Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Wild Technologies:  Computer Use and Social Possibility.” Computers and Technical Communication:  Pedagogical and Programmatic Perspectives. Ed. Selber, Stuart A. Greenwich, CT: Ablex, 1997. 75-96. Print.

  • JE begins by acknowledging an apparent contradiction in TC work:  good technical communication means rendering the technology and the communication invisible (97).  He also acknowledges that the ways that students of TC can avoid the “unethical” situations wherein technology becomes a political entity is to present information in the functionalist paradigm (efficiency and clarity are king).
  • JE notes that technologies are political because by their very nature they define the possibilities of action, hierarchies of power, and the appropriate ways of communicating (through interfacial design and tool use).
  • In this article JE defines politics as “relations of power in social systems: what users are allowed and encouraged to do and know” (98).  To make the political nature of technology visible JE claims that audience definition (who do we want to use this technology?  who do we not?) and the availability of actions using technology (what is the end use of the technology?  is it ethical?) are integral to understanding technology as political and power-ridden.
  • In this article JE draws on technology theorist Andrew Feenberg to consider three things: 1) a critique of technology as instrumental or substantive; 2) the role of Feenberg’s articulation of critical theory of technology in technical communication (this is achieved by considering the “four moments of primary instrumentalization in technological development and use” in relation to contemporary word-processing programs); and 3) four “moments of secondary instrumentalization” that might provide folks in TC and students of TC with valuable responses to the “repressive tendencies of primary instrumentalization” (98).
  • JE claims that the move not to develop software applications across languages is a political act because it highlights how (beyond the market argument about the expense of such conversions) the decision not to translate software ensures that US hegemony in the software market remains supreme (100).
  • JE claims that because “neutrality” is, by definition, without relations, then policies that adopt a neutralist perspective are actually discouraging the consideration of contexts that might allow for a more just, more socially beneficial development paradigm for software/information products (100).
  • What is the instrumental approach to technology (via Feenberg)?  Technology is merely a tool that does someone’s bidding (102).  In this sense they convey the users intent; however, they don’t necessarily embody any bias or political motive.  This conception of technology allows it to easily be translated into economistic terms because the most efficient model is usually the most desirable model.  This logic also contends that as humans we should use the neutral objects of technology ethically.
  • What is the substantive approach to technology (via Feenberg)?  Technology has power in this sense; however, it is a power that humans have no control over and who adapt to in relation to the changes that that power brings (technological determinism – unabombers perspective).
  • To oppose these two viewpoints (and any form of reductionism to the substantive-instrumental binary) JE argues that we should instead understand technologies as articulations (via Stuart Hall) or “dynamic nexus points of multiple cultural forces” that, taken together, affect the development, deployment, and circulation of any technology (104).
  • JE claims that teaching the critical theory of technology is tough because it requires a fairly complex unpacking of the transformations of capital and concomitant transformations of technology toward ever-evolving systems of efficiency.  To make this argument, JE (following Feenberg) borrows the instrumentalist tenant that humans have an ethical relationship to technology.
  • What is “secondary instrumentalization”?  Primary instrumentalization is the transformation of a natural resource into a tool/usable resource (oil to gas).  Secondary instrumentalization occurs when that primary instrumentalization is repositioned as raw material from which new, more complex technologies are developed.  (Sand –> Silicon –> computer chips).  Yet, as JE notes, capitalism has prevented the secondary instrumentalization of labor forces [2. What does this mean?  Does capital prevent a secondary instrumentalization of labor so that it can continue to capitalize on that labor?  What would a secondary instrumentalization of labor look like?] [3. I have an answer.  For Feenberg the secondary instrumentalization takes the technological tool and resocializes it so that it can more successfully and ethically operate in relation to human beings.  Feenberg argues that this has been blocked by capitalism because it isn’t profitable; however, it is ethical.]
  • What are the four moments of primary instrumentalization?  Here’s a graph that describes them and provides examples (109):

  • How has labor been instrumentalized through technology?  In decontextualization the worker is removed from the family, society, and religious life; in reduction the workers value is reduced to their economic ability as an output; in autonomization the worker is managed by a manager; however, the worker can’t provide feedback about that supervision; in positioning, the capitalist shifts the position of labor to different locations in order to respond to the “marketplace” (109).
  • Technologies are often not the subject of critique or reworking until they don’t function as designed/intended.  Heidegger described this in relation to a hammer – when it works it is “ready-to-hand” when it hits your thumb (and malfunctions) it is “present-to-hand” (119).
  • Riffing on the idea that technology isn’t open to critique until it breaks, JE claims that technical documentation provides a key area where TCers can engage with the politics and power of technology.  As he notes, “Documentation enters into the context of computer use at the moments of present-to–hand, when users are open to questioning traditional learned approaches” (119).
  • Secondary instrumentalization: this is the movement wherein technology (primary instrumentalization) is recontextualized and brought back into the social life of humans.  This happens in four moments:


  • Vocation: this reverses the level of autonomization in order to refamiliarize workers with technical skills as craft rather than as repetitive task.  In other words, workers are brought back together with the objects of their labor.  In documentation, TC can create moments of vocation by encouraging writers to understand their audiences not as objects but as subjects embedded in rich sociocultural contexts.
  • Aesthetic investment:  This is a reinvigoration of the “secondary” qualities of a piece of writing (font, layout, graphics, etc.) against the reduction toward texts as simple transmitters of linguistic information (alone).
  • Collegiality : refiguring feedback mechanisms (greatly expedited with Web 2.0).
  • The goal of JE article: to talk about responsibility in the TC classroom and TC as a scholarly/professional endeavor.  As he notes, “This critique is about responsibility, not blame.  Students must begin by recognizing that technologies are always political in development and use, even if they appear neutral at an abstract level. . . . When possible, technical communicators must work to reintroduce possibilities for secondary instrumentalizations” (124-5).

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