In her (now outdated, but interestingly not really so much...) essay , "Ideology, Technology, and the Future of Writing Instruction," Nancy Kaplan points to some gaps in research around pedaogical tools such as textbooks and technology. On pgs. 13-14 Kaplan notes that no empirical studies "assess the textbook as pedagogic delivery system, let alone analyze its ideological implications" (emphasis mine), and studies of computer writing tools have tended to focus on effects of the computer or word processing program on the cognitive processes of the writer as opposed to focusing on the ideological nature of the technology itself. My project is less interested in the effects and effectiveness (or not) of electronic writing tools and more interested in the process by which we come to decide on particular versions of software. I might touch upon the effectiveness (or not) of these pedagogical tools -- especially if and when I might make a case for alternatives -- but overall I am more interested in getting at the considerations, awareness, conversations (or lack thereof) that go on around what is at stake (and for me this means what is at stakes in terms of corporate capitalism and its hold on higher education) when we make these choices.
It's like this: Wal*mart is an option for purchasing my daily needs. The price is right. The location is right. They carry what I need. They have a large selection. They have friendly people at the door waiting to give me my cart. Okay, so maybe these are the qualities I'm looking for when I choose where to shop. But, in terms of long (and short) term economic effects on me (as a citizen and taxpayer), on the workers (few of whom even have insurance), on society as a whole, I might not want to shop at Wal*mart -- even if it does have everything I'm looking for.
"When a technology is as pervasive and profoundly shaping as print has been, it is often difficult to perceive the full extent of its entitlements and exclusions. Its formations and empowerments seem simply natural and right. When a new tool emerges, however, the conflict it engendered by its emergence can illuminate previously obscured relations" (14-15). Kaplan explains that the conventions of a book have not only shaped the text itself, but also the world. She uses indexing as an example. Indexing has become the "natural" way by which we shape, organize, categorize knowledge, and she goes on to point out that there are digital equivalents that "are rewriting the world, restructuring what is knowable, by whom, and for what purposes" (15). The Michael Wesch video, "The Machine is Us/ing Us" -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE -- is an example of just that. We now organize knowledge in the form of tags, social bookmarking, etc. Ultimately the point here is simply that the tool is not just a means to an end, the tool itself shapes and structures the world. And ultimately, I want to ask, What kind of a means is it? What are the factors that shaped the technology that is then shaping us and our students? (Is it Wal*mart? Or some other lesser evil?)
In his 1985 College English article, Richard Ohmann asserts that technology cannot inherently create new ways of thinking as if "'the technology somehow came before someone's intention...'", reminding us that "'technology...is itself a social process, saturated with the power relations around it, continually reshaped according to some people's intentions' (681)" (qtd. in Kaplan 23). From this perspective, Ohmann sees capitalism at work and technology giving a hand to those with power, money, and need to maintain the(ir) status quo. He accuses the "computer revolution" of expanding the reach of the elite, "meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been the hallmarks of monopology capitalism from the onset" (Ohmann 683). Andrew Sledd's 1988 article, "Readin' not riotin': The Politics of Literacy"raises similar questions about the alleged empowering effect of technology. He argues that "the plan is to produce a few experts in the service of established power who will refine and program the technology, often for surveillance, plunder and massacre" (499). In the scope of my project I believe I'll be making some similar claims, but I'm also hoping to achieve a less grim outlook (than Ohmann and Sledd). While I would never make the rhetorical choice of "massacre" and "plunder." I do see the creepy surveillance function of many of these programs, but I don't view all electronic/digital tools as functioning in quite this way (one of the arguments in favor of an open source model as it puts firm dent in that surveillance feel). Kaplan is also more forgiving, willing to look at these technological tools as "enabling pioneering efforts, helping us to actualize for all what the few now possess" (25). Still, she cautions, "electronic texts don't simply materialize out of thin air; they must be created, housed, and displayed by means of systems--hardware and soft. Those structures and interfaces affect users' expectations and aspirations, shape our values and our sense of our own potential" (25). Limitations and exclusions we come across in terms of these programs might very well be "grounded in the political and economic arrangements within which systems are designed, developed, and disseminated" (26). System designers, programmers, technology managers have decided what is and is not possible in the scope of these programs. They have determined the structure of the electronic environment for all of us.
As an example of the relationship between a tool and its pedagogical uses, Kaplan uses the blackboard. While the blackboard has a range of potential uses, it limits the writing process in terms of favoring certain transformations and discouraging others: "for example, the blackboard is best at word-for-word subsitutions...worst at a complete reordering that would require erasing everything and starting over" (27). The amount of text the blackboard can actually hold also limits what we can and can do with it as a writing tool. Interestingly, the monolithic CMS, BlackBoard, takes its name from this centuries old pedagogical tool, creating a sense of convergence between old technology and new. Also, the e-learning version of BlackBoard, like its namesake, affects and shapes the writing that takes place there. All the elements of both BlackBoard and the blackboard shape how we use them. As Kaplan puts it, the technologies themselves "shape users' perceptions of what texts are and can become: who can write them, read them, distribute them and to whom" (28). And one of my problems with BB is that it creates a (too) limited and closed sense of each of these things. The fact that only students from the same class can read and write the documents contained therein merely replicates the same type of thinking about purpose and audience that the students are already doing when they create a print text for class.