The Social Meaning of Technology

Sometime in the early-1980s, Kodak began using a sleek new voice messaging service that they called KMX, short for Kodak Message Exchange. It was pretty cool for the time; you could dial in from most anywhere via a toll-free number, authenticate with a mailbox number and passcode, and exchange asynchronous voice messages with other employees. Although voicemail systems are completely normal to us now, most people at this time had never heard of such a thing. Home answering machines were just becoming popular, but the idea of dialing into a centralized system so that you could send voice messages to individuals and groups was still somewhat revolutionary.

As I’ve noted in earlier posts, my father worked for Kodak for his entire career. By the time they adopted KMX, my father was an executive who spent most of his time coordinating his sales and marketing force, so he spent a lot of time, both at work and at home, on KMX. Most evenings after dinner, he would go up to his home office, dial into the system, listen to his new messages, and leave his responses. He could easily spend a few hours doing that, which of course meant that his colleagues had to spend a few more hours listening to the messages he sent them, replying to his questions, and so on, and so on. Today, we often complain that the ease of email has created a torrent of unnecessary messages, but at least one can visually scan email text; imagine if you had to listen to every rambling voice message, in real time, happily narrated by the sender!

By the late-1980s, my father also had a computer on his desk at work that was no doubt hooked into the company’s new email system, but I don’t think he ever turned it on, nor did he ever learn to type with any kind of proficiency (how now has a laptop, but my mother is the one who types the emails). I once visited his office around that time and I noticed a thick layer of dust covering his beautiful IBM PS/2, which seemed like an absolute travesty to me. But my father was of an earlier generation of executives, a generation that came of age with dictaphones and secretaries who would type his recorded messages onto office memo sheets. He was much more comfortable using a system like KMX than email, as it was similar to what he already knew. KMX seemed like a big dictaphone in the sky; typing messages into a computer was a secretary’s job.

I tell this story to highlight that we often overlay complex social meanings upon new technologies that go far beyond their mere function. If we look only at the function of some new system, such as voicemail or email, we often miss the ways in which the adopting culture struggles to make sense of the new technology in terms of what they already know and do. The meanings we now ascribe to these technologies are often subtly different from the way people thought about them when they were first introduced. Our current meanings are the result of a dynamic interplay between the adopting culture’s attempts to fit the new technology into their existing categorizations and traditions, and the ways using that new technology alters their thoughts and perceptions, challenging those existing assumptions, categorizations, and rules.

America Calling

This phenomenon becomes more evident when we look at detailed historical case studies of technological adoption. Over the Christmas break, I got a chance to read one such account, Claude Fischer’s book America Calling: The Social History of the Telephone to 1940. I had read bits and pieces of it before, but never had the chance to read it all the way through, and I’m glad I did. Fischer’s account is fascinating and enlightening.

Fischer notes that the first generation of Bell executives came from the telegraph industry, so they tended to think of the telephone as a new kind of audible telegraph: a serious tool for serious (meaning “male”) business use. Bell’s designs and marketing reflected this assumption, and their sales efforts focused mostly on male urban professionals, who often saw the telephone as a convenient replacement for messenger boys.

Although Bell marketed the telephone as an urban business device, it was nevertheless eagerly adopted by rural farmers, especially the farm wives who saw the telephone as a very welcome tool for social interaction. Fischer recounts stories of farmers setting up their own exchanges and lines, often piggy-backing on their existing barbed wire fences, so that they could communicate with friends and family. Bell actively discouraged not only these private exchanges, but also the social use of the telephone, warning women to not tie up the lines with “idle gossip.”

The various companies that provided telephone service did eventually accept and then encourage this more social use of the telephone, but Fischer argues that it was not until a new generation of executives had come of age, a generation that came from other industries where sociality was a norm. The first generation of executives were too conditioned by the dynamics of the telegraph industry, and were thus unable to see the ways in which consumers were transforming the social meaning of their new device.

If we accept this notion that the social meaning of a new technology is dynamically worked out over time, then we should also expect that something similar will occur with today’s mobile phones and social media. How people 20 or 40 years from now will think of these may end up being quite different from the way we think of them now, primarily because they will have grown up in a world where these devices are not something new. In some ways we have already seen a shift in the meaning and usage of the mobile phone: we now use this device to send asynchronous text messages far more often than we make synchronous voice calls. Today’s “mobile phone” is really a misnomer; we are already starting to think of these devices more like pocket-sized computers than telephones.

7 thoughts on “The Social Meaning of Technology

  1. Matthew P Henry

    Very fascinating post, thank you, Dave! Do you think there’s a place, especially with the speed of technology (think CES 2013) that the social meaning of a new technology can be “speed up” by different thinking from the current social meaning? In other words, is there a time factor associated that will always be a part or can it be sped up? Should it be?

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Good question, Matthew. One thing I have noticed is that our ability to communicate quickly and broadly has increased the speed at which a culture has “the conversation” about what a new technology is, and what it is good for. Electronic media makes it easier for thought-leaders (or “social entrepreneurs”) to shift the way people think about a new technology if they so desire. But that shift seems to be easier done amongst younger people than older ones. There may still be an unavoidable generational difference in the way people think about it.

      1. gmphap1

        Yes, you said it, the “unavoidable generational difference”. Will there come a time that additional understanding of human psychology will allow any sort of reprogramming? To me one of the most interesting “social meaning” struggles going on now is use of technology in the church. We seemed to have a short reprogramming when it came to projectors and screens (aka, no more hymnals), but bring your iPad to church and how dare you use it during the sermon, you must be reading emails instead of listening 🙂 The generational difference is already happening. I stopped bringing my “book” Bible and have been using my iPhone YouVersion. Love it, been taking and sharing more notes than I have in my entire life time. Interesting, my 11 year old daughter immediately started asking to bring her iPod instead of her Bible. She couldn’t understand why we would want her to bring her “book” Bible 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Social Meaning of Technology | Faith and Technology

  3. Brian Wixted

    Dave, that is a really well written and nuanced post. Matthew asks a really interesting question, to which I would respond it has sped up but it also evolves slowly. I think because of the work of people like Fischer we are more aware than ever before of the whole question of social meaning. Parts of the anthropology and ethnography disciplines are repositioning themselves to study technology tribes to use the same old techniques of observation on new cultures. Awareness and manipulation of the social meaning of technology now means big money. However, I would still argue that despite this marketisation of social meaning, a second layer of social meaning still takes long periods of time to evolve. To take up Dave’s last sentence, _Today’s “mobile phone” is really a misnomer; we are already starting to think of these devices more like pocket-sized computers than telephones_ we could problematise the meaning of computers. .Have computers become mostly personal communications devices (closer to a phone) or have phones become more like computers (that what I think a computer is from when I started with them in mid 80s – a word processor and data storage and manipulation device?

    1. David Stearns Post author

      Thanks as always for sharing your thoughts, Brian! In terms of functionality, it does seem that telephones, televisions, and computers are converging into a single multimedia communications device that comes in several sizes (from pocket to wall-sized). But I wonder if the older generation will ever get used to that convergence. Will someone who grew up with a hard-wired Bell wall telephone ever be comfortable getting rid of a dedicate telephone device, even if that same functionality is available via the converged communication device? No doubt some will be able to make the leap, but for others, the telephone will forever be for making calls, and the television will forever be for passively watching video. For example, my parents have mobile phones now, but they purposely got very simple ones that only do voice calls. They also have a laptop and a TV, but I don’t think they ever want those three to become a single device.

  4. Jim

    Oh my gosh, this brings back memories of when I worked at Kodak, and would dial into KMX and hear the distinctive four tones and the recorded voice, “Welcome to KMX. Please enter your ID” or something like that…


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