It is important to distinguish between different kinds of instrumentalism. The first kind of instrumentalism is that typified by Chester, Lanham, Boyle and Birkerts above. It conceives of technological change in the broad terms of an instrumental cause and a social effect. Thus for Boyle the introduction of technology into the classroom increases the intellectual impoverishment of society, for Birkerts their introduction results in the loss of a sense of self and a spiritual impoverishment of Western civilization; while for Lanham on the other hand the advent of information technology results in a democratization of education and society.
At bottom, all of these authors conceive of the people who are affected by technological change, as essentially passive victims who are moulded and re-shaped by those wielding the technology or by the technology itself. Such social instrumentalism inevitably fails to see the numerous interesting possibilities for resistance that occur as a fundamental part of social change: certainly some aspects of technological change will change our lives for the worse and force us to submit to new forms of state control, for example; but inertia built into the structures of the corporate state also mean that every process of technological change also raises new possibilities for evading and subverting many other forms of control.xviii
A second major problem with social instrumentalism is that just as the failure to concentrate on processes of technological change at the individual level blinds such theories to the possibilities of resistance, so the reluctance to engage with the complexities of technological change in organizations and institutions prevents such theories from adequately taking into account the real sources of inequity that can arise from such technological change. Lanham, for example, paints a rosy picture of the impact of infotech on education:
It promises not the spindled mutilation that the sixties feared but an incredible personalization of learning, a radical democratization of "textbooks" that allows every student to walk an individual path. Stylistic levels can be reader-selectable rather than permanently dumbed down. All kinds of reading assistance--spoken accompaniments, language glossing embedded hypertextually, dynamically interactive bilingual texts--can enfranchise non-native-speaking minorities within the world of letters (10).
This is certainly an attractive vision. But it is evident throughout Lanham's work that he equates infotech's ability to enhance the democratic potential of education with its ability to broaden and enhance the means of expression. However, such technological change may not always bring with it the enhanced or expanded access to the technology necessary to employ these new means of expression. Lanham appears to believe that such technology will inevitably become available to everyone. This is a dubious assumption, even in the US where information technology is substantially cheaper than it is in other countries. But even were it true, possession of the necessary technology does not automatically mean that one is capable of employing it in a fashion that exploits its democratizing potential. xix