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Ham Radio's Technical Culture

Author: Kristen Haring
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: September 2009

 REVIEW 1: Mark D. Johns
 REVIEW 2: Amanda R. Keeler
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Kristen Haring

One of my hopes in writing Ham Radio's Technical Culture was that historical study of the community of two-radio operators might contribute in some small way to understandings of virtual communities, user-generated content, and other forms of computer interactivity. I therefore particularly appreciate having the book reviewed as part of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies. It is a great privilege to have fellow scholars closely read my work, and I thank Mark Johns and Amanda Keeler for generously devoting attention to Ham Radio's Technical Culture. Their thoughtfully balanced distillations of my central points leave me needing to make only a couple specific responses. Beyond those, I will take the opportunity of this forum to address a general issue raised by these and other reviews of the book.

I agree with Keeler's assessment of radio operator's confirmation postcards as "the most fascinating artifact" of the hobby. The desire to make a paper record of on-air communication tacitly expressed a mild dissatisfaction with the medium of radio. On top of the FCC requirement to record each radio contact in a logbook, many ham radio operators spent the time and money to record the contact on a postcard and mail it to the person who they had just spoken to over the airwaves. Even to hobbyists who loved radio dearly, there was evidently a sense of greater stability in written communication. Internet communication, too, appears to trump radio in this regard: some hams now send confirmation of radio contact via e-mail. I regret that I could not treat this matter in fuller detail in the book, and I believe that radio hobbyists' confirmation postcards would be a worthwhile example to pursue in connection with the topic of how users choose technologies.

I estimate that about one million Americans operated ham radios over the course of the 20th century. Any single book will fail to convey the diverse experiences of that many individuals. So it is especially rewarding to have Johns, an insider both to amateur radio and to communications studies, assess that I captured the essence of the hobby. His criticism that I did not "notice that technical culture has become mainstream," however, makes me realize that I fell short of one of the project's broadest goals. Namely, I wanted to synthesize under the term "technical culture" a cluster of ideas that have been circulating in technology studies. I should have made my definition clearer by expounding upon it throughout the book, and I cannot correct that here. The brief version is that "technical culture" intentionally references two phenomena. First, I use it to refer to the normative values, meanings, and practices that people develop around technologies. Additionally, I use it to describe the way that technology gets worked into culture at large. It is this latter sense that needed to be articulated more carefully in order to express the conclusion I share with Johns that culture is now imbued with technology.

I continue to be surprised by how often readers describe this book as focused on gender. Of course, I know I wrote a great deal about masculinity in relationship to ham radio, yet that was never my focus. My primary interest in examining technical hobbies was always people's closeness to technology. Reading through the ham radio literature, I simply could not ignore hobbyists' repeated discussions of radio's essential manliness, of women and girls as threats, and of the struggle to participate in ham radio while maintaining a happy marriage and family life.

Because Johns has mentioned it in his review, I will admit here what I did not state in the book: I am the daughter of a ham radio operator. I have a wonderful relationship with my father and no complaints about his hobby, which I am sure made a positive contribution to my own technical interests. This left me in an uncomfortable position. To be intellectually honest about the overwhelming historical evidence, I was going to have to write a general analysis which could be interpreted as a personal commentary. When I talked about this with my father, he dismissed my concerns on several grounds including that he knew why I was writing about ham radio and expected me to be true to my sources.

I think that my father was more hurt than I was to read the maligning of my scholarship and character, and the threats against me, by angry ham radio operators that broke out as soon as the book was released. I can explain the strongly negative reaction of several members of the ham radio community quite easily. In fact, I already explained it in the book. The ham radio community of mid 20th century America spent a lot of energy securing and defending its masculine, heterosexual identity. Harsh criticisms of the book by present-day ham radio operators in almost all cases were reactions to that analysis (including an entrenched misreading which falsely claimed I characterized hobbyists as homosexuals) and, ironically, provided a further example of the defense of those identities.

With respect to the scholarly audience of the book, I am happy to have my study of the ham radio community well received by gender and family studies. Technical hobbies are certainly relevant in those disciplines. Within technology studies, I feel there is a pressing need for gender analysis at a deep level, reaching beyond observations that technology is masculine. The frequent, explicit discussion of gender and sexuality in ham radio publications provided an opportunity to trace precisely how one technology was made masculine. If gender permeates my book, it is because hobbyists' task of securing ham radio's manliness required constant effort, in every circle in which they moved -- the military, workplaces, neighborhoods, families, radio clubs, and the marketplace. This intricate combination of small steps helped conceal the process -- maybe even to participants -- and make ham radio seem inherently manly.

I am grateful to Johns and Keeler, who both mention gender as a dominant theme, for taking the time also to situate the book in a larger context. Their substantive reviews will support my attempt to communicate that gender is an important, but single, component of the culture of technology.

Kristen Haring


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