Tag Archives: Kodak

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.

Technological Paradigms

Last summer a couple of my friends sent their eight-year-old daughter off to camp for the first time, and as they dropped her off, they gave her some money to buy a few things while she was there. In addition to those sugary snacks that every camper sucks down with abandon, she also bought a disposable film camera so she could take pictures of her new friends and all the fun things they were doing. When she returned home she told her parents all about her time at camp, and said she was eager to show them the photos she took on the camera she bought. Her parents asked, “so where is the camera? We need to send it in to be developed.” She calmly replied, “I threw it away—it said it was disposable. The pictures are on the Internet, right?”

My friends’ daughter was just young enough that she had never seen a film camera before. Her parents have taken many pictures of her, but they had always done so using their mobile phones or a digital camera. For her, ‘cameras’ are things that capture digital photos and upload them to a computer or the Internet; the very concepts of ‘film’ and ‘developing’ were completely foreign to her.

Kodak "Instamatic" CameraI found this story to be fascinating, not only because I am a historian of technology, but also because I am the son of a former Kodak employee. My father worked for Kodak for 35 years, and the recent stories of their plans for bankruptcy have been especially poignant for him. But when he started there, Kodak was at the height of their game. They had developed a line of point-and-shoot consumer cameras that enabled anyone, even those with absolutely no knowledge of photography whatsoever, to take reasonably good pictures. But the cameras themselves were not the real money maker. They were like the low-profit razor sold below cost so that you could sell a lifetime of high-profit razor blades. The real money for Kodak was in the sale of film and developing services.

Film, of course, is a consumable. Once you expose a segment of film to light, it can’t be used again. It’s also pretty much useless until you develop it and make prints. Taking a picture thus came at a double price: the cost of the film and the cost of processing, both of which were high-margin businesses. For every camera Kodak sold, they also sold hundreds of rolls of film, and most of those rolls were developed with Kodak chemicals and printed on Kodak paper. Kodak supplied the entire platform—the cameras, the film (both movie and still), the developing chemicals, the photosensitive paper—and they packaged it all together as a well-marketed, customer-friendly service. It was a complete cash cow.

Kodak Disc CameraKodak did continue to develop new variations on this theme, though they seemed to have less and less luck with them as the years went on. I remember the day my father returned from a super-secret business trip back to Rochester with a briefcase literally handcuffed to his wrist. My brother and I stared in wonder, assuming that our father had become a government agent and that the whole Kodak thing was just a cover. But alas, the case didn’t contain state secrets or foam-encased spy gear; instead it contained these strange-looking flat cameras that used a type of film that looked vaguely like a viewmaster disc. My dad proudly declared that these “disc cameras” were the wave of the future, and in the early 1980s, they really did look futuristic. But disc cameras were ultimately doomed by their tiny lens and negative. In theory, disc cameras had the potential of taking better pictures than a 110, but in practice, it was too easy to take blurry pictures, and even clear ones looked unacceptably grainy when printed larger than 3×5″.

First Working Digital CameraBut even before the first disc cameras were introduced, Kodak’s R&D engineers had put together something that would not only revolutionize photography, but also kill off that very lucrative cash cow: the first working digital camera, built in 1975. Over the next two decades, Kodak actually played a leading role in developing digital photosensors and digital photo printing kiosks. They even entered the consumer digital camera market, albeit too late to displace the likes of Sony, Cannon, and Nikon.

The trouble was, none of these business offered the same high profit margins as film and developing. Digital cameras, of course, require no film. Taking a picture is essentially free, and making a print is entirely optional now that we can share them on social networks. Digital photography fundamentally changed the economics of the business to the benefit of the consumer, and there was no going back. The consumables would all but disappear, and the internal hardware (sensors) would quickly become commoditized and unbranded.

So why did Kodak continue to invest in new film devices like the disc camera when they had the chance to become the leader in the new world of digital photography? This is most likely a hot topic in business management schools, and I’m sure that some are suggesting that Kodak purposely tried to delay the onset of digital photography to milk every last drop out of their film and developing cash cow. I haven’t researched Kodak’s story enough to know one way or the other, but I would guess that the full history is more complicated than that. That first working digital camera was only a proof of concept: the exposure time was reportedly 23 seconds, it captured the image to a cassette tape, playback required a separate TV, and the resolution was far worse than film. It would have been difficult to predict in 1975 that all the technical problems could be worked out, that a portable and easy-to-use device could be designed and manufactured, and that consumers would actually adopt a very different kind of camera. At the time, film-based photography would probably have seemed like the safer bet.

Now we know different. Digital photography displaced film faster than most would have predicted, and Kodak is contemplating declaring bankruptcy if they can’t sell off their patent portfolio. My friends’ eight-year-old learned about the concept of film the hard way, but those born in the near future will likely learn about photographic film only as a historical phenomenon.

All of this reminds me of a term that Giovanni Dosi introduced in an article he published back in 1982: “technological paradigms.” The term comes from Thomas Kuhn’s classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, in which he argues that scientific knowledge develops within constraining paradigms that limit the kinds of questions researchers ask, the kinds of evidence they consider to be legitimate, and the sort of explanations they consider plausible. Instead of seeing the history of science as a smooth, continuous progression towards objective “Truth,” Kuhn portrays it as a series of dominant research paradigms that radically shift from one to the next.

In a similar vein, Dosi argues that technologies tend to develop along trajectories that are governed by a dominant paradigm. This paradigm limits what kinds of solutions are investigated, causing engineers to favor incremental changes to the existing paradigm over radical departures from it. Every practicing engineer knows that it is far easier to sell the management on a slight improvement to an existing design than on a risky, untested, radically new one. This is especially true when the new design would eliminate the most profitable aspect of the current business.

But eventually the dominant paradigm shifts, and that radical disruption creates new opportunities in the market that may enable new players to rise, or an even larger industry restructuring to occur. In the case of photography, the shift from film to digital is a case in point. Even though Kodak may have invented the techniques behind digital photography, they seem to have been limited by the dominant paradigm of film.

What other kinds of artifacts or devices will your children and grandchildren only know from history books?