Women's relationship with information technology is just one example of a concern with material issues that renders even more problematic the tendency of technology critics to ignore the material conditions that influence people's access to and knowledge about technology. Furthermore, it undermines the possibility of an enhanced democracy resulting from information being freely available that often seems to underlie such unfettered optimism.xxviii In searching for a figure that will capture this unusual mix of optimism, instrumentalism and a preference for ideas virtual over matters material I have found it useful to think of this conjunction in terms of the medieval alchemy. For the way in which we talk about information technology has come to occupy that same nebulous middle ground between magic and science, elaborate theology and pagan enthusiasm, reason and fanaticism, as the alchemy of old.
In his condemnation of the "slidyinge science" of alchemy, Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman nevertheless testifies to its seductive power, a power that lies in the forcefulness of its rhetoric, where rhetoric is understood as a set of linguistic practices and their accompanying conceptual categories. It is not the changes that alchemy creates in the Virtual world of chemical transmutation that are important but their effect on the minds and bodies of human beings in the real world. Chaucer's point is that adoption of this rhetoric results not merely in material impoverishment but a kind of mental indebtedness, a mortgaging of one's mental processes that is driven by more than the mere lure of profit, or an addiction to the fiction of social power that alchemy is supposed to provide.
Alchemy acts as a kind of nodal point that helps to momentarily organize a larger discursive field. As such it generates a reorientation in one's thinking that requires the practitioner to invest more and more heavily in the idea of alchemy itself, an investment that sees the alchemical user gradually adopting the assumptions and methods of the process in his or her way of thinking. Its rhetoric extends an assumption that the world is transparent and yielding to the individual's attempts to transform it in any way that he or she desires. The Yeoman's language remains littered with descriptions and figures drawn from the world of alchemy. As such, even the his claim to have renounced the power of alchemy is still locked into its rhetorical presumption of the transmutability of self and world.
The same assumptions of transparency and transmutability permeate the discourse on information technology and its educational uses. Emerging at a period when an older worldview was beginning to break down and more structured forms of scientific investigation were beginning to trouble the distinctions between known fact and probable fiction medieval alchemy can be seen as a rhetorical hybrid, a way of bringing together theology, the occult, science, classical knowledge, nascent capitalism and new conceptions of individuality.
Likewise, the rhetoric that constitutes discussions about infotech is emerging at a time when a worldview is being challenged, albeit now it is the worldview sustained by science for so many years that is in a somewhat precarious state. Like its medieval counterpart this new alchemy of infotech is replete with the promise of great riches for very little effort, a harnessing of the forces of Nature, the transcendence of physical laws, and a degree of enhanced social standing for its practitioners. In her analysis of education in a world dominated by informatics, Haraway foresees the emergence of mystery cults within groups that oppose the dominant technological paradigm.
But what is most interesting about the new alchemy is that it is emerging in the heart of discussions concerning infotech, a rhetoric that is in many ways the apotheosis of the progressive and transformative potential of science. It has become commonplace for teachers and an assortment of civic leaders to lament the decline in respect for science in our culture; however the history of science has in large measure been the attempt by the rhetoric of scientific rationality to appropriate, through "explanation," various notions of the irrational. At the same time science has put itself forward as the routine producer of miracles. We have now reached the point where the more something has the aura of the scientific about it, the more miraculous it appears. It is thus science itself that has made us credulous.
This is not to say that all science is perceived as a completely mysterious entity, or that people only understand it in this light; to argue in this way would be to recreate the instrumentalist logic that I am criticizing. In analyzing the domain of Science and Technology Studies known as Public Understanding of Science (charmingly acronymed to PUS), Brian Wynne tends to favour a social constructivist position that emphasizes the alternative constructions that can be placed upon scientific explanations for phenomena, thus stressing the fluidity of the conceptual structures needed to make sense of daily reality.
Scientists, however, are consistently unable to see how their discourse could be received any other way than the way in which it was intended. Thus they interpret rejection of science, or those who adhere to folkloric or apparently irrational explanations, as scientifically illiterate, when there are in fact many grounds for rejecting scientific explanations--those who do so may in fact be quite well versed in traditional scientific explanations (377).xxix
The importance of Wynne's social constructivist perspective is that it takes into account the role of the irrational in our attempts to come to grips with technological change and scientific explanation, the face of our private fascination with science and technology that is the belief in magic. But Wynne tends to argue that these magical, irrational arguments are appropriations of scientific discourse which is itself essentially an attempt at rationality.
What attracts me to the figure of alchemy, on the other hand, is its status as a rational, "scientific" understanding of the world that is neverthless heavily imbued with the idea of the irrational. Our fascination with the irrational, with magic, is undoubtedly always present, but it tends to flare into an alchemical rhetoric as our anxiety deepens concerning a society that appears to be coming overly-complex, technical, rational.