Questioning the Language that We Use:A Reaction to
Pannabecker's Critique of the Technological Impact Metaphor
In Volume 3, #1 of the Journal of Technology Education
Pannabecker (1991) identified shortcomings in the language
that has shaped perspectives within technology education,
and raised an issue for dialogue. This essay is intended to
extend Pannabecker's critique to include the metaphors of
autonomous and advancing technology, and their supporting
ideology of technological progress. Reasons for extended
critique and a summary of contemporary debates on these
issues in the history of technology are provided.
According to Pannabecker, the metaphor of
"technological impacts," often used by technology educators
to describe the relationship between technology and society,
has shaped a "simplistic and inflexible" view of that
relationship (p. 43). This metaphor has reinforced a
mechanistic and deterministic view of technology; indeed, a
view suggesting that technology determines social and
cultural direction. Society and individuals merely roll
with, and adapt to technological change.
Whether those embracing the "impact" metaphor would
logically follow it toward this conclusion is not the issue.
However, it is important that we become conscious of the
assumptions that may be hidden within our language, and of
the constraints that they place on our imagination and
discourse, questions we ask, or problems that command our
efforts. Dr. Pannabecker should be commended for his
critique of the language often used in technology education
and his suggestion that the impact metaphor be abandoned for
its lack of complexity.
I would add that this metaphor and others be abandoned
for additional reasons. While self-criticism of the way we
talk about technology is certainly within the range of our
obligations as educators, might it also be a key ingredient
for engaging in dialogue with others who have similar
interests? All things considered, our perspectives on
technology, framed by metaphors that we use, can appear
anachronistic and ahistorical. Assumptions within our
language may in fact be contradictory to messages we wish to
convey to students and may limit possibilities for
meaningful dialogue with historians, philosophers, and
others who are involved in the study of technology.
Closely related to, but excluded in Pannabecker's
critique, are the issues of autonomous and advancing
technology, technological progress, and their sometimes
uncritical acceptance and use in technology education.
Autonomous technology suggests that technology is
self-determining and has a life of its own. This notion was
prevalent in Ellul's (1962) critique of Western cultural
values. Ellul argued that technology has become autonomous
in that it is governed by itself rather than by any
definition of cultural values. Ellul proposed a
philosophical theory to explain his notions of technological
autonomy and determinism. In this theory, the relationship
of technology to culture is, as Pannabecker explained,
understood in terms of a one-way causal impact. Technology,
self-governing, is advancing forward. If autonomous, then
the question of shaping the form, substance, and direction
of technology through democratic participation is
irrelevant. If advancing, one can merely hope to get out of
its way or catch up with it. These notions tend to augment
political passivity, as there is no point in attempting to
direct an entity with a forward autonomous momentum.
Technology is therefore considered to be beyond human
control. Certainly in technology education, the
consequences of this logic are considerable when one accepts
the development of a technologically astute citizenry with
democratic initiative as fundamental to the cause and
Notions that technology autonomously advances and, in
effect, impacts either positively or negatively on society
are reflections of an ideology in which new technology is
assumed to be socially progressive. Within frames of
reference constituted through the ideology of technological
progress, technology is "modern, Western, and science-based,
[and] related to culture as an independent driving force
demanding adaptive change from all other cultural
institutions" (Staudenmaier, 1985, p. 144). Science and
technology autonomously progress in a forward motion and,
given these forces, people and cultures are expected to
conform. Those who choose to question this progress are
questioned themselves and labelled modern Luddites.
Endorsement of this ideology is an endorsement for social
inaction toward technological issues, as expertise is viewed
as a requisite for action. Norms that are technical, such
as efficiency and speed, are generally the only measures of
technological progress. Hence, cross-cultural comparisons
are at-base, generalizations related to superiority or
inferiority. From a cultural relativist perspective, one
can see how this ideology inspires something less than an
affirmation of unique cultural values (Adas, 1989; Lasch,
1989). Human dignity, integrity and the value of life are
blurred by the imperatives of technological progress
(Glendinning, 1990; Mumford, 1964; Winner, 1986). As
positioned in this ideology, the appeal of the impact and
autonomously, advancing technology metaphors is also
apparent (Marx, 1987; Staudenmaier, 1985, 1989).
These metaphors and their supporting ideology are
salient in literature and popular rationales supporting
technology education (e.g., Waetjen, 1987; Wolf, 1990;
authors in: Dyrenfurth & Kozak, 1991; Wright 1991). These
notions are deep rooted and have been socially constructed;
consequently, we all share in their origins and use. The
history of industrial education is characterized by a
continuum of arguments for the educational legitimacy of
both the content and the process of technology. These
arguments have been understandably emotional and often
predicated on their sensational appeal to the public and
body politic. Also, considering the remarkable persistence
of technological progress, transcending this ideology has
been, and remains a struggle. This helps to explain the
irony in the fact that as a profession, we have historically
succumbed to this persistence while proclaiming that
critical insight into personal and social interaction with
technology is imperative in a democratic society.
Similarly, credulity must also be seen as part of the
explanation for the metaphors that we've employed. As Frey
(1990) wrote, few of us have neither been prepared nor
prepared ourselves for sufficiently addressing the nature of
technology, and as a result, we risk being advocates of a
"superficial curriculum" (p. 69). Our cause has remained
deserving and our arguments wanting.
It seems then, that our educational mission has
historical consistency and a form of contemporary consensus.
However, our rationales have been inconsistent with our
mission and have often succumbed to the ideology of
progress. The logic of a rationale that is driven by
economic rhetoric (e.g., international competitiveness
demands technology education) and academic rhetoric (e.g.,
technology is a discipline) is problematic. The
competitiveness rationale clouds a unique identity for
technology education as vocational educators expand their
curricula to reflect workforce and workplace needs. The
notion of international competitiveness can also be
interpreted as a popular metaphor for technological progress
embraced during the past decade (Hill, 1989). At the same
time, the logic of drawing on the idiom of the academic
disciplines is flawed. Characteristically, disciplines are
bound to methods of inquiry through which knowledge is
generated, tested, and ultimately organized (Luetkemeyer,
1968; Thompson, 1978). Historians of technology, in their
interpretations of human interaction with technology, have
yet to discern anything that is indicative of "the
technological method"! Likewise, engineering is not
dependent on a single intersubjective method, and employs
methods ranging from rule-of-thumb to scientific. "The
technological method" defined by educators (e.g., Barnes,
1989, 1990; Todd, 1990; Savage & Sterry, 1990) is bereft of
any historical or even contemporary basis. If it is a new
phenomenon, it has avoided empirical testing. Having
benefited from rhetoric, "the technological method" has
organizational momentum and now seems somehow fit for
assimilation into the minds of unknowing students. "The
technological method" may be related to the epistemological
problem of "how we, as a community of educators come to
understand technology" as much as any language problem.
Nonetheless, the question of "what language shall we use to
talk about technology?" is, as Pannabecker suggested,
crucial. This question has been central to historians of
technology who, like technology educators, have struggled
with traditions and their role in the academic community.
To be sure, critical commentary directed toward
technology was present in the first half of the century
(e.g. Mumford, 1934), but only lately has a body of
scholarship been developed with a critical stance on this
issue. Within the Society for the History of Technology
(SHOT), there has been a commitment to rescue the history of
technology from its mythic "heroic inventor", "success
story", and "boundless progress" tradition. Mostly through
the influences of SHOT, historians have worked to critically
interpret technology in its social and cultural context.
This commitment has generated historiographic and
philosophical debate along with consensus on some issues
(Cutcliffe & Post, 1989).
The "technological impacts", and "advancing
technology-lagging society" metaphors, ultimately questions
of causation in history, reflect the historical explanations
of Ogburn (1923) and Burlingame (1938). Most historians of
technology would conclude that it's "futile to attempt to
trace social changes to technological innovations" (Daniels,
1970, p. 8). Not surprisingly, these popular conceptions of
an earlier era are still adopted by general American
historians. Historians of technology would cite a lack of
any historical evidence to support notions of either
autonomous technology or the related theory of technological
determinism. The historical record does NOT suggest that
technology "feeds on itself", advances autonomously, or has
a life of its own. As for determinism, these historians
have argued that "technology, in a word, is used to help
people do better what they were already doing for other
reasons, and what they are doing for other reasons
determines the nature of their future technology" (Daniels,
1970, p. 8). Kranzberg (1986) suggested that the case is
not so closed, and the theory of technological determinism
would challenge historians for some time. In general, most
have no problem with the idea of "reciprocal causation. . .
technology and society mutually influence each other"
(Layton, 1970, p. 29). Technologies have historically been
reflections and manifestations of cultural values. They
have been, albeit often faulty and always through the
involvement of enfranchised and disenfranchised groups,
designed, engineered, and managed by people.
The ideology of technological progress has recently
received considerable attention in both the history and
philosophy of technology. Critiques have focused on
material progress as well as those technologies that help us
to achieve less tangibles such as security, freedom,
control, longevity, and justice (Adas, 1989; Goldman, 1989;
Glendinning, 1990; Hill, 1989; Mumford, 1964; Winner, 1986).
Because of the various facets to technological progress,
comments on any genuine concensus would be suspect.
Nonetheless, Staudenmaier (1985, 1989, 1990) and Smith &
Reber (1989) can be read as synoptic summarizations on
contextual interpretations in the history of technology.
Staudenmaier (1989) maintained that
historians of technology labor to situate each artifact
within the limited, historically specific, value domains
from which they emerged and in which they operate. They
speak of "technologies," and not "Technology," of cultural
options rather than inevitable progress. This approach
attempts what history traditionally holds dear, the
liberation of human beings by demythologizing false
absolutes and by paying attention to the human context of
change. . . . Responsible technology talk fosters a language
of engagement where "Technology" is understood to be a
variety of particular technologies, each carrying its own
embedded values, each related to its own unique cultural
circumstance. It is a language that reweaves the human
fabric, reintegrating method and context, and inviting us
all, technical practitioners and ordinary citizens alike, to
engage in the turbulent and marvelous human endeavor of our
times (pp. 285, 287).
Language that reflects the ideology of technological
progress, with its suggestion of inevitability, obscures
underlying human motives and an assessment of who is served
and who is left out. According to Staudenmaier, only by
adopting a critical stance toward technology and its
concomitant talk of progress can we begin to act responsibly
and democratize the technological design and decision making
One can get a sense of the alternatives to the language
of progress and determinism by attending to the history of
technology (e.g., Smith & Reber, 1989; Staudenmaier, 1985,
1989, 1990). It's evident that we've a lot to learn from
historians about the "what" and "why" of technology. So do
historians have much to learn from technology educators
about the troublesome, yet rewarding human experiences of
teaching and learning how to use and create technology. The
use of the history of technology in technology education,
and specifically teacher education programs, should be
reconsidered. This issue, raised periodically in the
profession, remains unresolved (DeLuca, 1976; Frey, 1990;
Miller, 1984). If the history of technology weren't so rich
in scholarship and relevance, one might be inclined to agree
with Bensen (1984) who exclaimed that "if we. . . teach only
the historical aspects of our technology, we are doomed to
oblivion" (p. 4). The reasons for our course to oblivion
are complex and the road has been at least partially paved
with good intentions. It's as much a factor of "how" as it
is of "what we teach" that will conjure up similar specters.
By locating ourselves within a larger community that
includes historians, philosophers, and sociologists, we can
stay attuned to contemporary discourse on technology. It
might be wise to reflect on Pannabecker's critique of
technological impacts and the validity of language or
rationales that may contradict our mission or inhibit
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Stephen Petrina is a doctoral student in the Department of
Industrial, Technological and Occupational Education,
University of Maryland, College Park, MD.
Permission is given to copy any
article or graphic provided credit is given and
the copies are not intended for sale.
Journal of Technology Education Volume 4, Number 1 Fall 1992