I have outlined a number of objections to instrumentalist investigations into educational uses of infotech and tried to demonstrate from whence some of them are derived. Instrumentalist approaches rely on the simplification of complex processes into one or more essentialist components: computers are essentially liberatory, imprisoning, or transparent; people are essentially passive, or essentially victimized by technology; organizations are essentially conducive to technological change, or obstructive of it, and so on.
Secondly, instrumental theories also rely on a compartmentalization of social process: despite occasionally paying lip-service to a more inclusive theory of socio-technical process, institutional change is usually portrayed as a process that is cut off from both the larger culture of which it is a part and from individual interventions. Individuals are usually understood as reacting to the technology rather than actively shaping it, functioning only as "users," while the larger culture provides a set of pre-existing givens (ethnic make-up, socio-economic position) the transformation of which within an institutional setting results, somehow, in the transformation of society.
Thirdly, instrumentalist approaches rely on simple notions of cause and effect, an input/output model.
Lastly, instrumental approaches conceive of technological change as a process that is wholly rational.
All in all then, instrumental approaches lack the kind of dynamic interrelational complexity that Haraway argues is required if we are to effectively model and actively respond to technological change. They assume clean distinctions between humans and machine and understand technology to be predominantly the application of a physical artifact to a specific situation, rather than the artifact and its interaction with the discursive and conceptual universe that surrounds it. Technological change is in fact a process of dynamic interchange between multiple artifactual/conceptual/discursive universes.
I recognize that at some level we cannot escape a certain instrumentalism in our dealings with the world. I also recognize that instrumentalism in discussions of the place of infotech in the classroom is the effect of laudable aims, the attempt to render the domain of technology less abstract, and to find pragmatic applications for processes that will dispel their aura of mystery and wrest them from the grasp of scientific and technical professionals. One might further object, however, that I have identified a merely theoretical quarrel, one that has no relevance to events in the material world.
In the next section I will demonstrate the difference that taking a critical versus a technocratic stance (to use Edge's terminology) can make by showing how an instrumentalist approach can find itself complicit with a nationalist ideology of consensus and economic exploitation. For now I note that the theoretical stance one adopts can make a big difference concerning the way in which one perceives the material basis of information technology. Selfe and Selfe note that instrumentalist rhetoric serves the valuable function of presenting an idealized conception of the kinds of interactions we want to take place in the classroom. But they also observe that it has begun to take on a life of its own, becoming a rhetoric, "that portrays computer-supported forums--among ourselves, to administrators, to students--as democratic spaces . . . within which cues of gender, race, and socioeconomic status are minimized" (483).
Selfe and Selfe thus point to a link between what I have been referring to as an instrumentalist approach and a second perspective common in writing about information technology: a tendency to treat information technologies as "virtual" phenomena, isolated from questions of access to information resources, knowledge of information procedures and the interaction of such technologies with our material existence. This willful abandonment of the material world in favour of the virtual is particularly prevalent amongst those working with technologies based upon hypertext.
George Landow, for example, in the introduction to his collection Hyper/Text/Theory demonstrates a detailed knowledge of a variety of functional and experimental hypermedia spaces. But not once in his catalogue of examples and the enthusiastic celebration of their possibilities is there any awareness that the interactions occurring in the virtual realms are at some point attached to people; or, more importantly, that there are a whole set of factors that govern how certain people have access to those technologies while others do not. Landow would probably see this objection as trivial: his perspective, like that of so many other proponents of hypermedia, is predicated upon a belief in the democratizing potential of a technology that will eventually be available to all.