Journal of Technology Education

Journal of Technology Education

Current Editor: Chris Merrill,
Previous Editors: Mark Sanders 1989-1997; James LaPorte: 1997-2010

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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
                         rationales that may contradict our mission or inhibit
                         meaningful dialogue.
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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