December 3, 2010

Thrift, "New urban eras and old technological fears" - Part I

I am a fan of Thrift's writing, not only because of his analysis but also due to his fresh style of writing; he cuts through all the hype and myths and tells it as it really is.  A professor of geography would seem to be a strange academic to read when one is studying the history of technology and telecommunications, but Thrift has done important work on space/place/time.  This has a direct bearing on my thesis: people's perception of space and time gradually altered in the late nineteenth century, thanks to various developments in society and technology (more efficient public transport; greater awareness of time - pocket watches, factory shifts, official bureaucracy, train timetables; telephony).  The telephone, of course, was not the sole factor in changing notions of time and space, but it did play a role.  Generally, things were speeding up and everywhere around them, people saw spaces becoming smaller (i.e. distant places were not so distant any more) and the time needed to achieve something became shorter - but isn't that just as true for us today?

What follows are some extracted notes from Thrift's article.  There is no particular structure to the notes selected: they merely made a strong impression on me and they are notes that I find relevant to my thesis.

What is 'new'?
We all talk about new concepts, technologies, etc. but never really examine if these things are genuinely new, or just an evolution of something older.  'New' also means 'modernity' and the two are joined at the hip with communication technologies.
Relationship between man and machine
This ought to be re-evaluated - perhaps there shouldn't be a hierarchical relationship between the two, rather both should be on equal footing in actor networks (per Latour).
Thrift advocates abandoning Modernity as a historical concept and looking instead at historical change as slow, disjointed [i.e. not linear and teleological].
History of telecoms is evolutionary
Today's digital culture is not 'new', despite all the geek rhetoric.  It is not something that appeared out of thin air with no connection to the past or its technology or artefacts.  Today's 'new' technologies are nothing more than digitalised versions of the old ones.
  • Old and new technologies live together side by side; the old is not discarded when a new version comes along.
  • Technologies are cumulative; they build on the success of their predecessors.
"space of information"
Writing about 'new' telecoms technologies uses a new dimension, that of the "space of information".  But discussions of this information space omit the social element.
Technological determinism
Discourse on technology originating in the nineteenth century was prone to technological determinism.  We might forgive them their sins as they didn't know as much as we know today (!) but we must not be smug - we still commit the same sin today, even if we don't acknowledge it.  [It has been a hard habit to kick and one that has become so ingrained that we don't even realise it.  How many times have we read or talked about how 'the Internet is changing the way we work and study?'  Or (my personal favourite) 'Television is ruining our children's intellect?'  Such determinist thinking is rife in all domains.  Haven't we learned anything from the past?]

Part II will follow shortly.

Square brackets indicate my own thoughts, not those of Thrift.

Nigel Thrift.  "New urban eras and old technological fears: reconfiguring the goodwill of electronic things."  Urban Studies 1996 33:  1463.

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