JTE v4n1 - Questioning the Language that We Use: A Reaction to Pannabecker's Critique of the Technological Impact Metaphor

Volume 4, Number 1
Fall 1992

          Questioning the Language that We Use:A Reaction to
          Pannabecker's Critique of the Technological Impact Metaphor
          Stephen Petrina
               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
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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.
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Journal of Technology Education   Volume 4, Number 1       Fall 1992