7(3), August 1990, pages 129-137

Book Review

Society and Technological Change
by Rudi Volti (New York: St. Martin 's Press, 1988, 279 pp., $16.95, ISBN 0-312-00311-0).

Reviewed by Ellen Barton

In recent years, the field of composition has broadened its interests from a traditional concern with the teaching of writing to a wide ranging concern with the social and political issues connected to the analysis of discourse. In a parallel fashion, faculty working in the area of computers and writing have broadened their research and teaching to encompass the study of the discourse of technology, bringing a humanistic perspective to bear on an examination of the ways in which technology interacts with society and culture. This interest in the discourse of technology reflects not only the field of composition but also the growing interest on the part of universities nationwide in integrating humanistic perspectives on technology into undergraduate curricula ("Computer Notes," 1990). Until recently, however, faculty teaching such humanistically based courses on technology have not had many book-length sources to supplement field-specific articles. One recent publication, Rudi Volti's (1988) Society and Technological Change, however, claims to be written for exactly these kinds of courses; the author specifically states that the volume is "intended to be used in the growing number of courses on technology and society, as well as other courses that touch upon technology's role in human affairs" (p. vii). Volti's initial premise is one that resonates positively to those familiar with composition research in the past decade; technology, Volti claims, not only affects the way we live, but is "itself a product of social, economic, political, and cultural patterns . . . [revealing] the nature of that society" (p. vii). Some of the conventional, even conservative, ways in which Volti develops this premise, though, may not reflect the potential contributions of contemporary research perspectives as they can be applied to the discourse of technology.

Society and Technological Change consists of six parts with a total of 16 chapters. Part One presents an overview of Volti's perspective on the relationship between technology and society, establishing basic definitions and previewing his themes and arguments. Part Two discusses the origin, development, and diffusion of technologies. Part Three examines the interaction between technology and the nature of work, considering both the historical and the contemporary workplace. Parts Four and Five describe the development of two particular technologies: communications and the military. Part Six returns to the larger theme of the relationship between technology and society, focusing on the issue of control of technology. Of particular relevance to the analysis of the discourse of technology are Parts One, Three, and Six.

In Part One, Volti argues that technology must be considered within its larger social context. In Chapter One, he develops a social definition of technology as the human ability to develop "system[s] based on the application of knowledge, manifested in physical objects and organizational forms, for the attainment of specific goals" (p. 6) and claims that the development of technology is "an inherently dynamic and cumulative process . . . one of continuous improvement in the internal workings of a particular technology" (pp. 7-8). In this chapter, Volti characterizes a technologically progressive society as "dynamic and essentially optimistic" (p. 11), arguing that this interaction between technology and society arises from a rational world view, which assumes generally that the world can be controlled and assumes specifically that certain problems have technological solutions. In Chapter Two, Volti relates this conception of technology to social issues, first establishing a causative connection between technology and economic growth, and then discussing some of the consequences of that connection: "There is no escaping the fact that technological changes that benefit society as a whole may harm individual members of that society" (p. 19). Volti provides numerous examples of the negative consequences of technology on threatened individuals and groups, including the Luddite movement in Industrial England and the demise of railroad towns in America. In this chapter, Volti also claims that there is a persistent myth of the "technological fix," which assumes that society can "use the power of technology in order to solve problems that are nontechnical in nature" (p. 23). Volti's argument implies that technology itself and not society ought to determine the nature and scope of technology's contribution to nontechnological social problems, two of which Volti identifies as "poverty and crime" (p. 22).

In Part Three, Volti explores the relationship of technology and work. In Chapter Six, he describes the increase in work from preindustrial to industrial societies, pointing out that there is a commonplace assumption that technology produces time. In fact, however, "A technologically dynamic economy generates labor-saving devices, but at the same time it produces a steady stream of new goods that are eagerly sought after. This means that labor-saving technologies are generally used to increase income, not to reduce the hours of work" (p. 89). In Chapter Seven, Volti discusses the effects of industrialization, arguing that the development of technology typically has a complex effect on the workplace. While technology often eliminates jobs and even fields, as in manufacturing industries, it also creates jobs and fields, as in service industries. In Chapter Eight, Volti explores the ways in which the development of technology affects the nature of work and the person of the worker, concentrating upon the Industrial Revolution's transformation of the worker from an independent contractor to a wage-earner subject to increasingly impersonal management and supervision based on the model of factory operations. Volti argues, however, that the development of the Industrial Age factory was based not only on the development of technology but also on the perceived need for control over large numbers of workers. Machines, Volti points out, allow this degree of control and supervision.

Machine-based technologies can ensure that work is steadily performed and that it is performed in accordance with the requirements of the management. . . . Machines provided a model of reliable performance as well as a way of coaxing it out of their workers. (p. 120)

The nature of work in the Computer Age, Volti speculates, may change again, from a machine-based model to a service-based model. Here, too, however, management's perceived need for supervision and control may dictate the ways in, which work is performed and supervised electronically. Volti quotes one manager's support for electronic supervision in the computer workplace: "I'm a great one for believing that people really will do what's inspected and not what's expected" (p. 126). Volti closes this chapter with a warning not to expect the development of computer technology to drastically increase the number of high-tech jobs in contemporary America. Job openings in the 1980s, he points out, were in areas requiring only minimal skills; the bulk of positions were as "retail sales clerks, cashiers, secretaries, waiters and waitresses, cooks, stockhandlers, janitors, bookkeepers, miscellaneous clerical workers, and nursing aides and orderlies" (p.129). The computer and service age will need highly skilled workers, but relatively few of them.

In Part Six, Volti returns to the larger themes characterizing the relationship between technology and society. He discusses the question of technological determinism, defining this attitude as the fear that an independent force of technology "has taken on a life of its own, with technology advancing according to its own inner dynamic, and unrestrained by social arrangements, culture, and thought" (p. 224). Although Volti considers this position extreme, he acknowledges that the development of technology is largely left to a few experts,creatingthepotentialforthepoliticaldevelopmentoftechnology. Certain technologies flourish because their experts have political and economic power, while other technologies languish because their experts may not have the necessary political and economic power. The chief danger Volti sees in this relationship is a threat to technological progress because engineers, the practitioners of technology, do not typically allocate resources for development. Instead, these resources are allocated by business and government, which are often responsive to other social and political concerns--many nontechnical in nature.

Volti concludes with a positive interpretation of the relationship between technology and social organizations and individuals. Technology's close relationship with industry and government, he claims, is necessary for technology to continue its crucial role in the connection between "our prosperity. . . and our ability to advance technologically" (p. 252). Technology's relationship with individuals, Volti claims, is

a bargain whereby we consume the fruits of technological advance in return for delegating to others the power to determine the technologies that shape the basic contour of our lives--everything from what we eat, to how we work, to the way we are entertained. Most people seem to believe that this is a fair bargain. (p. 259)

I have laid out Volti's perspective in detail because it represents what I would call the dominant discourse of technology. This dominant discourse assumes that the development of technology is inherently progressive and good. This discourse relates technology to a world view that privileges rationality with its assumption that problems have one optimal solution (cf. Bizzell, 1982; Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, & Tarule, 1986, on the frequent assumption of rationality in dominant discourses). Perhaps more disturbing, this dominant discourse of technology largely accepts existing social roles and relationships, even suggesting that problems without narrowly technological causes and solutions be considered outside the responsibility of technology and its practitioners.

Consider one of Volti's (1988) examples of the rational world view in operation, a story which he attributes to Pirsig's (1974) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:

[E]ven a clearly technological task like determining why a motorcycle won't start is addressed through the use of rational procedures that have much in common with scientific inquiry. As a first step, a mechanic might formulate the hypothesis that the battery is dead; he or she will then try to honk the horn to see if the battery is working. If the horn honks, the mechanic concludes that the problem doesn't lie with the battery, and proceeds to other parts of the electrical system. Should tests performed on these components show them to be in good shape, the mechanic may hypothesize that the problem lies with the fuel system, and conduct tests (experiments) to check them out. And so it goes, with the formulation of a series of hypotheses and the conducting of experiments to test them. In the end the problem is isolated and perhaps fixed. (p. 61)

The problem with this parable of rationality is that much experiential and theoretical evidence challenges the assumption of rationality as the driving force behind our thinking and reasoning. Most of us who take a car to a mechanic describe a problem and hear the mechanic say, "Oh, yeah, that's those aluminum wheels (or that electronic ignition, or that fuel-injection computer, or those faulty spark plugs, or whatever); we see that a lot on Chryslers (or Fords, or Toyotas, or Nissans)." Other times mechanics have a different line: "Sounds like a problem with the turbocharger (or the differential joint, or the struts, or the air filter, or whatever).n In these prototypical visits to car service stations, the combination of previous experience and expert intuitions, not some predetermined set of hypotheses, provides the initial approach to solving problems. The use of these experiential anecdotes moreover, receives strong support from recent research in fields as diverse as linguistics (Geis, 1984; Levinson, 1985), cognitive psychology (Graesser & Clark, 1985; Johnson-Laird, 1983; Rogoff & Lave, 1984 ), and artificial intelligence (Boden, 1987; Dreyfus, 1979), which suggests that intuition and not rationality is the key to discovering how we actually think and reason.

This dominant discourse of technology accepts a passive role for individuals, who are regarded as benefiting from technology, except for those unfortunate few who are displaced, deskilled, or depersonalized. Even more disturbingly, though, this dominant discourse of technology tacitly accepts an unequal relationship among groups in society. Volti notes in passing that "When a labor market is already segmented along gender or ethnic lines, new technologies can reflect or even reinforce existing divisions" (p. 127). One paragraph, however, is the extent of his discussion about the relationship of technology and less privileged groups, including women, blacks, and other economic minorities. Volti does not discuss the problem of access to technology at all, nor does he relate the development of technology to any part of the educational framework in contemporary America, where privileged students are prepared for high-level careers in technology, and less privileged students are not prepared for the same participation in and access to technology. Although Volti claims not to be a technological determinist, his articulation of the dominant discourse seems to allow technology itself to decide when and how it will influence social problems. Volti actively resists any attempts to interfere with the separation that technology seems to prefer.

For composition teachers and researchers who have spent recent years reading Bizzell (1982, 1986), Berlin (1987, 1989), and others on the social construction of knowledge and discourse, Volti's acceptance and articulation of the dominant discourse of technology is disturbing. This reaction may be especially true for teachers and researchers in the field of computers and writing who have read critiques of integrating technology into contemporary society by Ohmann (1985), Bowers (1988), and Zuboff (1988) (cf. Ray & Barton, in press, for a review of this literature). Volti's acceptance of the dominant discourse of technology contradicts both the theoretical and practical expectations of many in the humanities. First, we expect that the theoretical exploration and analysis of a discourse should allow many new relations to emerge rather than merely rearticulate a dominant perspective. Second, perhaps falling under the assumption of the "technological fix," we expect new and practical benefits to arise from technological development in our field . Specifically, many of us working in the humanities expect the use of technology to provide new ways of addressing some of the alarming growth in the economic and political distinctions between the privileged and less-privileged groups in American society by providing access to new ways of developing the voice and discourse of these less-privileged groups (Cooper & Selfe, in press; Eldred, 1989; Selfe, 1990).

In spite of my criticisms of Volti's volume, though, I believe this book has the potential to play an interesting role in a humanistically based course on technology precisely because of its articulation of the dominant discourse of technology. First of all, the articulation of this discourse requires the presentation of information on technology, information that students in humanities curricula may not know, remember, or otherwise take into account in formulating their perspectives on technology. This book is full of interesting facts and examples, especially when Volti provides specific information about the effects of technologies on different organizations and groups. The book also makes some provocative arguments about the nature and development of technology. For example, Volti argues that the relationship between science and technology is more complex than the assumption that technology is merely applied science. He also claims that the role of government funding in the development of technology allows politically powerful groups to push the development of certain technologies. More importantly, however, Volti's articulation of the dominant discourse of technology presents students and instructors with material for analysis and response: Before a dominant discourse can be challenged or resisted, it must first be articulated and understood. Much of Volti's information and many of his ideas could form the basis for examining the nature of dominant discourse and the ways it can effectively be critiqued.

Most unfortunately, Society and Technological Change is a book of one perspective, one discourse, one voice. Although there are many discourses on the relationship between society and technology, including feminist, Marxist, post-structuralist, and other studies, Volti chooses not to integrate them into his own discourse. Although a presentation of a dominant discourse of technology has value, faculty, and students struggling to develop a humanistic perspective on the implication of technology might benefit more from a diversity of voices than from one dominant voice.

Ellen Barton teaches linguistics at Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan.


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