Prompt: Read Technology and Communication in American History by Gregory J. Downey. Discuss your reactions to the book, as well as Downey’s approach to the Information Age.
Overlapping Infrastructures of the Information Age: A Common Approach
Seeking to understand the Information Age as a convergence of “technological infrastructures, social processes, and historical actors” (Downey, 10), “Technology and Communication in American History” author Gregory J. Downey divides communication infrastructures into four overlapping categories:
- Print Communication and Transportation: From Early European settlement onward
- Networked Interpersonal Communication: From the Mid-Nineteenth-Century onward
- Broadcast Mass Communication: From the Early-Twentieth Century onward
- Computer-Mediated Communication: From the Mid-Twentieth Century onward.
“Revolutionary or Evolutionary?”
The Information Age is not a product of “technological determinism,” by which one invention smoothly leads to another, but rather, is part of a multi-faceted, “broader historical process” that works in tandem with a society’s readiness and willingness to adopt and engage with new technologies.
These sentiments are not unusual to a historian of the Information Age, as the interplay of society and technology is discussed both in Brian Winston’s Media Technology and Society, and Claire Evan’s Broad Bands: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet, as discussed in my previous post.
Furthermore, the notion of “technological determinism,” by which technologies evolve in a linear fashion, is in fact a misnomer. Rather, humans actively change the constrain and enable their environments, and technological advancement occurs as a product of such events. (Downey, 8).
The Hierarchical Flow of Technological Evolution
In each distinct category of information infrastructure, there lies a common theme of development. What does the printed newspaper have in common with the Internet, aside from being influential modes of communication? Both modes saw their original uses as being limited to influential organizations, such as the government, the church, or merchants, for purposeful, concise reasons.
The average citizen in Colonial America was highly unlikely to print their documents or books, as the resources required to engage in such an endeavor – both human and machine – were cost prohibitive. However, as industrialization drove the price of paper down and the speed of printing up, the uses for print media multiplied into increasingly casual, individualized niches (Downey, 26).
Similarly, early computers and the internet both began as government-funded military projects for the benefit of large organizations, and, through societal interest and public investment, morphed into for more ubiquitous elements of daily, individual life, elements which now appear to be permanently changing the global information age, or the “Web 2.0” (Downey, 61).
Augmenting Human Labor
I believe that the most important takeaway from Technology and Communication in American History is the fact that technologies serve to augment, not to replace human labor. The programming of computers like ENIAC or the SAGE program would not have been possible without skilled laborers, and it is important to keep in mind that a computer is simply a machine. A machine rendered useless without intelligent, capable humans helping that computer “think.”
Additionally, in every instance that a new technology arises, such as the advent of the lino type machine rendering the work of “steno” typist girls obsolete, a new venue for human labor arises (Downey, 16). The era of digital convergence in the mid twentieth-century onward has led to the rise in information technology and public relations professionals, in response to the need to handle new technologies and their effects on society.
In an era in which common conversation is filled with snide remarks on how the internet is ruining our intelligence, how smartphones are making us sad, or how things were so much simpler when there was only one cable news channel, it is important to remember just why these modes of communication we so readily criticize exist.
Technologies have been criticized for centuries. The rise of movie theaters in the early-twentieth century prompted public outrage as governments and families worried that film would have severely negative effects on their children (Downey, 34), no different than the worries of today’s parents over whether or not their children should partake in social media.
The days and technologies of yore were not purely wholesome due to their simplicity, nor is the contemporary age a period of sheer vice and degradation.
The Information Age is not entirely good or bad, nor is it entirely occupied by machines and cyberspaces. The most important members of the Information Age are not our technologies, but rather, the individuals who imagine, invent, program, and utilize them. These facets of science, technology, and humanity converge into their own commentary on society at any given point in time.
Just as technologies can be readily criticized, they can be readily praised. And when we praise a computer for solving a problem, messaging services for keeping us in contact, or a GPS for getting us where we need to go, let us keep in mind the minds and souls of the individuals who made such endeavors possible.
(Citations for all blog posts are also available here.)
Downey, Gregory J. Technology and Communication in American History. American Historical Association, 2011.
Evans, Claire L. Broad Bands: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. Portfolio, 2018.
Winston, Brian. Media Technology and Society – A History: From the Telegraph to Internet. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. 1-15.