Monday, August 18, 2008

Reading :: Discourse, Technology and Change

Discourse, Technology and Change
By Brenton Faber

I've been meaning to read this book ever since it came out, but UT's library doesn't have it. So I finally bit the bullet and ordered it via interlibrary loan. I'm glad I did. Brent is a great guy and a sharp researcher, and in this book he brings rhetorical and discourse analysis together with Latourean and Foucauldian theory to provide a strong account of technological change. The book is really quite well researched, and every chapter provides a model of how to conduct and theorize research (with one exception, about which more in a minute).

The book revolves around a case of technological change, described in Chapter 2: a small college campus, dealing with a faltering IT department, decides to outsource IT. The energetic new (corporate) director of IT recommends a unified email system, so after a search, the university partners with "a multinational computer firm" to implement a new software system pseudonomously called "WorkWare." The system includes web-based email but also a calendar and other components. But the IT director quickly realizes that he has no real leverage as he attempts to get people to migrate to WorkWare. Meanwhile, WorkWare turns out to be a beta product with some bugs that discourage migration.

Brent examines this case in a variety of ways. He examines the different emails sent out by the IT director, "Martin," and Martin's assistants. He interviews Martin after the project ends in disaster. And he looks at other documents to contextualize the case. He does all this by drawing heavily on theories involving technological change, particularly Latour's notion of assemblages and Foucault's archaeology of knowledge.

The discourse analysis in particular is interesting, since Brent ties a close reading of the email -- examining given-new structure, clausal dynamics, sentence-clause ratios -- into a sophisticated rhetorical analysis. In doing so, Brent shows us how the sorts of things discourse analysts do -- what many rhetoricians regard simple word-counting -- can result in deep insights that complement rhetorical analysis.

Those insights lead Brent to an interesting and valuable conclusion about change studies. He argues that "with the postmodern fragmentation of narratives, traditions and foundational beliefs, we do not have a systematic way of examining, critiquing, or resisting non-narrative forms/events of change" (p.154). The loss of narratives, he says, results in the loss of the classical understanding of change (p.158). Indeed, "in technocratic networks, change is not a temporal space or a moment of opportunity within the continuity of narrative and it is not tied to notions of continuity, fortune, or nature. Instead, change has become a technology and a tool, a means for achieving human agency" (p.158). Brent concludes that studies of change must examine how agency is achieved (p.159).

So this book is full of interesting insights in terms of change as well as research methodology. My only problem with it is in Chapter 5, in which Brent attempts to draw a connection between Martin's evangelical beliefs and his attempt to get people to "convert" to the new system. Brent seems to be fascinated by the fact that Martin is a real live evangelical who prays and reads the Left Behind series, and he zeroes in on the term "convert," arguing that Martin subconsciously understands his project in the same terms as Christian evangelism. He substantiates this account by pointing to similarities that Brent perceives between the two domains. However, he does not confirm this connection through triangulation:
  • He doesn't perform a member check (floating the interpretation and getting Martin's feedback)
  • He doesn't turn up any artifactual evidence (e.g., showing a document trail in which the project and evangelism are explicitly compared)
  • He doesn't turn up evidence of this relationship in his interviews with Martin. In fact, Martin gives a crisp and perfectly sensible explanation of why he used "convert" in the emails, and that explanation does not point to evangelism; rather, it seems to be more or less how the IT industry uses the term.
Instead of triangulation, Brent relies entirely on internal consistencies that he perceives between the Christian evangelical literature and Martin's emails, not external confirmation of their tie-in. Brent even argues that Martin may not be aware of such consistencies -- such "references do not need to be intentional or even conscious" (p.121), so perhaps he didn't think it would be worthwhile to perform member checks. But that's not a good move, because without triangulation, it's easy to overdetermine the data. In other words, we are left asking: is the connection between the email project and evangelism in Martin's mind -- or Brent's?

Brent seems to sense that his analysis is vulnerable on this point, and he hedges a bit (p.123), but essentially decides that it's too good a story not to use ("much of Martin's rhetorical project at Northeastern can be better understood when articulated through this evangelical framework," p.124), so he drops the hedge later and simply asserts the connection as fact ("Martin used intertextual references to ideological discourses (evangelical Christianity)," p.125; see also p.126). I don't really understand how Brent moves from his initial hedge to his later certainty; I have a hard time believing that Martin thinks of evangelism every time he buys converted rice, gets his catalytic converter serviced, converts Fahrenheit to Centigrade, buys an AC-to-DC converter, or sees a conversion kit for a Honda, any more than Brent thinks of Foucault whenever his power goes out.

In any case, this is a weak spot in an otherwise strong book. Brent is producing some of the best work to come out of professional communication. If you get a chance, check it out.

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