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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

By way of being honest about my biases, I must confess up front that I am one of the people this book is about. In the mid-1960s, in my early teens, I was seduced by the technical culture of ham radio, and I have been a licensed radio amateur for more than 40 years. I admit it, I am an irredeemable, life-long geek who moved from ham radio to TV production to computers to academia.

Therefore, I came to Kristen Haring's book expecting to uncover her mistakes. Virtually every article I've ever read about amateur radio by a journalist or researcher "outside" the hobby has been riddled with inaccuracies, misunderstandings, and mangled terminology. But Haring (Ph.D. Harvard, 2002) has us nailed. She let it slip at one point that her father is a "ham" (I looked up KB3FD in the license database of the Federal Communications Commission and found him). Clearly, she is intimately acquainted with this material, learned "at her daddy's knee." Her account is accurate in even the most subtle details only an insider would know.

But the book also reveals some significant scholarship based on primary sources, including amateur radio magazines, club newsletters, equipment catalogs, and other materials. Haring does not just relate her family experiences, but offers a comprehensive overview of the growth and development of this hobby, especially from World War II into the early '90s. Though one might wish for a somewhat clearer order of presenting the material, she documents well the influence of this technical culture on the hobby computer culture that emerged in the 1980s and beyond.

The first chapter is an overview and history of technical hobbies in general. Haring traces the concept of hobby that evolved from British aristocracy to middle-class avocation in the late 1800s. Especially in the U.S., the embracing of a hobby interest to fill the increasing amount of middle-class leisure time came to be regarded as a pro-social activity. Amateur radio emerged in the second decade of the 20th century as the epitome of highly technical hobby endeavors, and post-World War II, became one of a number of technical hobbies, such as model aircraft, model rocketry, amateur photography and film, etc. Haring takes care to differentiate activities that utilize technical devices from activities in which the technology itself is the primary focus. In the latter case, the hobbyist is more interested in understanding the technology, exploring its capabilities and limitations, and perhaps even in modifying the equipment, than in the final results. Thus, one hobbyist may be interested in producing photographs as artistic expressions with the equipment being a means to that end, but the technical hobbyist cares less for the art and more for the intricacies of lenses, chemicals, and darkroom techniques as ends in themselves.

Haring reveals that her initial project was to write about technical hobbies as a collective, with one chapter on amateur radio. But what emerged was a book on amateur radio with an introductory chapter on technical hobbies. Some of these personal reflections on process might have been more appropriate in the Prologue, rather than in the first chapter. Also missing from the early chapters is an explicit statement of her theoretical perspective and methodology, though these become clear enough as one reads into later chapters. This is a feminist critique. Haring is primarily interested in the ways in which technology came to be associated with the male gender, and ways in which all technical hobbyists -- but particularly amateur radio hobbyists -- worked intentionally at constructing their activities as expressions of masculinity. In the post-World War II era of the late 1940s and 1950s, men were reintegrating themselves into a social context in which women's entry into the workforce had challenged traditional gender roles. Much of the labor involved in the manufacture of consumer electronics, for example, had been taken over in this era by women, who were hired at lower pay scales and, some said, brought greater manual dexterity to assembly line tasks involving small components. The creation of "manly" technical hobbies was one means of reasserting a masculine identity in this context.

Part of this masculine construction of amateur radio was (and is) focused on this hobby's distinction among technical hobbies as one that is heavily regulated by the federal government. Amateur radio operators are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S., and by similar regulatory agencies in other countries around the world, in accordance with international treaties. To obtain a license, radio amateurs must pass an examination on electronic fundamentals and operating regulations. Further, amateur radio has been associated with the military, in terms of operating procedures and equipment types. In times of war, the military has actively recruited amateurs for their technical expertise and readily transferable communication skills. This government involvement was constructed by amateurs as a testament to the power and importance of their hobby. Haring points out, however, that outsiders often tended to view this regulation as a response to the dangerous and possibly subversive nature of the activity. Particularly in the 1930s, and again in the Cold War era, reclusive neighbors who regularly had contact with foreign radio operators were regarded with considerable suspicion.

Similarly, the opaque nature of the technology, the use of Morse Code and a rather distinctive vocabulary of technical buzz words, all combined to make the hobby and its practitioners rather mysterious. This was a source of pride and distinctiveness to amateurs, but a source of suspicion to their neighbors or even family members. Haring includes an entire chapter on how hobbyists negotiated a place for their time commitments in family life, as well as a place for their equipment in the physical space of the home. She also might have given space to the negotiating of antenna structures in residential neighborhoods, or problems amateurs encountered when their transmissions interfered with cheaply built consumer electronics such as TVs and stereo sets.

Haring narrates at some length the threat to amateur radio's technical culture that was brought about by technology itself. The introduction of integrated circuits in the 1970s and '80s reduced complex radio circuitry to so many "black boxes," the function of which was impossible to observe. These devices required no expert tinkering to operate, and they made radios much cheaper to produce. Thus, the radio operator's entire reason for being was threatened. The first expression of this threat came in the form of the Citizen's Band ("CB") radio craze in the 1970s. The FCC had created the Citizen's Band decades earlier for the benefit of small businesses, and the expense of buying and maintaining the equipment had kept its use limited. Cheap, easy to use radio transceivers allowed anyone to engage in two-way radio outside of the highly regulated technical culture of amateur radio. The result was a bedlam of unlicensed and unrestricted radio transmissions on the air, and considerable confusion among the general public about who ham radio operators were. Amateur radio operators cringed to hear of 18-wheel truck drivers spewing profanity over the airwaves referred to as "hams," while legitimate operators who had studied long and hard for a license were called "just another CBer."

Another expression of the threat posed by technology's advancement toward integrated circuitry was in the changing economy of the electronics industry. As discrete components were incorporated into the "black box" integrated circuits, the components became unavailable from electronics parts suppliers. Hobbyists had difficulty finding the parts needed to build devices in the old fashioned way. Electronic kits, for decades a favored means for beginners to learn the art of building and tinkering with radios, were no longer challenging to build nor economical to produce. Military or industrial radio equipment that amateurs in the past had often purchased at surplus auctions could no longer be modified for use on amateur frequencies. Commercial manufacturers of amateur radio equipment found their profit margins cut by the new manufacturing techniques, and went out of business. Hams, whose cutting-edge experiments had, in an earlier era, contributed to the development of cellular telephone technology and communication satellites in outer space, were now buying antique radio equipment that could still be tinkered with. Nostalgia replaced discovery as a primary driver of the hobby.

But Haring observes that this same shift in technology sowed the seeds for amateur radio's salvation. Hams, as electronic hobbyists, were among the first to take interest in the new micro-computers that were introduced in the 1970s. A publisher of a popular amateur radio magazine soon found that he was publishing so many articles about computers that he started two of the earliest magazines for computer hobbyists. Radio clubs became natural networks for exchanging ideas about the MITS Altair, Commodore PET, or Apple II computers. The Apple even offered an open architecture of slots into which such experimenters might plug their own circuit boards. Computer pioneers, such as Apple's Steve Wozniak (who passed his amateur radio license exam at age 12), and even the young Bill Gates (who defied the culture's preference for the free exchange of circuits and ideas), were exposed to ham radio's technical culture through their interactions with hams who had begun to transfer their interest in tinkering from hardware to software. Digital modes of radio communication, suited for computer-to-computer links, were developed and later became foundations for Wi-Fi and other wireless computer accessories.

Haring stops short of suggesting that ham radio's technical culture created the hobby computer technical culture. But she does make a strong case that the "tinkerer" culture of ham radio interacted with and strongly influenced the emerging "hacker" culture of hobby computing. She notes that the internet and telephone networks of today no longer make contacts with people in distant lands an exotic or suspicious activity, but an everyday event. As computers, like radios, have become simple appliances that anyone can use, technical cultures have lost their distinctiveness and their manliness. Still, Haring is puzzled by the fact that there are more licensed amateur radio operators today, in the 21st century, than at any other time in history. Her conclusions are brief and rather weak, given the amount of data she has so excellently gathered and analyzed. Haring has failed to notice that technical culture has become the mainstream. The geeks have become the majority. In this age of the internet, we are all hams.

Mark D. Johns:
Mark D. Johns (Ph.D. U. of Iowa, 2000) is an Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Communication Studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research interests include social impacts of new communication technologies and intersections of media, religion, and culture. He is co-editor of Online Social Research: Methods, Issues, and Ethics, published in 2004 by Peter Lang. His amateur radio callsign is KØMDJ.  <mjohns@luther.edu>

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