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.
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.