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Media Technology and Society, A History: From the Telegraph to the Internet

Author: Brian Winston
Publisher: London: Routledge, 1998
Review Published: November 2002

 REVIEW 1: Martin Hand

The majority of debate surrounding new media, particularly the Internet, would have us believe that current technologies are radically different in their form and effects from pre-digital media. Where most commentators characterize the present as remorselessly shaped by the singular dynamics of new communications technologies, in Media Technology and Society, Brian Winston suggests that we are witnessing nothing new under the sun. Where others associate new media in all its forms with radical discontinuity, with the restructuring of institutions, practices, and identities [1], Winston sees fundamental continuity in societal organisation. For Winston, the bottom line is that new media are always accommodated by existing social forms: "there is nothing in the histories of electrical and electronic communication systems to indicate that significant major changes have not been accommodated by pre-existing social formations" (2). It is no different for the Internet than it was for the telegraph, wireless or television, where "western civilisation over the past three centuries has displayed, despite enormous changes in detail, fundamental continuity -- and . . . continues to do so" (2). This is the starting point of the book -- a serious challenge to popular thinking about the impact of media technologies. At the risk of over simplification, in this account, society determines technology rather than the other way around.

Brian Winston is Head of the School of Communication, Design and Media at the University of Westminster. This recent book is a reworking of his previous Misunderstanding Media (1986), which put forward a polemical critique of the so-called 'information revolution.' Winston argued that we were seeing nothing of the sort, offering instead a more historically grounded picture of continuity in the emergence, diffusion, and effects of communications technologies. Media Technology and Society revisits this work, with the principle addition being a more detailed and up to date account of microelectronic and Internet technologies. Its primary focus remains historical, in fact this is elevated above more theoretical or sociological concerns, particularly in exploring how new media technologies are embedded within longitudinal sociohistorical processes.

At the most general level, the book attempts to show that what we take to be technological 'inventions' are rather more complex outcomes of societal enabling and constraint than we might ordinarily think. Of course, there are a number of problems with the conventional idea of singular technological 'invention.' Winston raises a series of important questions in this context. Firstly, why are some prototypes abandoned where others are not? Why are some devices deemed 'inventions' and others not? Furthermore, why are many 'inventions' created simultaneously by technologists unbeknown to each other? The figure of the 'lone inventor' or 'solitary genius' is further problematized when we consider the myriad of other social actors and agents involved in 'allowing' a particular technology to emerge and become 'successful.' How can we account for these problems which appear to go against popularly accepted ideas of technological progress?

The principle aim of the book then is to show how this initially 'messy' picture of the emergence of new media can be understood through a general theoretical model, constructed to avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism and hyperbolic speculation. This socially and historically informed model forms the background to the detailed historical reconstructions of 'invention' and 'diffusion.' In theoretical terms, Winston takes issue with technological determinism as this applies to the development of media forms, particularly the notion of profound social change resulting from the introduction and diffusion of specific devices. He argues that whilst change does occur, it is seldom as 'revolutionary' as is often propagated. He points toward the essential continuity of institutions during a century of 'technological bombardment' as evidence of such underlying consistency in social organisation.

The general analytical model is articulated very clearly within the introductory chapter. It is worth describing this at reasonable length here, as this frames the empirical studies which form the remainder of the book.

Before any technological device can be constructed, there has to be a sphere of scientific competence in operation. For example, the idea of television was not possible before the phenomenon of photoemission was identified and broadly understood. This is followed by the first 'transformation,' of which there are three. The first transformation is the process of imagining the technological possibilities enabled by science -- ideation. This is where we see the emergence of prototypes, which are in effect experiments in technological performance. In this sense, technologies are performances, or 'utterances' of scientific competence. This does not mean that the technologist explicitly draws upon scientific knowledge, but rather such knowledge-as-competence has to be in existence for there to be any technological prototype.

However, the development of specific prototypes does not follow a simple law of technical efficiency, where the success of a technology is determined by its properties. In a sense, all the prototypes 'work.' But in order for a prototype to be used and diffused, a social use has to be articulated, through which the technology can actually operate. Prototypes then are not necessarily destined for use. To simplify, four types of prototype are identified here: a rejected prototype fails due to its lack of social use; an accepted prototype becomes socially necessary; a parallel prototype already operates but is translated into another socially necessary context; and a partial prototype might be deemed socially useful but fails technically.

What are the social forces at work here? This is where the second transformation is articulated. Winston calls the generalized societal 'forces' determining the fate of prototypes the supervening social necessities, where social uses are articulated and stimulate the development of the device from prototype to diffusion. This is where we might see the emergence of the 'invention,' where a device becomes mass-marketed. But, as Winston states, "the distinction between prototype and 'invention' is far less clear-cut that is often supposed to be the case" (10).

Winston argues that inventions can be designated a fifth form of prototype, where the development of the accepted prototype is subject to societal 'accelerators,' but also 'brakes.' The accelerator is the aforementioned supervening social necessity, further pushing the diffusion of the prototype. The brakes operate as a third transformation: the suppression of radical potential. Examples of this might be where devices become patented and thus singular, or are subject to extensive forms of institutional regulation. The further effect of this is to decelerate the diffusion of an invention, allowing for the social absorption of new technology, and the protection of social institutions. It should be said that there are substantial caveats applied to the three transformations. They are not to be taken as 'laws' in the formal sense, neither are 'necessity' or 'suppression' conceived in simple terms.

So, what do 'new media' look like when this model is employed? In the main part of the book, Winston reconstructs a series of technological histories within four thematic sections, dealing with sound, pictures, calculation, and networks. These are clustered analytically around specific technological ideas (radio, television, computing, and networking) rather than simply chronologically, thus avoiding an entirely linear narrative of media 'progress' or teleological 'development.' Within each of these sections, the model of technological change is used to good effect in illuminating the complex, often counter-intuitive processes at work in ideation, social necessity, suppression, and diffusion.

Winston takes us through numerous fascinating stories of 'invention,' asking the reader to question self-evident ways of thinking about the emergence of technologies. The common, and often surprising, thread running through all these sections is the demonstration of how apparently new ideas are in fact always much older. For example, in Chapter 1 we learn that the telegraph was an idea in late 18th Century Germany, three decades before the first working device. Similarly, Chapter 5 tells us that the idea of television was mooted in 1877, and in Chapter 11 that the transistor was developed in the 1930s, but had no social use until the latter part of the century. In all these cases, ideation did not necessarily lead to prototypes, and prototypes did not necessitate invention, use, and mass diffusion.

Such a short review cannot possibly do justice to the historical detail of each of the cases in this book. Therefore, I shall simply sketch the chapter on the Internet to give a flavor of the book as a whole.

In the case of the Internet, Winston follows the lead of Hafner and Lyon (1996) in questioning the now solidified myth that the Net emerged through a series of logical stages in development. In fact, Winston relies almost entirely on Hafner and Lyon's account, where there are some more recent scholarly studies of these processes which deal more adequately with the complexities of 'social shaping' and artifactual historicity (cf. Abbate, 1999). Winston's overall argument about the Internet is that we should be concerned to locate similarities with previous networks. For example, we might ask, has the Internet affected social change in a significantly different way from, say, the telegraph? Are they both not ways of translating information across previously disparate territories? Are they both not agents of time-space compression? And so on. These are certainly timely and legitimate questions, often ignored by the proponents of new 'network societies' (Castells, 1997).

I shall simply outline some of the key points here. First, the pool of scientific competence. Winston locates this in early Information Theory (Norbert Weiner's work on predictive gun-sights leading to the idea of 'cybernetics'), as this 'commoditises' information -- it makes it malleable, packageable, sendable. However, it is also the existence of 19th Century telecommunications networks which provide the necessary theoretical models of networking in the first instance. Numerous 'prototype activities' then occur from the 1940s onwards, involving a variety of time-sharing techniques, the most important of which was the effort to create programming protocols enabling the sharing of a single machine by numerous users. We might call these prototypes experiments in moving from 'calculation to communication' within information theory.

Second, the first transformation processes of ideation. Most simply, this involves the emergence of the idea of 'packets' of information, and its association with the notion of a 'web.' Winston enlightens us here on the coming together of older ideas of the web (Vannevar Bush's 'memex' idea, 1945) with 1960's developments in information packets. Work on packet-switching was occurring simultaneously -- there were 'parallel prototypes.' The eventual success of Paul Baran's concept of a distributed network is attributed to the supervening social necessity of distributed communications within a decentralized military network. This is a now well-known, but contested story. However, Winston is detailed and insightful on the rather accidental, messy, and contingent interweaving of different agents and agencies in this story. Things could quite clearly have been otherwise.

Third, the movement of prototype to 'invention.' Winston argues interestingly that according to his model, the Internet emerging in the 1970s should actually be regarded as a 'spin off' from the prototype military project. The Internet then is not a discrete 'invention' as such, it is the unpredictable outcome of a host of independent users and programmers. The central narrative of this convoluted story is the interplay between military and scientific agencies, operating within quite different supervening social necessities. For example, Winston suggests that the degree of 'spin-off' allowed served to deepen the military cover of ARPANET. Moreover, the rapid addition of 'nodes' and applications represents a continuing proliferation of spin offs, rather than the intentional development of a global communications network.

In terms of accelerators and brakes on diffusion and use, Winston argues that despite the dominant thinking in this area, we should not see the Internet as primarily 'user-driven' or un-governable. This is due to the massive investment and control by a host of governmental and commercial services, underwritten by the National Science Foundation. Microsoft's eventual entry into the arena in the 1990s represents, for Winston, the attempt to suppress radical potential, by limiting the numbers of players, and the threats to existing business institutions.

In sum, for Winston, the Internet is just another network in a long line of networks -- primarily similar to the telegraph and the telephone. He asserts that it could have as socially profound, and unrevolutionary, effects as the telephone.

This is the weakest aspect of the argument I think. Diffusion and social use tend to be analyzed in rather instrumental and limited terms. In the case of the Internet, Winston wonders whether it will live up to the hype, whether it really will become the primary site for communication and commerce. Probably not. But there are many more ways in which the Internet is diffused within the social and cultural 'spheres,' as both an artifact shaped by culture, but also as cultural itself.

At a general level, Winston is certainly successful in dismantling the myth that technology, in this case media technology, emerges in a linear, developmental fashion from design to use. Of course, this is nothing new [2], but Winston is right to insist that such thinking still persists in many discourses of the 'information,' 'digital,' or 'communications' age. It is certainly the case that the utopian impulse within much information revolution theorizing requires more urgent critical attention than its dystopian antagonist. As Frank Webster (2002) similarly observes, there are many variants of current information society theory which bring subtle forms of technological determinism in through the back door, as it were.

However, Winston does not perhaps follow this anti-determinist strand far enough. For example, where he dispenses with technological determinism, he replaces this with a thorough going cultural determinism. Whilst this has more explanatory power and empirical coherence, it tends to prevent any reflection upon how new media forms may constitute new forms of culture. They do not do this on their own of course, but that does not mean that the opposite is true and they do not facilitate new cultural forms. For example, in the case of the Internet, it is one thing to say that the Internet does not 'cause' or 'produce' cultural change because of some intrinsic properties, or that it has emerged through much longer process than generally recognised, but it is another to say that the Internet as a configuration of cultural artefacts and practices is not novel. The problem here is that in Winston's model, the domains of 'the technical' and 'the social' remain essentially discrete.

The most obvious criticism is that while Winston expertly reveals some of the complexity of media technologies in cultural context, that context is insufficiently analyzed and differentiated. The 'cultural forces' at play in his reconstructions remain primarily socio-economic, and where broadly cultural, are too simplistic. For example, once the technologies are diffused they are often treated as singular artifacts, as if they are self-identical across a variety of different cultural contexts. As much recent work on the development, diffusion, and use of the Internet stresses, we should perhaps disaggregate 'the Internet' as a totality, as simply another form of network, global in scope (see Hand & Sandywell, 2002; Hine, 2000; and Miller and Slater, 2000). This allows us to both reject the simplistic eulogizing of the Net celebrants, and pursue a more nuanced cultural analysis of the many forms that media technologies might take. However, that may be to accuse this book of not being an apple when it is quite clearly a pear. As a sociohistorical study of media technologies, it is an excellent and thought-provoking exercise in detailed historical analysis.

1. For example, see the very different work of Castells, 1997; Lash, 2002; and Poster, 2001. None of these commentators can really be described as technologically determinist, but they all concur that we indeed live in an 'information age,' 'global information culture,' or a 'second media age,' respectively.

2. The problems of technological essentialism and determinism are well documented within the sociology of science and technology and the philosophy of technology. For canonical accounts, see Bijker et al, 1987; Feenberg, 1999; Grint & Woolgar, 1997; and Law, 1991, among others.

Abbate, J. (1999) Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Bijker, W.E., Hughes, T.P., Pinch, T.J. (eds.) (1987) The Social Construction of Technological Systems. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Castells, M. (1997) The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell.

Feenberg, A. (1999) Questioning Technology. London: Routledge.

Grint, K. Woolgar, S. (1997) The Machine at Work. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Hafner, K. Lyon, M. (1996) Where Wizards Stay Up Late. New York: Touchstone.

Hand, M. Sandywell, B. (2002) 'E-Topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel: on the democratising and de-democratising logics of the Internet, or towards a critique of the new technological fetishism', in Theory, Culture, and Society, Vol 19 (1-2).

Hine, C. (2000) Virtual Ethnography. London. Sage.

Lash, S. (2002) Critique of Information. London: Sage.

Law, J (ed.) (1991) A Sociology of Monsters. London: Routledge.

Miller, D. Slater, D. (2000) The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach. Oxford: Berg.

Poster, M. (2002) What's the Matter with the Internet? University of Minnesota Press.

Webster, F. (2002) Theories of the Information Society (2nd Edition). London: Routledge.

Martin Hand:
Martin Hand is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology, University of York, UK. He is currently completing work on Internet governance, governmentality, and self-transformation in contemporary society.  <mh@handm.fsnet.co.uk>

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