Rethinking The Academy:

Invisible Technology

By "invisible" I mean that a technology has become so "natural" and so comfortable that we use it all the time without ever thinking of it as a technology, or, more usually, a number of linked technologies.

For instance, many if not most of us know how to drive cars: underneath the steering wheel and behind the brakes are many, many technologies. We use the brakes to stop the car without considering how or why they work. We simply "stop the car by hitting the brakes." But all we actually do is press our foot down on a pedal. Everything else, the technology that makes power brakes work, is invisible to our culture and therefore not treated as a technology. These invisible (not to be confused with "transparent") technologies are taken for granted and are granted a dispensation from the structures of thought that we use to define and to demonize technology. Since they are no longer "technological" we can afford to think of them as customary, as the day-to-day workings of our world. In short, we can regulate most technologies to the field of the "unthought," of that which doesn't need to be theorized or understood, but simply taken for granted.

In the context of this essay, an even better example of invisible technology might be so-called surface mail: we write out our letters and papers, dump them into long white business envelopes or large manila envelopes, write out an address and affix postage. Then we throw them in "mailboxes" and trust that, having done so, our job is done and the letter or paper will reach its destination.

But that envelope has a long way to go - it will be read by scanners that will presort it for its final destination, to which it will be carried by a series of trucks, planes, trains, and cars, and finally delivered to its recipient, often after another technologically assisted sorting process.

The important thing to note, though, is that until a technology is invisible, it can be demonized, seen as the other, and made an enemy. That move is no longer possible once it has crossed over into invisibility: invisible technologies can be hated, can still be frustrating, but can no longer suffer from xenophobic attacks - they are invisible, and so they do not and cannot exist to our public sight in the way that computers, all too visible at this particular cultural moment, can and do.

We may hate the Post Office or our car but we will not see either as a enemy of civilization or the Western cultural enterprise in the way that computer technology can be pictured and feared.

Nor can it be sainted, a miracle, the opposite of that which has been demonized: as Christine Haas and Christine M. Neuwirth put it,

. . . [t]he ultimate aim . . . is to argue for a new, more complicated approach to research on computers and literacy. The initial efforts at understanding and implementing computers in writing classrooms were full of enthusiasm, as English teachers and scholars began to recognize the new ways of writing and thinking that computers seemed to invite . . . . [early] investigations were not simply guided by our enthusiasm, they were often derailed by it, as hastily and sometimes poorly designed studies yielded results that were difficult to interpret and less than conclusive. (319-321)

As more teachers, students, and administrators become proficient with new technologies like scanners, CD-ROMs, and web browsers, computer technology will become more and more a given in the educational community - if indeed it has not already. As it continues to become more acceptable, and as our students come into the university system more proficient with these new tools, computer technologies will become more and more invisible; whether or not this is a good thing will need to be seen.

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Last Modified: August 2, 1996

Copyright 1996 by Keith Dorwick