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The Social Context for New Technologies

1896_telephoneThere was an interesting example of how the social and anthropological context shapes the use and evolution of technology in Mark Allen Peterson's book 'Anthropology & Mass Communication: Media and Myth in the New Millennium'. Referencing Naomi Baron, Peterson describes how we have a tendency to think of the modes of how we use technology as being given by the technologies themselves rather than as part of the social or cultural context. 

When the telephone was first invented in the 19th Century it was initially marketed by Bell & Watson as a unidirectional broadcast medium rather than a two-way communications device. The idea was that telephone users could listen to concerts and lectures from the comfort of their own homes. It took a number of years for the telephone to evolve into a medium for interpersonal communication (in fact it continued to be advertised as a device for reception until the end of that century). With the telegraph so prevalent at the time, many people simply couldn't see a use for the telephone or raised concerns about the technology being an invasion of privacy in people's homes. So initially it was used for one way communication, to link senior police officers to their stations for example, or business owners to their business, or politicians to their offices so they could be notified of emergencies. 

It took a long time for the notion of using the telephone as a multi-user device to become a realistic and acceptable proposition. Some of the adaptations that enabled this to happen involved evolutions to the technology like the invention of the telephone exchange. But even after the first telephone exchange was established in Connecticut in 1878, the devices were still leased in pairs so that subscribers could set up their own lines to connect one telephone with another. The relatively low demand for telephones meant that switchboards that were designed to connect multiple users to each other were a late innovation. It was only when rural communities began pooling resources to create local exchanges, almost 20 years after the telephone was invented, that it became a device that started to appear in people's homes for personal use. And it was 30 years after the invention that it started to become widespread in US cities.

This is a good example of several characteristics that seem to be common in the introduction of new technologies. Firstly that the initial invention requires a number of complimentary innovations to make it truly scalable. Secondly that it takes a number of years for people to unlearn what they know about existing ways of doing things and see the true potential uses of the new technology. And thirdly that it is the social context (rural and then eventually urban communities needing to be connected to each other) that gives the technology its true use case and enables it to properly scale.

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