Putting Human Agency into the Equation: The Social Construction of Technology

author: William C. Uricchio, Literature at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Jan. 12, 2014,   recorded: February 2008,   views: 2431

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While television and the Internet, among many innovations, have powerfully transformed our lives, says William Uricchio, the idea that such technologies “like Venus popped out of the water and did something to us” is neither accurate nor interesting. Uricchio describes more useful alternatives to understanding technological progress.

Great ideas seem to percolate for a while, often in different locations, before emerging. Some theorists describe a linear evolution, with developing scientific competencies, specific designs, prototyping, then a socially dictated need. Others describe more of a process-oriented negotiation among political and commercial interests, with false starts, and different versions of the invention popping up before society settles on a dominant application. Uricchio takes up TV as a case study. He notes that the concept for TV emerged as early as 1877, and earned a patent in 1884. Yet, film exploded on the scene first. “Why does it take TV so long to be invented?” ponders Uricchio.

He describes the history of TV as a demonstration of “interpretive flexibility,” of morphing, where the new technology allies itself in successive generations with other technologies. Uricchio recounts Alexander Graham Bell’s two-way telephone, in the 1870s, and a French “telephonoscope.” The Nazis deployed such a television telephone in the 1930s, with a link from Nuremburg to Hamburg. While the electronics industry liked this model, the burgeoning propaganda organization preferred the movie idea of TV, where an audience “was less likely to debate” a state message. “In a theater with secret police, people shut up,” said Uricchio. The Germans also tested TV as a battlefield technology, putting minicameras in the nose of bombs and torpedoes. Technological regimes replicate the vision of their cultures, says Uricchio.

After the war, TV swiftly evolved as a home-based technology, following the need to jump-start the economy and the rapid ascendance of powerful, influential industries like RCA -- which, in spite of much more high definition alternatives, pushed its standard of 525 lines. But even now this highly stable, successful invention is shifting, as TV hooks up with the Internet, and consumers become programmers and broadcasters.

Along with political and commercial pressures, popular imagination or expectations influence the way we use technologies, and where energies go, says Uricchio. The public and inventors find inspiration in the Star Trek holodeck, and ask why we can’t do that. “That’s how material, technological cultures are shaped -- by a dream,” says Uricchio.

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