The Theory of Transformative Technology

The following synopsis of the theory of transformative technology (Michael Heim's name for this theory) is taken from my article "Oral Knowledge, Typographic Knowledge, Electronic Knowledge: Reflections on the History of Ownership."

Marshall McLuhan first called attention to the transforming powers of media in his insightful and infuriating books, particularly his masterpiece Understanding Media (1964). In that book, he claims that we cannot learn anything of importance about a medium by looking only at its content:

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. For the "content" of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind.
(Understanding Media 18)

To avoid that numbness, we must refocus our attention on the ways in which the technological characteristics of the medium itself reshape our lives not just by giving us new tools to play with but by reshaping our consciousness on a fundamental and subliminal level.

In Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter Ong builds on McLuhan's general philosophy, plus anthropological research on the development of oral societies, in order to explain the dramatic changes in society that came about with the advent of literacy. Ong argues that the shift from oral to literate culture in about the fifth century B.C. did more than change patterns of art. politics and commerce. It enabled a profound shift in human conscious, bringing about the linear, abstract forms of Western logic that we take for granted today but which were simply unthinkable without literacy as a means of preserving complicated original thought.

What makes transformation theory a particularly powerful tool for speculating on the impact of computers is that the information revolution intuitively feels like a third stage in this process, a revolution as great as the shift from orality to literacy. Admittedly, Heim warns severely against extending the transformation theory developed to deal with the first revolution and facilely using it to predict the outcome of the second:

Because it is anchored in the difference between orality and literacy, the transformation theory is unsuited for an investigation of word processing. Constant reference to the emergence of literacy distorts the phenomenon by reducing the emergence of word processing to a new kind of literacy. The use of the metaphor from print culture is understandable when we are confronted by the profound novelty of digital writing. But if we lose sight of the weakness of the metaphor, we shall pass right by the phenomenon in our anxiety to treat it easily in a familiar, conventionally manageable way.
(Electric Language 113)

Heim's warning is well taken; the second shift is neither simply an extension, nor simply a reversal (despite what I am about to argue) of the first. Yet if historical study is to be justified on any grounds other than idle curiosity, it surely must be on the grounds that we can learn something about the present and future by extrapolating from the past. The important caveat is that we must not depend only on a metaphor. To the extent that we see echoes of the first communications revolution in the second, we must be careful to use the metaphor of the first transformation only as a means of generating suggestive possibilities.

[End of self-quotation]

This theory has been denounced as "technological determinism," but this label is only apt for extreme forms of the theory. Nancy Kaplan reminds us of how we shape technology as technology shapes us:

All social-technological formations like print or computers provide what Kenneth Burke has called "terministic screens" and what others call an ideology: a definition of what exists; an account of what things are good, beautiful, and worthy of our attention; and a set of implications about what scope of human action is possible. In short, all technologies of writing offer ontologies, aesthetics, and politics: all three constitute sites for contesting meanings and control.

Transformation theory helps us speculate on the future by interrogating the past. In this way it tell us much about the rhetoric of hypertext and thereby help us understand how our role as teachers may unfold.

A link out to my entire "Ownership of Knowledge" article
A link to Nancy Kaplan's "E-literacies," "Better Questions" node)

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