, the impact of print on Western culture was indeed more gradual than previously believed. But there is nothing in this history to suggest that the development and implementation of computer technologies will proceed just as gradually. The world is a much different place than it was in the three centuries after Gutenberg, and it is difficult to deny the swift pace of technological change in our present society given the increased speed of our communication technologies. Still, Haas is correct in suggesting that we resist viewing such change as inevitable. While change indeed comes quickly in our society, we still retain the ability to direct the course of that change.

Return to Front Node / Book Table of Contents