A fantastic journey into the ether

Media Technology and Society
August 21, 1998

Brian Winston started writing about the evolution of technology in the 1970s with a book entitled Dangling Conversations. For a quarter of a century now he has acted as a kind of cautionary prophet, both proclaiming the significance of computer, cable, satellite and network and at the same time demonstrating the way these all fit into longer processes of social change. This book now provides a comprehensive account of all the new electric and electronic technologies, embedded in an historical theory of technological change.

Winston writes emphatically against the tide of communication hype, denouncing (sometimes a little too shrilly) the use of the over-worked term "revolution" in descriptions of the momentous social and institutional changes which are occurring all around us. His whole train of thought arises from the endeavour to eradicate fashionable technological determinism and to provide a substitute paradigm for a late 20th-century "information revolution".

This book reflects a prodigious and entertaining knowledge of the origins and linkages, the false starts and abandoned prototypes, in all of the technologies of telegraph, telephone, radio, television, cinema, phonograph, fax, VCR, Internet and many more. These are all traced back to the social, institutional and scientific exigencies and compulsions which made them desirable or precocious, each in its time; thus Winston works through long strands of continuity, displacing more conventional history of electronic "inventions". He discovers the balance of forces both pushing and inhibiting innovation through two centuries, with a steady and historically repetitious relationship between prototypes and successful newcomers. The social sphere is primary, determining the rate of acceptance. He comes up with a nice analogy between his ideas about technology and Saussurian theory, suggesting that each device acts in relation to scientific competence as "utterance" does to linguistic competence. Neat.

But the engine of technological change is a series of what he calls "supervening social necessities", each being a concentration of vexations and dislocations in society which force a transforming innovation into being. Innovation occurs in a constant stream, each prototype springing from ever-growing scientific competence but it is the coalescing of urgent needs which moves the devices from the condition of experiment to general social acceptance.

I should have liked the book to have told us more about the connections and contrasts with other theories of technical and industrial innovation. Evidently, the author is not a supporter of Thomas Kuhn who was trying to explain rather than deny the operations of "scientific revolutions". It would be interesting to see Winston fit his ideas into the patterns of innovation suggested by historians of industry and into the work of chaos and complexity theorists who might fight shy of his diagrams which suggest strict and precise forms of causation. Moreover, it is hard to reconcile Winston's thinking with much accepted historical description of the industrial changes at the end of the 18th century which occurred in so concentrated a form that the term "revolution" (by analogy with events in the political sphere in France) seemed so apt to later historians.

The reader is left to wonder whether there really are deducible and transposable mechanisms behind social processes of innovation. Take the example of the urgent 18th-century requirement for error-free nautical tables on the part of the Navy, which encouraged Babbage to ponder the ratchets of his "difference engine" in the 1820s, drawing on an understanding of logarithms already two centuries old. None of that centuries-long grandfathering really reduces the sense of a transforming change in our own day nor removes the sense of there being "inventions" and "inventors", in the traditional sense, ever at work. Of course, the needs of a world war and of the later arms race undoubtedly acted as the supervening necessities that conjured the computer as we now know it out of the realm of gimcrack prototypes. But to make the computer somehow inevitable, as Winston's theory appears to do, is to place an eerie kind of technological Calvinism at the heart of scientific history.

At the end of this book, stimulated as we are by Winston's immense and well-laid-out learning, we are still left - perhaps? - with an information or digital revolution and an albeit enlightened and chastened sense of invention. Perhaps there are also supervening cultural necessities at work that make us want it like that.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Media Technology and Society: A History from the Telegraph to the Internet

Author - Brian Winston
ISBN - 0 415 14229 6 and 14230 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £50.00 and £16.99
Pages - 374

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