But the reason I have used Chaucer's tale to introduce the figure of alchemy is that there is a big difference between the alchemists and their accomplices, between the Canon and the Yeoman. I am not suggesting that compositionists in particular, and those interested in the educational uses of information technology in general, are necessarily analogous to alchemists, although a few of them undoubtedly are.
In Chaucer's tale the Canon is not even a real alchemist, he is simply a con-artist using the credulity that accompanies alchemy's status as an investigative, experimental science to extract money from others. And it is obvious who are the Canonical figures around us today. The investment, financial and otherwise, of the military in the development of information technology has been well-documented.xxx
The high profile battles between hardware platforms (AppleTM and IBMTM), chip manufacturers (AMDTM versus IntelTM) and software developers (MicrosoftTM and Everyone ElseTM) and the spectacular mergers and equally spectacular bankruptcies that have resulted have made it impossible for all but the most blinkered technogiddies to ignore the degree to which healthy commercial competition (or rapacious capitalism, if you prefer) is a driving force behind the development of information technology. And in the next section I will show the way in which the US government is bringing together the national security and commercial interests with an agenda of its own. I have stressed that an alchemical outlook is not necessarily bad, that there is a kind of magic (an irrational component) to our dealings with the world, and that the metaphor of alchemy can serve as a healthy reminder of that.
But at the moment I see very little that is healthy about the New Alchemy, and more often that irrational component of our interface with the material world is pressed into the service of a con game that tries to construct a realm of the virtual. As far as education in general is concerned, and composition in particular, teachers need to avoid being put in the position of the Yeoman, willing accomplices to a con who even when disillusioned cannot tear themselves away from their original investment. The connection between those Canonical forces and our Yeoman-like efforts in the educational arena needs to be examined in great detail; yet, it is precisely these complex forms of interrelation that are being ignored.xxxi
I am, then, in favour of a degree of incredulity concerning the claims to be made for information technology, particularly the more utopian claims being made concerning its use in the classroom. Like all such liberation theologies, the alchemical rhetoric of infotech discourse promises to liberate us most of all from ourselves and our presence in the world, precisely to remove the political, historical, social and economic constraints under which we labour. But as Haraway argues, "pleasure in the confusion of boundaries" needs to be balanced by "responsibility in their construction" (150).
In the following sections I explore the connection between certain rhetorical features of infotech, particularly the Internet, the alchemical rhetoric of some technology critics, and the governmental discourse concerning the National Information Infrastructure. I will show that the apparently neutral use of infotech for pedagogical purposes is actually embedded in the politics of the institution, and these politics in turn are part of contemporary struggles which are transforming not only the nature of education in the US, but the society for which that education is presumed to prepare its recipients.