Tag Archives: social-shaping

Actor-Network Theory

In my last post, I drew a map to plot out the various positions authors take when theorizing the technology and society relationship. I did that primarily so that I could destroy that map in this post by describing another theory that challenges the core assumption underlying all those other perspectives: that ‘technology’ and ‘society’ are two separate spheres that interact with each other in some kind of way.

Actor-Network Theory (or ANT for short) was developed in the 1980s and 90s primarily by three scholars: the French polymath Bruno Latour; the French engineer turned sociologist Michel Callon; and the English sociologist John Law. All three were involved in the early sociological studies of science and technology, and like their colleagues that developed the SCOT and SST positions, they argued against the technological determinism that was dominant at that time. But unlike the SCOT and SST approaches, ANT scholars took a closer look at this concept of ‘society’ that was supposedly exerting a shaping force upon technological artifacts. What they concluded was something that promised not only to revolutionize the way people thought about technology and society, but also to shake the entire foundation of social theory down to its core.

Reassembling the SocialThe problem, as Bruno Latour articulates it in his book Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory, is that social theorists have traditionally thought of society as a ‘thing’, an entity that has some kind of separate existence from its participants. This thing called society was assumed to be made only of “social stuff” (as opposed to material stuff) that was surprisingly durable and all encompassing of its participants, much like the ‘aether’ of 19th-century physics. This allowed society to be an independent ‘force’ that could somehow influence not only its human participants, but also the techniques and material artifacts they produced. But it also had the effect of making society into something that was more like a mysterious force than a phenomenon that could be studied in a scientific way.

Actor-Network Theory, in contrast, argues that there is actually no such ‘thing’ as society. That is to say, society isn’t an entity that is separate from its participants. There’s no place you can point to and say “there is where society is.” Instead, society is more like an enactment, a condition that is constantly re-achieved every time a set of people interact with one another in a given pattern. Because it exists only in time, it is also fragile and prone to change; as soon as people start acting differently, a new kind of society becomes traceable (this is similar to various interactionist positions, and Latour himself comes out of ethnomethodology).

Latour, who was originally trained as an anthropologist, began thinking about this in the context of baboon societies. Baboon, like humans, create relatively complex social orders, but they do so using only direct bodily interactions. One baboon can try to enforce a particular dominance hierarchy over others, but as soon as that baboon is no longer physically present, the order starts to break down. Even when the dominant baboon is there, others will periodically test and challenge its dominance, leading to a recurring re-negotiation. Because baboons are limited to physical bodily interactions, their societies remain limited in size, and are subject to frequent reorganization.

In contrast, human societies seem to have no problem growing quite large in scale, spreading over wide geographic areas, and expressing features that remain relatively durable across many generations. Even pre-modern tribal societies seem to create networks of social links that persist even when participants are not present, and stay more or less intact throughout many generations. How is this achieved? If a society needs to be constantly re-enacted, how can it be extended and reinforced across space and time?

What Latour and his fellow ANT scholars concluded was that the very mechanism that enables us to extend and reinforce human societies across space and time is the thing we call ‘technology’. Material artifacts such as clothing, jewelry, houses, and cars don’t just reflect something called social class, they actually make it possible to assert such a concept in the first place and reinforce it over space and time. Communication media such as books, newspapers, telegraphs, telephones, television, and now the Internet don’t sit apart from something called culture and influence it from time to time, they are the very things that make it possible to create a geographically dispersed yet cohesive culture in the first place. Techniques such as money, corporations, the scientific method, engineering, and law are not just products of a modern culture, they are the very things that construct and reinforce that kind of culture we call “modern.”

In other words, technology and society are so deeply and inextricably intertwined that it would be misleading to talk about them as if they were two separate things that interact from time to time. They are mutually constitutive, each literally making the other, completely interdependent for their very meaning. Without technology, there would be no human society, and without that society, there would be no technology.

For ANT scholars, society is nothing more than a temporary assemblage of connections made between ‘actors’. Actors are “anything that makes a difference,” so they include both humans and non-human agencies/artifacts that influence in some way the connections that are being made. When analysts trace these connections, they reveal various ‘networks’ of which the actors (and now the analyst) are a part. These networks are often consciously constructed by a particular actor (called a ‘network builder’), who ‘enrolls’ other actors (human or otherwise) into the network by ‘translating’ them (literally “speaking for” them). Networks allow some actors to influence the behavior of others, but they are also quite fragile; as soon as those other actors resist or otherwise thwart the translation effort, that part of the network will fall apart.

If you take ANT seriously (which I do), it requires you to completely reorient the way you think about technology and society. A question like “is the technology destroying our society?” becomes almost meaningless since technology is the very thing that makes a geographically-dispersed, temporally-stable social order possible. We can still discuss how a given technology is developed and adopted, and whether the way it changes our social links is a good or bad thing, but the idea of a human society existing without technology just doesn’t make any sense. I’ll elaborate on ANT in future posts, and show you how it can be used to better understand the technology-society relationship.

A Map of Typical Positions on Technology and Culture

In this post, I want to step back a bit from historical details in order to do some broad-stroke theory. I want to build a map for you that should help give you some orientation when wading into various writing on the technology and culture relationship. Those of you who study this all the time will probably find this post a bit of a review, and if that’s the case, feel free to skip it. But if you tend to find yourself getting more and more perplexed when reading conflicting perspectives on technology, this post should help you get your bearings.

Let’s start our map by laying out a spectrum on the horizontal axis.

Whenever an author theorizes the technology and culture relationship, that author must deal with one of the most basic questions in the field: in what direction do the influences flow? That is, does technology “impact” culture, does culture shape technology, or do both happen simultaneously? How an author answers this question can be plotted on this spectrum.

At one extreme is the position of technological determinism. People who ascribe to this believe that technologies impact an adopting culture culture in a kind of one-way, deterministic relationship. Technologies are seen as a powerful, non-neutral forces that carry with them moral consequences, and produce deterministic effects. Extreme technological determinists also tend to think of technology as an autonomous force that actually guides and determines its own development. As one of my professors used to say, a strong technological determinist believes that once someone invents the techniques for radar, it’s really only a matter of time before we get the microwavable burrito.

On the other extreme is the position of social determinism, which is sometimes called instrumentalism by philosophers of technology. Extreme social determinists see technologies as completely neutral artifacts that can be used for good or for evil depending on the desires of the adopting individual or culture. This kind of position is wonderfully summarized using that well-known motto of the National Handgun and Rifle Association (NHRA): “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”

I’ve portrayed these positions as extreme ends of a spectrum because it’s important to realize that very few authors subscribe to either of these positions wholeheartedly. Some certainly lean farther to one side or the other, but we should avoid labeling any author as being strictly a technological determinist or a social determinist. Most sit somewhere in between the extremes, which leads us to that position at the center: the social-shaping perspective.

The social-shaping of technology (SST) perspective acknowledges what is obviously true about both of the more extreme positions: technologies certainly do affect an adopting culture in significant ways; but historical cases also show quite clearly that engineers and adopting cultures play important roles in reshaping those technologies to better fit with their existing social values. SST sees technology and culture as “mutually constitutive,” (MacKenzie & Wajcman 1999) each creating and shaping the other. In other words, “guns don’t kill people, but they sure make it a heck of a lot easier.”

To complete our map, we need to add a vertical dimension to our existing horizontal one:

This vertical axis represents the moral attitude an author takes towards technological change. At one extreme is techno-optimism, a belief that our technologies are making the world a better place. In its most extreme forms, techno-optimists elevate technology to the position of savoir, the ultimate tool with which we can save ourselves and create a utopia on earth. This position is excited about the possibilities of new technologies and says “full steam ahead” to any and all technological development.

At the other extreme is techno-pessimism, a position that sees technology not as a savoir, but as a destroyer. Techno-pessimists think that technology is making the world a worse place, and that it might just end up killing us all (think nuclear holocaust, genetic engineering gone awry, sentient robots that turn against us, etc). This position tends to pine for the simpler days before industrialization, and is sympathetic towards  Romanticism.

As with the other axis, this is of course a spectrum and most authors situate themselves somewhere in between the two extremes. At the very middle is a position I’ve called “double-edged sword.” This position argues that every technological change brings with it a wide array of consequences, some of which can be considered ‘good’, others ‘bad’, depending on your perspective. The costs and benefits of an innovation are never equally distributed in a given society, so whether you think a given technology is making the world better or worse largely depends on whether you received more of its benefits and less of its costs, or vice-versa.

Putting it all together, we get a map that looks something like this:

Most critics of technology (Christian or secular) tend to sit somewhere in the lower-left quadrant. They lean towards technological determinism, and they are generally pessimistic about future technological change. Jacques Ellul seems the most pessimistic to me—his book The Technological Society is almost fatalistic. Neil Postman is closer to the double-edged sword position, but he is still overall more pessimistic than optimistic. Marshall McLuhan is an unapologetic technological determinist, but he is far less pessimistic than other Christian critics.

In the upper-left quadrant we find people like Ray Kurzweil, who is extremely excited about the potential for a full human-machine integration. His belief in the inevitability of the “singularity” puts him on the technological determinist side, but unlike McLuhan or Ellul, he sees technology as a potential savoir of humanity.

At the extreme corner of the upper-right quadrant would be the NHRA sentiment I discussed earlier. The Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) position is probably the most social determinist theory I know of, but it takes a very neutral view on whether technology is making the world better or worse. The Social Shaping of Technology (SST) position is on there twice because the first edition of MacKenzie & Wajcman’s book in 1985 was far more social determinist than their second edition in 1999, which took a much more balanced tone.

Interestingly, I don’t know yet of any author that would fit into the lower-right quadrant, probably because those who lean towards social determinism rarely have an overly pessimistic view of technology.

Does this help you navigate your way around the various positions you may have encountered? Where would you place your favorite authors on this map?

When Religion Meets New Media (A Review)

One thing I find troublesome in the Christian commentary on technology is a lack of systematic, empirical study of how people are actually using technology in practice. I think this stems from the fact that most of this commentary is based on the ideas of only a few thinkers, and most of those thinkers come from philosophical traditions that favor theoretical rumination over empirical research. When they do employ contemporary examples to back up theoretical claims, they typically rely on alarmist articles in the popular press, or hold up extreme and unusual cases as if they were representative of the norm. As that witty but difficult to attribute aphorism goes “the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’.”

When Religion Meets New MediaIn her book, When Religion Meets New Media, communications professor Heidi Campbell begins to rectify this problem by examining in detail how “people of the book” (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) are actually engaging with new media technology (mobile phones, computers, and especially the Internet). But this is actually only half of the book’s value: as she presents her findings, she also articulates a new analytical method for future studies in this field to follow.

Her method, which she calls “the religious-social shaping of technology approach,” builds upon ideas from the social shaping of technology (SST), and in particular the social construction of technological systems (SCOT) approach developed by Pinch, Bijker, and Hughes. Much of older media studies, including those works of Marshall McLuhan that are often cited by Christians, assumes what is known as a “technological determinist” approach, where technology is seen as an autonomous force that “impacts” the adopting culture in deterministic ways. The SCOT approach, in contrast, argues that new technologies are just as much shaped by the adopting culture as the other way around. Over the last three decades, SCOT researchers have documented a rather large set of historical cases that demonstrate this mutual shaping of technology and culture, and Campbell’s work adds yet more examples to the set.

Campbell particularizes the SCOT method for the purpose of studying a religious group’s engagement (or disengagement) with new media. She suggests “four distinctive areas that  should be explored and questioned in order to fully understand a religious community’s relationship towards new forms of media” (17). First, the history and traditions of a community need to be mined to discover previous interactions with newly-introduced media, which tend to influence contemporary negotiations. Second, the social values of the community must be revealed, as well as examined in practice, to determine why the group reacts to the new medium or device the way they do. Third, the community’s method of social negotiation must be examined in order to understand how they will work out whether the new medium is allowable or not, or under what particular circumstances and in what contexts one may use it. Fourth, special attention must be paid to the way members of the community talk about the new medium (their “communal discourse”), as this tends to influence the way members think about the medium, and thus decide if it is appropriate or not.

Campbell also identifies three factors that shape the religious response to media in general: how religious groups define their social boundaries; how they relate to their sacred texts; and how they understand religious authority. Because these factors obviously differ from group to group, the corollary is that there is no one, monolithic religious reaction to a give new medium. Boundaries and authority have some obvious influences, but her focus on relationship to sacred texts is intriguing. She notes that this relationship forms the basis of an implicit philosophy of communication, and thus establishes rules by which new media are evaluated (20).

Campbell then illustrates the application of her method by describing and analyzing the responses of various religious groups to mobile phones, computers, and the Internet. Two of these examples stood out to me. The first was the way the Anglican church has actively engaged the virtual reality world Second Life. After a group of Anglicans and Episcopalians met informally in the game, they decided to build a virtual cathedral and host online worship services, which they have been doing consistently since 2007. Instead of eschewing this online group, the offline church responded by setting up a new “online diocese,” known as the “i-church,” and fast-tracking the leader of this new online congregation into the diaconate. There are of course issues to be resolved surrounding the efficacy of bodily sacrements and the forming of true community in a non-material, virtual environment, but the point is that the Anglican church is not sitting back and pretending that virtual worlds like Second Life don’t exist, or that their members aren’t already spending time in them. Instead, the church is taking an active role in establishing their presence there, considering the implications, and ministering to the inhabitants of this new online “parish.”

The second example I enjoyed reading about was the creation of a “kosher mobile phone” for the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Mobile phones, especially those with texting and web browsing capabilities, were initially banned by rabbinical authorities, as they feared the devices would expose members of the community to “dubious, unmonitored secular content” (163). The mobile networks noticed the bans and responded by negotiating with the rabbinical authorities on the design of a phone that could be considered kosher (i.e., acceptable under religious law). The result was a device and corresponding service that was explicitly reshaped to align with the community’s religious values: texting, web browsing, and video/voice mail are all disabled on the handset; a special regional dialing code was created for these phones; calls to numbers outside that code are checked against a blocked list before connecting, and charged higher rates; and only emergency calls are allowed to be placed on the Sabbath. To ensure that members of the community know which phones are acceptable, the handsets are labeled prominently with the standard kosher symbol.

Academics studying this area will no doubt find this book essential, but non-academic readers may find the writing style to be a little too opaque at times. Media studies, like any academic field, has its own set of loaded terms and jargon, and Campbell makes use of them frequently. Her focus on method may also turn off casual readers, but those who make it past the first two chapters will be richly rewarded with a detailed look at how many Jews, Christians, and Muslims are actively engaging with new media.

Review of Here Comes Everybody

In the early days of Wikipedia, one of their editors joked that their freely-editable encyclopedia was a project that could work only in practice, never in theory. If you had asked someone in the 1990s whether such a project could ever succeed, you would have been hard-pressed to find many supporters. In theory it sounded ludicrous. Why would anyone donate their time to write articles, much less subject experts, many of whom need to get credit for publishing? How could you prevent articles from becoming overly slanted, or simply vandalized? How could something written collaboratively by mostly anonymous authors ever be a reliable source of knowledge?

Yet there it is; and for the most part, it’s actually quite good. I use Wikipedia all the time to lookup basic bits of information, like dates or names (for which it seems highly reliable), and occasionally use it as a starting point for researching a new subject. Some articles are of course better than others, but the fact that any of it is of high quality is really counter-intuitive.

But “counter-intuitive” is really just shorthand for saying that it doesn’t fit into our existing theoretical models of how society supposedly works. We all walk around with these mental models that help us interpret phenomenon and predict outcomes, but they also limit what we think is possible. When we then encounter something in practice that we formerly thought was impossible in theory, we are faced with a dilemma: do we reinterpret the thing so that it continues to fit within our existing models; or do we reevaluate our model, potentially changing it to accommodate this formerly inexplicable reality?

In the wake of successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia and the open-source operating system Linux, sociologists and economists have actually been doing a bit of both as they attempt to explain how and why such things occurred. Some have concentrated on researching how these projects actually work, showing that they are not really as undirected, noncommercial, or anti-corporate as the press coverage might lead you to believe. Others have argued that they are anomalous, something that can’t be repeated. But others have been developing new theories (or more commonly, pulling more esoteric ones out of the closet) to make these seeming anomalies fit again.

Here Comes Everybody.jpgClay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, is an insightful popularization not only of these efforts, but also his own ongoing research of Internet culture. As the subtitle suggests, he focuses on how social media tools have made it easier than ever for people to organize, whether it be for the purposes of general communication and knowledge-sharing, or the more difficult activities of collaborative production and collective action. Social tools, he argues, have lowered the costs not only of group formation, but also those of ongoing coordination. As a result, we are now trying out new forms of organization that are not simply improvements upon our existing institutions—they are fundamental shifts towards a new type of social organization, one that he thinks will soon become dominant.

What will that new structure look like? It’s too early to tell, but he identifies a few trends that he argues will likely continue. First is the mass-amateurization of efforts that previously had been restricted to groups of professionals. There are many examples of this: music production and distribution; journalism; encyclopedia production; stock photography; even advertising. In all of these cases, the professional class had enjoyed an almost exclusive control over the means of production and distribution, but that control has now been undermined by digital and networked technologies. His stock photography example was especially interesting: web sites like iStockPhoto allow amateurs to sell stock photos for a fraction of the price a professional would charge. The artistic quality of amateur photos might not be as high, but for many users of stock photography, it is plenty good-enough. This will no doubt redefine what is means to be a professional photographer, but I think it would be overstating things to say that professional photographers will soon go the way of travel agents.

The second and related trend he identifies is a shift from filter-then-publish to publish-then-filter. The economics of traditional journalism or music production required that professionals filtered and selected only a subset of the available material for publication. This gatekeeper role gave them enormous control over what the public saw and heard, but that control has been weakened considerably by the self-publication enabled by inexpensive digital and networked technologies. This has resulted in a flood of new content, only a subset of which is interesting to any given person. Thus, great effort is being put into developing mechanisms by which one can find those interesting gems amongst the rubble, some of which are purely algorithmic (e.g., Google search), and others of which rely on an army of amateur taggers and filterers (e.g., digg, del.ico.us, and blogs like this one).

The third trend is a shift away from hierarchical forms of organization towards more loosely-joined networks. We tend to think of hierarchically organized firms as a kind of “natural” organizational form blessed by God, but this kind of organization is the product of a historical context, one that is perhaps not so relevant anymore. Shirky provides a number of examples of networked cooperative production, but most are centered around some kind of information-processing. One is left wondering if such a model could really be extended into something like manufacturing, an arena where hierarchical organizations have historically thrived.

Shirky’s analysis of all this adheres generally to the social-shaping position, striking a nice balance between technological determinism (adopted technologies deterministically cause social change) and social determinism (technologies are neutral tools completely controlled by social forces). He acknowledges the ways in which social media change not only the economics of organization, but also the way we think about what is possible and good. But he also is careful to note that the same tools used in different contexts have generated different results, a clear indication that the technologies are to some degree shaped by the culture that adopts them.

On the whole, I highly recommend this book to those who are trying to understand how the Internet and social media are enabling deep structural changes in our society.

Alone Together

When I recently travelled to a memorial service for a close friend, the program, on heavy cream-colored card stock, listed the afternoon’s speakers, told who would play what music, and displayed photographs of my friend as a young woman and in her prime. Several around me used the program’s stiff, protective wings to hide their cell phones as they sent text messages during the service. One of the texting mourners, a woman in her late sixties, came over to chat with me after the service. Matter-of-factly, she offered, ‘I couldn’t stand to sit that long without getting on my phone.’ The point of the service was to take a moment. This woman had been schooled by a technology she’d had for less than a decade to find this close to impossible (loc 5642).

Sherry Turkle’s new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, is full of stories like this one. One of the reasons that Turkle’s books are so interesting is that she collects and tells the kind of stories that make you as the reader both scowl with judgement and cringe with self-recognition. Texting during a memorial service seems especially distasteful to me, but I know that I have done similar things, attempting to dissociate so that I did not have to be fully present in the place where I was, feeling the anxiety and sorrow that would be appropriate for the moment.

The first half of the book, reviewed in my last post, deals with social robotics, but the second half focuses on social networking technologies: not only the typical examples of Facebook and Myspace, but also mobile telephony, texting, instant messaging, simulations like Second Life, and confessional web sites (which are particularly interesting). For Turkle, social robotics and social networking are part of the same phenomenon; we are trying to use technology to mediate relationships so that we can control, or entirely avoid, their inherent risks. Turkle is concerned that we are trading away real human relationship for something that is shallow and ultimately narcissistic. It gives us the illusion of “being connected,” but we are left feeling alone. Like relational junk food, it satiates our immediate surface desires, but leaves our deeper relational needs malnourished.

Turkle’s critiques of Facebook and Myspace are similar to, but refreshingly different from, those of other authors. For example, Jaron Lanier, who worries that Facebook is causing adolescents to confuse their limited online profile with a fuller understanding of personhood, rarely quotes or cites interviews with real adolescent Facebook users to show that his concerns are genuine and not simply the projections of an older adult. Turkle, however, has spent her academic career talking with children and adolescents about identity formation online, and her extensive quotes show that most adolescents are fully aware that their Facebook profiles are just an avatar, a projection of who they would like to be, constructed for an audience.

Turkle reminds us that adolescents have always used artifacts to play with and project their developing identities. In the 1980s, we would decorate our cars, folders, book covers, and the inside of our locker doors with pictures, the names of cool bands, comics, or anything that would communicate a desired message about who we wanted others to perceive us to be. Today’s generation now does this same thing on Facebook or Myspace, but these new platforms are different in two important ways: they are always available, resulting in many adolescents feeling pressured to constantly perform on them; and those performances are very public and essentially permanent.

But Turkle is also quick to remind us that our use of these technologies is not determined by the systems themselves. Facebook’s wide availability, or the speed of text messaging, may afford constant performances and rapid responses, but it is we who require those patters of use. This is not a pedantic distinction; to confuse the two is to leave us with a false dichotomy–play along, or leave the game. It does not enable us to consider our third option: rewrite the rules.

Turkle notes that this kind of binary choice actually stems from the language of addiction, a language that many critics use when discussing the ills of social networking technologies, but one that is ultimately unhelpful. Turkle explains:

Talking about addiction subverts our best thinking because it suggests that if there are problems, there is only one solution. To combat the addiction, you have to discard the addicting substance. But we are not going to “get rid” of the Internet. We will not go “cold turkey” or forbid cell phones to our children…. The idea of addiction, with its one solution that we know we won’t take, makes us feel hopeless. We have to find a way to live with seductive technology and make it work to our purposes. This is hard and will take work. Simple love of technology is not going to help. Nor is a Luddite impulse (loc 5604).

Of course, those who are truly addicted to social networking technologies should seek help, and may need to discontinue using them, but for most of us, we must be suspect of both triumphal praise of, as well as apocalyptic predictions about, these technologies. Finding the middle road towards a more healthy pattern of use will be difficult, but it can be done.

Turkle ends the book with an encouragement that we have not yet locked ourselves into a particular pattern of use:

It is too early to have reached such an impasse. Rather, I believe we have reached a point of inflection, where we can see the costs and start to take action. We will begin with very simple things. Some will seem like just reclaiming good manners. Talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner, on the playground, in the car, or in company. There will be more complicated things: to name only one, nascent efforts to reclaim privacy would be supported across the generations. And compassion is due to those of us–and there are many of us–who are so dependent on our devices that we cannot sit still for a funeral service or a lecture or a play…. Yet, no matter how difficult, it is time to look again toward the virtues of solitude, deliberateness, and living fully in the moment (loc 5647).

I couldn’t agree more.

Moog Documentary

I recently watched a fascinating documentary about Bob Moog, the inventor of the Moog synthesizer. Here is a trailer for it:

(If you are interested in watching this documentary, it is currently available via instant-play on Netflix, or you can watch it in segments on YouTube.)

I have to admit that as a documentary film, it wasn’t the best it could be, but I love the subject matter. The synthesizer is another one of those artifacts that, when introduced, caused quite a lot of angst in the surrounding culture. Avant-garde musicians loved it, sound-effects engineers eagerly embraced it, but the wider culture didn’t really know what to make of this thing. It looked far more like a telephone switchboard than it did a musical instrument.

File:Bob Moog3.jpgThe original Moog synthesizers were complicated beasts, with dozens of dials, switches, and patch cords. They had keyboards as well, but the synthesizer could produce only one note a time, so the keyboard was really just a mechanism to set the initial pitch of the generated wave, which could then be bent and transformed by the various processing modules. Most avant-garde musicians actually had little use for the keyboard, preferring instead to generate new kinds of sounds and pitches that did not fit into the traditional tempered scale. Other synthesizer makers that were more influenced by these musicians (such as Don Buchla) omitted the keyboard entirely.

File:Minimoog.JPGSeveral progressive rock musicians also started using Moog’s synthesizers, most notably Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Because these groups toured, they asked for a more portable, self-contained version, and in 1970 Moog introduced what became his most iconic instrument, the Minimoog.

Sadly, critics accused Moog and his synthesizer performers of destroying music. For these critics, real musical sounds could originate only from strings, wood, brass, or skins. Electronically-produced sounds were simply not ‘natural’ and thus not music.

But is there anything really ‘natural’ about a violin, saxophone, or drum? Each one of these musical instruments is an artifact, something created by humans that does not exist apart form human agency. At some point in history, violins were invented, developed, adopted, and shaped into the instrument we know today. Violins are certainly old, and their sound can move the human heart, but they are hardly products of Nature.

We must be careful when we swing around that word ‘natural’; we too often use it as an unreflective synonym for ‘traditional’. The distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ is a rather hard and unyielding one, but what is considered ‘traditional’ is maleable; it changes over time, adapting to new cultural developments.

Historical cases like the Moog synthesizer should teach us that the dire predictions of today’s cultural critics need to be taken with a large grain of salt. The synthesizer didn’t destroy music; quite the opposite occurred as musicians embraced the new sounds and techniques made possible by that new instrument. It would have been difficult in 1970 to foresee how the synthesizer would enable new approaches to music-making that we today take for granted.

So will mobile phone texting and Twitter be the death of writing? Will Facebook destroy ‘real’ community? It is unlikely that we can foresee now just what changes these systems will engender in our society. These systems will, no doubt, reshape our cultures in profound ways, but our cultures will also reshape these systems in return. The real question is which social groups will be the predominant shapers of these systems as they evolve?

When a Device Becomes an Instrument

In my last post, I hinted that Borgmann’s “device paradigm” can become a bit problematic when we consider some historical cases, and in this post, I want to explain what I meant by that.

Borgmann illustrates his concept of the device paradigm in a few different examples, but the one that caught my attention was his contrast between playing music on an instrument, such as a violin, and playing music via a stereo. In the former, the musician is participating in the creation of something new that exists only in that place and in that time. In the latter, the stereo recreates a commodified recording of music, something that has been divorced from place and time. The player of the violin must have some degree of skill and familiarity with the material aspects of the instrument, built up over many hours of practice. The player of the stereo needs only to have the sufficient amount of money required to purchase the stereo and some recorded music, and a basic understanding of which buttons to push to start the playback.

I found this example to be intriguing, for I too am a musician. I started playing clarinet at age nine, switched to saxophone about three years later and have played ever since. I have experienced that transcendent moment when the music produced by the ensemble achieves a quality that goes beyond the sum of the individual contributions of the players. It is a feeling that is fundamentally rooted in that time and place, and even if it is captured on a recording, the playback can never quite recapture that moment, especially if the listener was not there for the original performance.

As a musician, I am sympathetic to Borgmann’s example, but as a historian of technology, I find that it needs some clarification. The trouble with the example is that it seems to assume that a stereo has only one possible purpose or use. It assumes that the device has some kind of intrinsic meaning that is inherent in its design. But is the playback of commodified, pre-recorded music the only thing that one can do with a stereo? Can it, in fact, also be used as an instrument in its own right to create new music?

ScratchingConsider the technique of “scratching” that was popularized by hip-hop artists, but has now spread to a number of other genres. The artifacts are all the same–the turntable, vinyl record, amplifier, and speakers–but the meaning ascribed to them has changed. They are no longer simply devices for playing commodified pre-recorded music. They have been transformed, by the hands of the artist, into a new instrument, capable of creating new sounds and new kinds of music. The ‘device’ has been reclaimed (or should we say ‘redeemed’?) as a new tool for human creativity.

This example, I think, points towards a deeper and rather important dynamic in the interaction between technology and culture. We often assume that artifacts have singlar and stable social meanings that arise out of their very designs: a stereo is for playing pre-recorded music; a bicycle is for riding from one place to another; a plastic payment card is a vehicle for consumer credit. But when we look at the detailed historical contexts surrounding the development and adoption of these artifacts, we can see that what they were “good for” was not immediately obvious to everyone when they were first introduced. The social meanings we now attribute to those artifacts were the result of social negotiations between the inventors, producers, marketers, legislators, and consumers.

This process of “working out” the meaning and purpose of a new artifact or system is often referred to as the process of “domestication” (see the introduction of Oudshoorn and Pinch, How Users Matter). I love that word. It makes one think of new technologies as a kind of wild beast that eventually gets tamed by the culture that adopts it. It might ascribe a bit too much agency to artifacts, but it does make clear that the users of these new artifacts play an important role in deciding how these artifacts will be adopted and used. In some cases, they even play a significant role in (re)shaping the material aspects of artifact to better suit their desired use (for example, the bicycle fractured into racing, pleasure, commuting, and eventually mountain varieties, each driven by a different social group ascribing a different meaning to the bicycle).

Of course, we can’t ascribe any sort of meaning we wish to a given artifact. Artifacts are stubborn things; they are obdurate. Some artifacts have only a few possible uses, and others seem to have a certain political meaning inscribed into them by their designers (see Winner, “Do Artifacts Have Politics?“). But this is not to say that the meaning of an artifact is deterministic; all artifacts, even the most stubborn, are still “underdetermined.” People can ascribe multiple different meanings to the object, and those meanings can change over time.

So where am I am going with all of this? The trouble I see with Bormann’s device paradigm is that it focuses our attention too much on the artifacts themselves, and not enough on our relationship with those artifacts. It tempts us to think that artifacts have intrinsic meanings and purposes, which further tempts us to brand some artifacts as inherently ‘bad’ and others as inherently ‘good’, regardless of the ways they might be reinterpreted by the adopting culture in the future. This leaves us no room to redeem these artifacts, to ascribe new meanings and purposes to them, and to relate to them in a different way. It robs us of our potential for “creative destruction,” the tearing down of that which we feel is unhealthy and oppressive in order to rebuild something more life-giving.

Ultimately, I agree with Borgmann about the evils of commodifying that which should remain sacred, but I think we need to be careful about where we place the blame for that activity. To play with a familiar phrase, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not within our devices, but within ourselves.”