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

By Brian Winston | Go to book overview
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This is an account of how a particular group of technologists, in history, interacted with their societies to produce a given set of devices. This enterprise is very close to Thomas Kuhn’s project in the historical sociology of science. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)—‘undoubtedly one of the more influential and controversial scholarly books to emerge in the last few decades’ (Gutting 1980:117)—proposes a pattern of cause and consequence relating to changes in the basic concepts governing scientific inquiry. Kuhn offers a schematic explanation of these changes. Kuhn’s schema has been extensively applied to fields well away from the history of science. Indeed by the early 1990s, it received the ultimate accolade of acceptance—and misapplication—when it became a fashion in business school to talk in Kuhnian terms—for example, ‘paradigm shift’. It had become a species of ‘supertheory’. Despite this, my schematic, although about science’s sib, technology, does not follow Kuhn—except in that it offers a (different) schemata and is about (non-existent) revolutions.
‘Revolution’ is used here in its commonly understood sense of alteration and change, rather than in its original technical sense of recurrence or turning. This is the meaning, with its modern connotation of rapid political change, intended by those who coined the phrase ‘Information Revolution’. Raymond Williams wrote:

Revolution and revolutionary and revolutionise have of course also come to be used, outside of political contexts, to indicate fundamental changes, or fundamentally new developments, in a very wide range of activities. It can seem curious to read of ‘a revolution in shopping habits’ or of the revolution in transport’ and of course there are cases when this is simply the language of publicity to describe some ‘dynamic’ new product. But in some ways this is at least no more strange than the association of revolution with VIOLENCE, since one of the crucial tendencies of the word was simply towards important or fundamental change. Once the factory system and the new technology of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century had been called, by analogy with the French Revolution, the INDUSTRIAL Revolution, one basis for description of new institutions and new technologies as revolutionary had been laid.

(Williams 1976:229-30; emphasis in original)

Revolution, in whatever sense it is used, implies movement, and in these developed usages, that means movement through time. The concept of the ‘Information Revolution’ is therefore in essence historical.


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


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