Boyle remains somewhat vague concerning the supposedly pernicious social effects that will result from our over-reliance on technology. But Sven Birkerts, author of The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, a series of plangent, nostalgic reflections on the decline of "real" reading and writing in the information age, is considerably more specific. He argues that we are rapidly becoming incapable of comprehending any "sense of the deep and natural connectedness of things . . . . In our lateral age, living in the bureaucracies of information, we don't venture a claim to that kind of understanding. Indeed we tend to act embarrassed around those once-freighted terms--truth, meaning, soul, destiny . . . .(74). For Birkerts, the introduction of information technology into the educational arena is one step away from resulting in the decline of Western civilization.
Kaplan maintains that nothing is served by arguing that either position, optimist or pessimist, is seeing clearly at the expense of the other, and that we must rather work against both forms of determination. This is easier to do when one realizes that the bifurcation Kaplan describes and which I have sketched here, holds only at the broadest speculative level. Certainly a dualistic conception of technological process can be a useful heuristic for focussing the issues at a general level. However, when one focuses more closely upon the domain in which technology is introduced, education in this case, and even more narrowly upon the impact of that introduction upon individual organizations within this domain, the picture becomes a lot more complicated.
Kiesler and Sproull (1987) discuss differences among technology theories and their description of potential effects on people and society according to the following criteria: 1) the degree to which they emphasize intended versus unintended effects; 2) their relative emphasis upon positive vs. negative effects; 3) the extent to which they concentrate on individuals, organizations, or society. Kiesler and Sproull consider the opposition between "technology optimists" and "technology pessimists" to be but one extreme of an intentional theory of technology that stresses technology as tool, the two extremes being defined as such by their different definitions of the intention behind the application of the tool (1). The domain of technological processes and their effects is therefore much broader and more complex than a dualistic conception indicates, due largely to the degree to which the vital role played by the unforeseen is largely ignored.
Unfortunately, far too many critics who examine the introduction of information technology into the classroom fall at the simplistic extreme of the typology that Kiesler and Sproull outline.
This instrumentalist approach to information technology is what Paul Edwards terms the impact model of technological influence: one plugs computer technology into a social situation and a given effect is produced. The impact model, he suggests, is largely responsible for the split utopian/dystopian character of the discourse surrounding the applications of science and technology. Impact theories of technology tend to be overly-reductive and to employ simplistic notions of cause and effect: computers are introduced into an environment, certain things happen, and both proponents and critics of the introduction of technology establish a causal connection. For several reasons the impact model is particularly unsuitable for interpreting the influence of technology upon education.
In the first place such theories always assume that there will be some impact, either positive or negative; in an educational context however, be it at the level of the classroom, the institution or the system as a whole, teachers are aware that sometimes teaching strategies, curricula or educational initiatives have no effect whatsoever. Furthermore, the impact model always assumes that when technology does have an impact that impact will be measurable. In education it is notoriously difficult to pinpoint the outcomes of particular educational processes. And as far as educational uses of infotech in particular are concerned, James March notes that up until now the spread of computers has been due largely to their symbolic potential rather than their actual effect on university productivity.
While these symbolic effects--the way in which computers acquire a cachet independent of what they can actually achieve, the way in which possession of computer hardware or knowledge can alter hierarchies--are a real and important area of organizational, institutional and sociocultural change they are often difficult to trace and therefore largely ignored by impact theories. Finally, impact theories tend to focus on intended effects and whether or not they occur, rather than attempting, as Kiesler and Sproull advocate, to construct a detailed model that will account for what does actually occur. For Edwards, as for March and for Kiesler and Sproull research on technological implementation must focus upon process rather than desired outcomes. "Computers rarely "cause" social change in the direct sense implied by the "impact" model, but they often create pressures and possibilities to which social systems respond. Computers affect society through an interactive process of social construction" (Edwards 284).