November 26, 2010

Technology - consumption - culture

Telephone (as one example of a communications technology) is an artefact.
Artefacts can be used to construct our identity.

Telephone is ambivalent, double-sided since it
  1. isolates us [we communicate without needing to be physically present]
  2. connects us [we communicate with others where it would be impossible for us to be physically present]
Technology is no longer associated with the idea of human progress (first promoted during the Enlightenment).  Technology has not been the panacea we imagined it to be (Hiroshima, Chernobyl, global warming, pollution, etc.)

The effects that a tech has are not built into it; the effects of a tech are determined by how it is consumed and consumption needs a context.
The home as a context for consumption of tech
* The home has gone from being a unit of production to a unit of consumption (unless you are a woman, in which case it is both).
* More leisure time is spent at home.
* Home has become self-sufficient, self-contained - a process of privatization has occurred
* More emphasis on consumption, less on public sphere/community
* Again, the ambivalence of techs that bring us closer together but also isolate us from each other.
Definition of "technology"
Techs are made up of three components:
  1. Physical artefact
  2. Surrounding human activity - necessary, otherwise artefact on its own is useless
  3. Human knowledge (know-how) - applied to the design, maintenance, etc.
In other words, tech is a social phenomenon.
Technology can be:
  1. a physical artefact; or
  2. a technique, a way of doing something (with or without artefacts)
Technological Determinism
The prevailing technology determines our culture, e.g. steam to power factories during steam age determines dominant form of social organisation (cotton mills, urban slums, etc.)
This theory believes that tech develops outside of society with a life of its own, and then have an impact on society [as if society were a passive recipient].
Although tech. determinism as a theory has its flaws and is now overlooked by academics, it still has a persistent hold over us.  We still talk as if we were powerless beings at the mercy of our machines, e.g. how the Internet is affecting our children, how mobile phones change the way we communicate, etc.  Note how the technology has become the subject of the sentence and we are the objects upon which the verb is acted out.
Question - why do we insist on talking about technologies that do things to us, or affect us in a certain way?   Why do we not talk about the things we do with technologies or how we use them?  Why do we put ourselves in the position of passive receptor or 'victim' of technology?  Is it because we want to absolve ourselves of all responsibility for when things go wrong, or when negative side-effects appear?  If there is a problem with a company delivery, then we are told the computer is down or such like.  You never hear the excuse 'sorry, the computer programmer didn't foresee this problem and thus programmed the computer incompetently.'

Social Shaping of Technology
This theory concentrates on
  • Actors (engineers, managers, scientists, consumers); and
  • Networks in which the actors operate
Techs embody the culture that produced them.  Culture shapes technology.
BUT techs do have their limitations - they limit what is possible; design of a tech is limited by the nature of the materials used.

Technology as text
Like any other text, technology can be
  • encoded - physically (in its design) and symbolically (styling, marketing)
  • decoded - read by customers
Note that production and consumption of technologies must be considered together and symmetrically.
Preferred readings are encoded in technologies during their design (adverts, news stories, etc.)  A 'reader' is directed towards this particular reading but there are of course alternative readings.  Decoding is also shaped by the reader's own cultural framework and the reading thus generated may be at odds with the preferred reading envisioned by the technology's creators.  There is some degree of resistance and transformation on the part of the reader but we should not read too much into the power of this resistance (apologies for the pun!)
Aberrant or oppositional decodings
There are occasions for alternative uses for technologies, uses unimagined or unplanned by its producers (e.g. fax machine used by students to contact outsiders during Tiannamen Square incident).
New techs are cumulative
New techs have to fit into the context of existing techs.
The telephone
First uses of the telephone - broadcasting of: church services; concerts; political rallies, sporting events; news.  Telephone was thought appropriate only for businesses and household management.  Telephone companies took a long time to realise that encouraging subscribers to gossip would be good for profits. [see also Fischer, Touch Someone, 56]
Meanings of technology change
As a technology becomes more commonplace among the population, its meaning shifts.  This symbolic meaning is also shaped by culture.  Example - mobile phone in the beginning was only for elite businessmen, a marker of success.  Now it's used by everybody (school kids, plumbers, etc.)  It has lost its exclusivity.  To be marked out as an 'elite' mobile owner, you now have to be inaccessible.  

Hugh Mackay, ed. Consumption and Everyday Life.  London: Sage, 1997.

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.