Technological Domestication

When the iPad was first introduced, I read every review of it I could find, but one of them has stuck with me more than the others. The reviewer likened the iPad to a new puppy, something that filled your life with love and joy, but also annoyed you as it chewed up your favorite slippers, shredded your pillow, and peed all over your new carpet. The reviewer was anxious for the iPad to transition into that good old dog who sat by your side, provided unwavering companionship, and behaved the way you wanted it to.

What I loved most about that review was how it perfectly captured one of my favorite concepts from media and technology studies: domestication. Metaphorically speaking, new technologies are similar to untrained puppies; they create chaos and upheaval in their owners’ lives when first introduced, but their owners typically respond by domesticating them: reshaping their behaviors, and sometimes even their physical attributes (e.g. neutering), so that they better fit the existing social order. A house with a dog is never the same as a house without one, but a well-domesticated dog bends as much to its owners as its owners bend to it.

Domestication theory, like it sounds, posits that technological adoption is an active process where designers, producers, marketers, and consumers struggle to work out what a new device or system actually is, and what it is good for. As opposed to the more traditional view where technologies enter the consumer space and are assumed to have one-way “impacts” on culture, domestication researchers stress the ways in which people wrestle with and often reshape technologies as they fit them into their everyday lives.

For example, consider the introduction of a television into a household. I’m just old enough that I remember the first time my parents brought home a large (maybe 15″) color television. Before that, we had a very small black-and-white television that we sometimes watched, but this new color set was the first real TV we ever had. Although the artifact itself carried with it some suggestions for how it should be used, it did not completely determine how we fit it into our lives. It had the look of a piece of furniture, so it could have fit well into our main living area, but my parents were the sort that wanted to relegate the TV to a separate, designated room. This placement sent the message to us boys that watching TV was something out of the ordinary, something to be done occasionally and purposefully.

My parents also carefully regulated what we watched on that television, and when we watched it. My brother and I desperately loved The Six Million Dollar Man, but we also quickly learned that we had to remain on our best behavior to watch it, as it aired just after our normal bed time. Sadly, we missed many of the episodes due to our inability to resist fighting with one another, so I never did find out what happend when Steve Austin met the Sasquatch. Watching TV on a sunny day was also verboten; my mother was particular in her desire that we go outside and play whenever we had the chance to do so. Perhaps she just wanted to watch her own shows in peace….

Like all good parents, mine were also concerned about regulating the way in which we watched television: sitting too close to the set would reap condemnations and warnings that we’d soon go blind, which I’m guessing was a popular urban myth at the time. Sitting upside down on the couch, which seemed perfectly fun to us, was also never tolerated. If we were going to watch TV, we need to watch it, not play around. All of this communicated that watching TV was serious business, and not something you did aimlessly while you played with other things.

My point is that while the physical artifact and the programming streamed through it suggested or even encouraged particular patterns of use, they did not entirely determine how that device was incorporated into my family’s home. My parents domesticated that television: our house was never the same after it was introduced, but the physical placement of the device, and the way in which our use of it was regulated, reshaped our understanding of what it was, and what it was good for.

So where was the TV in your childhood house, and what rules did your parents establish (or not establish) regarding its use? How are you actively domesticating new technologies that are entering your life today? Are your domestication efforts proving successful, or are your new devices metaphorically chewing your coffee table legs to bits?

12 thoughts on “Technological Domestication

  1. Christine

    I remember my parents’ pride when they installed an entertainment center with doors that covered the TV. They told all their dinner guests about how they liked having a living room where “the focus was on each other, not the idiot-box.” Now that I think about it, that’s quite a metaphor for my family’s general MO… we looked sophisticated on the outside (not the type to watch TV), but in reality, my dad spent entire weekends on the couch, watching football, unaware that his brow was furrowed and his mouth hung open.

    I tried to banish phones from the bedroom, but lost that battle… they now they serve as our alarm clocks. Also, it was a pretty hypocritical request considering I watched The Daily Show in bed on my laptop every night. We also banished the cat from the bedroom for two years, but now she sleeps with us. I guess neither Jack or I are very good at domesticating.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Christine. Those entertainment centers with doors are another great example of how we try to draw boundaries around devices like televisions in order to segment them off from other parts of our lives. It’s also interesting to hear your negotiations around phones, the laptop, and the cat in the bedroom. We’ve done similar things, trying to keep the bedroom a “sacred” place of sorts by not allowing a TV or computer in there, but we also have had times when we’ve relaxed those rules. Perhaps your cat is domesticating you more than the other way around… 😉

  2. Jenny Stedman

    When I was young, my parents actually kept the television in the top of a closet and only got it out on Saturday mornings when we were allowed to watch morning cartoons followed by my dad watching the sporting events of the day. I was only about 4 or 5 at the time, but I have such a vivid recollection of the excitement that occurred as dad went to pull the TV out of the closet! 🙂

    GREAT illustration about the puppy! Since I’m almost as passionate about dogs as I am technology, I will definitely use that one in the future! I can also see ways that you can expand the illustration as you look as different domestication methods… being too strict or too lenient with the adaption of a technology is bound to have as dire consequences as doing the same with a puppy…

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks for the comment Jenny! I like how you are extending the metaphor, and if you write on this, please send me a link so I can see how different canine domestication methods might apply to technological domestication.

  3. Mark Douglass

    The TV in our house was kind of a sidebar – we went from 12″ black-and-white to 10″ color. It stayed in the same location, same rules, same role in the house. The big shift was with the introduction of the stereo – the switch from the 33 1/3 rpm record player to the AM/FM, turntable, and 8-track 4-channel cassette player with the surround-sound speakers. That sucker took over the living room, facilitating the construction of a new entertainment center and two speaker shelves – also wired two speakers for our back deck. My Dad prepared mix tapes of his favorite LP’s that he would play at dinner, in the car, etc., though my fondest memories are of him cooking Greek or Italian cooking to his Mediterranean mix.

    The adjustment for us was from music for listening, one side at a time, to music as background entertainment. It was on all the time, as were its various descendants, throughout my later childhood. When I visit my folks, there’s still usually music on somewhere – something to match the mood of the day or season. As for me, when I want to feel “at home”, I create a new channel on Pandora and let it play while I cook something in the kitchen.

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that the stereo was more important in your house than the TV! Your passion for music reflects that. So do you think the “background noise” usage of either stereos or TVs is problematic or unhealthy for some people? I have visited houses where the TV is just left on in the background, and I find it really difficult to ignore it when trying to have a conversation. Strangely though, I have less difficulty listening to background music while also having a conversation–different parts of the brain perhaps?

  4. Rosie Perera

    Our TV was in my parents’ bedroom. We were allowed to watch it for an hour a day before dinner on weekdays. Later evening shows were special privileges which we’d only get to watch if we were invited into that private space of our parents’ bedroom with the whole family sitting on the bed together. Perhaps a Christmas special or a TV miniseries (I remember watching Roots that way). We were never allowed to watch certain classes of shows: e.g., anything with violence, romance (The Love Boat, Fantasy Island), witchcraft (I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched), or outer space science-y stuff (Star Trek, Lost in Space) – the latter went against my mother’s beliefs; I think she was afraid it might mention something disagreeable to her about the age of the earth or teach us a materialist worldview. So our staples were good clean family shows like My Three Sons and The Brady Bunch.

    I never have owned a TV of my own. Had a roommate for a couple of years who had one, but other than that I’ve never wanted to have that “piece of furniture” dominating my living space or bedroom. And never wanted to waste time with it. Now that TV programming is available on the Internet, I do sometimes watch a snippet of this or that (usually just PBS special episodes, news, and comedy — The Daily Show or Colbert Report). Now it’s the computer that I need to work more on domesticating. Here I am up at 3am online (had insomnia, got up to get a snack and gravitated to the computer — not a good habit).

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Sounds like your parents were a lot more restrictive than mine, but it also seems like you have benefited from rules that focused your attention elsewhere. Domesticating the computer is a good one…I tend to just gravitate towards my computer whenever I’m bored, and although I could do a hundred different creative things on that device, more often than not I just look at the news, facebook, other social networking sites, and before I know it, a few hours have passed. So I’m with you. Hope you get some sleep!

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