Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 1
The Technology Question

The materiality of writing is both the central fact of literacy and its central puzzle. This materiality is the central fact of literacy because writing gains its power -- as a cognitive process, as a cultural practice, and even as a metaphor -- by linking these two powerful systems: the material realm of time and space with the quintessentially human act of language. The materiality of literacy is also a central puzzle, and I call this puzzle "The Technology Question:" What does it mean for language to become material? That is, what is the effect of writing and other material literacy technologies on human thinking and human culture? (p. 3)
In this first chapter, Haas tackles the Technology Question via three paths of inquiry that have taken place within literacy studies: 1) the philosophical debate between Plato and Derrida on the nature of writing, 2) the historical scholarship of Eric Havelock, Walter Ong, and Jack Goody and Ian Watt, and 3) the work of Lev Vygotsky and that of Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole. Haas knows Vygotsky thoroughly and sees his work, as well as Scribner and Cole's study of orality and literacy in West Africa, as providing "a corrective to some of the dichotimization of speech and writing, and the confusion of cultural and cognitive effects that are present in the work of Ong, Havelock, and Goody and Watt" (p. 5).

Haas' goal in examining these areas of study is to "open up a space within literacy studies for the examination of the Technology Question.... Such a space would make possible the active engagement of scholars of literacy in questions of technological use and development -- an engagement that is now precluded by cultural myths of transparent and all-powerful technology" (pp. 22-23). Indeed, this is the central message of Haas' book: that those interested in literacy can no longer afford to view computer technology as an omnipotent agent of social and cultural change or as a transparent tool supporting existing literacy practices.

For Haas, the omnipotent myth views computer technology as having "far-reaching and profound effects, effects that will be almost wholly positive and always inevitable. In this view, we must simply stand back and watch as the computer revolution remakes literacy, language and culture" (p. 22). The transparency myth, on the other hand, "encourages a belief that writers can use computer technology without being shaped by it, and therefore discourages any examination of how technology shapes discourse and how it, in turn, is shaped by discourse" (p. 22). Both myths need to be avoided, Haas argues, if we are to "make possible the active engagement of scholars of literacy in questions of technological use and development..." (p. 23).

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