Writing Technology:
Studies on the
Materiality of Literacy

By Christina Haas

Chapter 2
Technology Studies

For Haas, the primary goal of Technology Studies should be "to understand how material technologies both constrain and enable acts of mind, on the one hand, and how cultures produce, adapt and are affected by material technologies, on the other hand" (p. 27). Once again, she believes that our achieving such a goal is dependent on our moving beyond the omnipotency and transparency myths that pervade current discourse about computer technologies.

As long as the all-powerful myth is allowed to prevail, Haas argues, the study of technology and literacy remains susceptible to two inherent dangers: removal of the "space where both the development and critique of technology occur" and a false belief that "the theory and practice of literacy will have to be rebuilt from the ground up: Existing theories, practices, and rhetorics will be useless in the new age of this unique literacy tool, the computer" (p. 35). As a result, scholarship in computers and composition has a tendency to become a "justification for technology, rather than a serious inquiry about technology" (p. 35).

Likewise, the transparency myth -- that writing "is not changed in any substantive way by the transparent medium through which it passes" -- carries with it equal dangers that threaten to make inquiry into technology unnecessary. Haas believes that classical rhetorical theory, as well as the cognitive theories of composition posited by Flower & Hayes, tend to ignore the impact of technology on writing, thus buying into the transparency myth. For Haas, technology in classical rhetorical theory "remains implicitly transparent...,possibly because of its origins as the study of spoken discourse" (p. 42), while in cognitive theory, "[m]aterial tools and artifacts only enter into the model in the most tangential of ways" (p. 38).

While Haas believes that postmodern theories of technology have avoided the transparency myth, she sees them as often falling victim to their inherent technological determinism. As she notes, "...postmodernism's insistent move away from any kind of agency means technology must be posited as self-determining, if not all-powerful" (p. 44). She further notes that postmodern technological works -- notably, Mark Poster's (1990) The Mode of Information or George Landow's (1992) Hypertext -- tend to stage their discussions of information technology and postmodern theory in an infinite loop of reification:

Theory and technology exist in a kind of circular relationship, which theory used to somehow legitimate modern technology, which itself is seen as underscoring the aptness of contemporary theory. And what this means is that technology itself -- where Technology Studies should focus its efforts -- is seldom examined in any critical way. (p. 44)
To avoid both of these mythical traps, Haas advocates instead a theory of Technology Studies grounded in "embodied practice," which she believes will help us better understand "the symbiotic relationship of cultural tools and cognitive activity, and the material, embodied link between them" (p. 44). Such a theory of embodied practice, Haas believes, is exemplified by such works as cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave's (1988) Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in every day life , philosopher Mark Johnson's (1987) The body in the mind , and critical sociologist Paul Connerton's (1989) How societies remember . In these three scholars, Haas sees a theoretical foundation upon which to build an understanding of the "materiality of literacy: how utterly bound to the physical world of bodies is writing, one of the most awesome products of the human mind" (p. 46).
Return to Front Node / Book Table of Contents