Tech determines it…

I love technology. I love the way it shapes my life. I love valves, diodes, transistors, microprocessors, plastic casings, rotary tone controls and sliding faders. Does all this stuff determine the culture around me? My answer (in a rather shy retiring way when talking about this amongst some academics) is yes: I’m a technological determinist. That means I think tech stuff plays a major part in shaping the society, culture, and world around us.


But what about the people, I hear you say. Yes sure: they do things which affect us. But my point is that technology needs to be accorded an equal place when thinking about how things work. Think, for example, of the cultural etiquette of queueing at the bank or post office (remember those days before online apps?). The bank lays out signs on the floor, rope barriers, and electronic audio-visual displays which call us to “Cashier Number Three Please” in a voice weirdly unladen with any human intonation. Those technical things help to determine the cultural behaviour of humans waiting in line in that social situation. In an even bigger way, the manner in which you’re reading this is fully determined by the technology you’re using.

Sociologists call this way of thinking about the world around us ‘actor network theory’. One book which has shaped my view is:

Thomas Hughes, Networks of Power: Electrification in Western Society, 1880-1930 (Baltimore, MD, 1983).

Thomas Hughes was investigating the network of companies which generated and supplied electric power to consumers in both Europe and North America in the early years of the twentieth century. His aim was to find a way of thinking about complex organisational structures in a flexible way and ‘…not simply [write] a history of the external factors that shape technology’ (Hughes, p.2). Electricity involves multiple actions and actors: from finding raw materials – coal or gas – and transporting them to a power station (by lorry, rail or pipeline) for the generation of supplies, to the technology which organises the regulation, sale, and distribution of the electricity from the power station to the final consumer who switches on the light and boils the kettle.

To investigate all this involves the study of business history, management theory, politics, geography, physics, engineering, and the sociology of consumer societies. It also involves analysing the manner in which technological advances are made. Those historians of technology – like me – who have followed Hughes’s lead are ‘…refusing to take technology as a given, they insist on viewing it as a malleable product of human history, no more and no less given than culture or politics’ (Eric Schatzberg, ‘Culture and Technology in the City: Opposition to Mechanized Street Transportation in Late Nineteenth-Century America’, in Michael Thad Allen and Gabrielle Hecht (eds.), Technologies of Power: Essays in Honour of Thomas Parke Hughes and Agatha Chipley Hughes (Cambridge, MA, 2001), p. 58.).

I’ve written in more detail about this approach to studying large complex technical cultural systems in my book, Brazilian Railway Culture.

So, in the same way, I don’t want to ignore all the technology surrounding radio. Rather apt when you think that without electricity the radio industry would not exist.

Which is, I hope, a way of introducing this video clip from the BBC that shows the technical manner in which a fifteen minute news programme is broadcast live. When you click on the link you can watch an edition of BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat going out from their studios in London in 2010. The presenter is Tulip Mazumdar who sits alone in her presentation cubicle. On right of the main picture, in the check shirt, is Derek Knight, one of the Newsbeat technical studio broadcast assistants, working the controls. He’s mic’d up so that you can hear what he’s saying both to Tulip and to the reporters and correspondents waiting to go on air. Watch closely Derek’s compulsive manner with the mixing desk and the playout buttons.  I know exactly what he’s thinking: it’s a total concentration on the buttons, the script, the sounds of live feeds and the second-hand of the clock. He’s barely aware of the programme producer (only just visible sitting to his right), but has to keep up a stream-of-consciousness description of what he’s doing just so the producer can take a decision – if really needed, because it’s the technology that’s really in charge as you can see when one of the live feeds goes down.

This is why we call it ‘driving the desk’: because a live radio show that’s well presented and tightly operated is a joy akin to taking a fast car up an empty mountain road on a sunny day. I know: I’ve done it. It’s these technical things that bring happiness – beyond human…

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