Theorizing Technology

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Scientific knowledge and technology have contributed highly to societal development, shaping the ways tools and information pervaded the modern world. Science and Technology Studies (STS) aim to develop a further understanding of how scientific knowledge and technology fit into social relations. The way technologies are interpreted, accepted and implemented in users’ everyday lives have undoubtedly shaped future technological innovations and design. Rarely has technological innovation been interpreted by users exactly as the creator intended. Users often find their own ways to make technology or scientific information fit into their world, thus creating a need for a deeper, sociological understanding of innovation and its consequences and benefits in terms of the user. Previous research has offered an historical approach to understanding the stages of development in media and information and communication technologies. Historical approaches to these phenomena can sometimes, however, skim over the implications to societies, especially overlooking the inverse relationship. It is important to look at the technology-society relationship as a two-way street in order to best understand the way the technology and the user have shaped the domestication, or rejection, of various technological innovations, while understanding that both the technology and the user play a role. Recognizing that technologies have the ability to take on a life of their own beyond their designer’s original intention is the underpinning of the STS approach.

Pinch and Bijker argue it is no longer acceptable to merely say that “science is about the discovery of truth whilst technology is about the application of truth” (402), because of the interdependent relationship between technology and science that is ultimately shaped by sociological factors. The linear model of innovation is contested in this chapter, as it suggests technology today is a direct result of all the consciously directed decisions made in technology up to this point. In a way, it is easy to understand the linear model as a way to explain how things came to be, because of our natural instinct to develop and perfect current practices to better serve our needs and simplify tasks. However, it is difficult to divorce the user from the development of any technology, because even the linear understanding of technological progression points to the user as an agent of change through its acceptance or rejection of the technology. It isn’t enough to say that certain technologies have succeeded simply because of subsequent developments. Rather, we can understand the success and failures of specific technologies by the way technologies have been domesticated. The phenomenon that needs explanation is less the existence of a technology, but more how the existence of that technology is related to the user. 

Different social groups associate different meanings to different technologies. An artifact could mean something completely different at various times throughout its existence depending on who is using it. As society begins to accept specific technologies as part of their everyday lives and develop thoughts and feelings towards those technologies, the technologies not only affect and change the user, but the technologies themselves will take shape. Technological innovation often lends itself to the ways users make sense of the product or technology. The way users understand the technology influences the way they use it, thus shaping the meaning of the technology to the user. This shaping happens as people find ways to makes sense of the technology within their lives. This is why different models of similar technologies can exist at the same time; for example, pickup trucks, minivans and two-seater sports cars can exist simultaneously because of the individual car owners’ interpretations of the automobile’s uses and functions. As the automobile, and other forms of transportation (such as the bicycle), quite literally transport individuals from the domestic to the public world, it can also intertwine these two worlds. Transportation and communication technologies provide a blur between the domestic and public spaces, allowing the world to get that much bigger in the eyes of the individual, and also affording the designers of technologies new problems to solve through further innovation.

In order to fully understand the implications technologies have on societal groups we must also understand how the technology makes sense within the user’s world. In their analysis of the automobile, Kline and Pinch look not only at the way that automobiles have impacted society, but the way society has also shaped the development of the automobile. In an attempt to avoid the technologically deterministic attitudes often offered by previous technology histories, “in which autonomous technological forces drive social change” (764), Kline and Pinch’s approach names the user of a technology as the agent of change. As Silverstone and Haddon explain in their chapter, “one could hardly make sense of [radio] history without understanding its status and role as a broadcast medium” (59)—an example of how impossible it is to fully understand any innovation in technology without understanding how it is used, as well as the impact that innovation had on the lives of the individual who used it. Challenging McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” theory, Silverstone and Haddon’s chapter explains that we must look at both the medium and the message to develop a sociological understanding of technological innovations to understand why some developments stick and others are resisted or rejected.

It is not enough to simply understand the intended uses or functionality of the technology itself either. People form their own interpretations of technology in ways that satisfy their individual needs, which could have been totally unrecognized at the technology’s inception. The telephone, for example, was originally designed to facilitate interactions of business but was soon accepted as a means of social interaction because of people’s natural drive to make social calls. People needed a way to stay connected to others while maintaining the life they were already living. Sure, the telephone solved a problem that could have been solved by other means (traveling to visit or finding a home closer to friends and family), but the convenience of the telephone mixed with users’ natural motivation to stay connected developed the uses of the telephone and shaped the overall success of the medium. This same user-driven explanation of development mirrors the way that the automobile and bicycle technologies were shaped and developed in order to fit the needs of the user. While technologies themselves did change the user by introducing means to ends that weren’t already there, the domestication of technology is only made possible when the user accepts the technology as necessary or fulfilling. The success or domestication of a product depends little on whether it actually executes the functions of its original conception, but rather that the technology makes sense within the life the user is already living.  

Czitrom 4-6: New Communities, Social Science and Metahistory

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Advances in technology often transform the ways humans experience communication, competition, decision-making and understanding of the self. Before paper and scissors, games and competition were limited in function.

 

In one way or another, each of the communication theorists who Czitrom includes in his history of media communication studies was concerned with what Dewey called “organized intelligence.” Early North American communications scholars wanted to bring rational, scientific information to the national newspapers to create a more well-informed citizenry. Charles Horton Cooley and John Dewey proposed reforms to journalistic practices, suggesting reporters include more philosophic, purely factual, idea-driven news stories. These early social reformers believed this “referential,” rather than sentimental, sensational or “expressive,” approach to news reporting would improve both citizens’ public and private lives.

Dewey (and Ford) also wondered how new media technology turned intangibles like news and intelligence into commodities to be sold and owned. This group was looking forward to a time when newspapers would report news with “philosophic insight and scientific accuracy, the trends of current events… with the same accuracy that it was then reporting the stock market and ball games” (105). They believed that this kind of high quality, truthful, well thought-out writing would create a “unity of intelligence” that, as Czitrom points out, is rather utopic.

The early theorists believed advancements in technology begot advances in general public knowledge and also allowed for a wider dispersal of this knowledge. But Cooley and others also viewed rapid improvements in technology as potential restorers of morality and civic-mindedness in a society that was being uprooted by industrialization, urbanization and immigration (91). A renewed sense of being a part of the larger living organism of existence would contribute to a sense of unity, realized in the forms of collective goals, activities and cosmic purpose.

The early social reformers were so focused on journalism because they were writing at a time in the print age when newspapers were transitioning from cesspools of opinion, speculation, sensationalism and other “yellow” journalism practices to objective, referential media. New journalism was finding its feet in the late-1800s and early 1900s. It was only beginning to develop an industry code that valued transparency, truth and the public’s right to accurate information. The concept of objective, rational journalism was a romantic dream of social reformers. The reality of objectivity’s emergence was commercial. It was prompted by advertisers’ sensibilities and sensitivities, which led to additional changes in how advertising space was rationed and sold. Dewey and Ford may have lived to see journalism become more objective and rational in principle (though maybe not as committed to philosophic or idea-driven analysis) but it was for mostly commercial, not moral, reasons that objectivity became a standard of the industry.

Midcentury social scientists were also concerned with the organization and dissemination of intelligence to the masses but instead of proposing reforms, they studied the effects of mass media. It’s imprint to note that midcentury social scientists were working at a time when television and cinema were becoming commonplace in American life, as opposed to Cooley and Dewey’s times, in which newspapers were the dominant medium for disseminating information. As the concentration of communications theorists shifted from philosophic to empiric, Paul Lazersfeld and his contemporaries measured the actual impact of media on society, adopting the now-paradigmatic phrase “who says what to whom and with what effect?” as a formula for mass communication research. The rise of social science in the mid-twentieth century was concomitant with the rise of public opinion and political propaganda research in the postwar period. Czitrom also cites social psychology and the increasing popularity of market research as influences on modern communication research.

Theorists such as Lazarsfeld and Walter Lippmann called for a more systematic approach to studying media messages that could document idiosyncratic media effects through interviews, surveys, panels, controlled experiments, changes in media use/users over time and the uses and gratifications model. Where Cooley and co. operated in the speculative, theoretical effects of mass communication, social science pioneers sought to measure and quantify real world effects to propose ways media might more responsibly create and distribute information or messages to the public.

Despite the shift to more scientific, experiment-driven research, Czitrom notes that 1940s film scholars, though still in the business of trends, patterns and quantifiable evidence, viewed film as an organized and reliable site of a society’s collective visions, dreams, struggles and fantasies. Postwar film studies “sought to explain how movies revealed deep and persistent patterns in the collective unconscious of a society or historical era” (139). Film scholars studied the impulsive but highly fabricated realm of cinema as an outlet for representations of the human experience and culture. The concept of the self as part of and contributing to a larger cultural experience is reminiscent of Cooley or Spencer, who viewed “society as an organism.” The reformers believed thoughtful journalism (their mass medium of choice) could make human experience more cooperative, empathetic and meaningful. Film scholars felt explicating movies for patterns in the way human experience or culture is represented in the collaborative, dream-like medium of cinema could yield similarly utopic results.

Czitrom also traces the persistent concern of organizing intelligence to the radical media philosophers of the 1960s. Theorists like Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (as well as organizations like the Chicago and Frankfurt schools) were taking more radical approaches to communication theory, eschewing both moral philosophy and social science. Innis and McLuhan in particular were concerned with the nature of communication, including the long term consequences of epochal media like the alphabet, printing press and television on human consciousness and cultural experience (recall Ong’s “Writing Restructures Consciousness” or McLuhan’s “The Gutenberg Galaxy”). McLuhan’s criticism focused on literature, popular culture and the metaphysical. He examined these as sites where the effects of organized intelligence (communications / media content) had been detrimental or provoked mass, fundamental changes in the way a society studies and understands itself.  Innis’s work on how price systems fluctuate when new technologies emerge and take hold of a culture is a prime example of the interdisciplinary implications of advances in technology.

For Innis, media communication’s influence on the economy and other market forces was the focus. He argued that “the character of competition varies with the communicability of knowledge” and that “the possibilities of disturbance to the equilibrium are dependant to an important extent on the press” (153). This means that how competitive a market is (prices, demand, distribution) depends a great deal on how fast the dominant communication medium can send a message (trains condense distance, telegraphs condense time, Internet delivers instantaneously). If the price of a commodity can change only as fast as the next day’s newspaper arrives, commerce is at the mercy of the dominant communication medium’s time and space constraints. For example, as we read in James Carey’s article “Technology as Ideology,” arbitrage and the price of commodities are determined by local supply and demand. The telegraph’s domination of time affected the prices of crops because the going rate of, say corn, can be equal across the nation thanks to the simultaneous communication capability of the medium.

What’s interesting about each of the time periods Czitrom examines is that they almost all seem to believe that media could have been or should have been a highly positive social force. The social reformers were, though down on their contemporary state of communication affairs, quite excited about what journalism could be with expansive structural and philosophic reform. The social scientists of the postwar era measured media effects and found them to be a contributing force to overall societal changes and therefore worthy of conscious improvement, such as more widespread access to accurate information. Reconciling citizens’ expectations of the political and social worlds with scientific, empirical realities would, in Lazersfeld’s and Lippmann’s view, create a freer, better informed citizenry.