Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 9
Theorizing Technology

In this final chapter, Haas attempts to construct a "theoretical account of the materiality of literacy" by examining two crucial questions: "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).

In doing so, Haas believes that our Western "cultural bifurcation of the material world from the world of the mind" creates a stumbling block to our constructing just such a theory (p. 224). But as her research in Chapters 3 - 5 suggest, our writing technologies do seem to have an effect on our cognitive processes, though such a material connection has been largely ignored in composition theory. As she argues,

For the most part, material concerns have remained outside the realm of consideration of writing research, possibly due to the profound distrust of the bodily within scholarly inquiry and within the culture at large. In the past two decades, much of what has been interesting to both theorists and researchers of writing are the psychological processes of writing and the mental constructs or representations that readers and writers build.... However, in the vastly different technological world of computer writing, ignoring the materiality of literacy, its basis in bodily movements and habits, is no longer possible. Research on writing must begin to acknowledge and examine the material basis of literacy.... (pp. 226-227).
To move beyond our Cartesian division of mind and body, Haas again evokes the work of Vygotsky as well as theories of embodied practice, which she defines generally as "a culturally sanctioned, culturally learned activity that is accomplished by individual humans begins moving through time and space" (p. 225).

Seeing writing as an embodied practice allows us to answer the first question by acknowledging that "different writing technologies set up radically different spatial, tactile, visual and temporal relations between the writer's material body and his or her material text" (p. 226). In answer to the second question, Haas believes that the personal computer, with its alphabetic keyboard and emphasis on individual use, embodies a whole set of Western cultural assumptions about literacy that are not easily translated to other cultures. Additionally, these technologies carry with them an embodied history of design, the effects of which promise to multiply in complexity with each stage of future development.

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