Raymond Williams: The Technology and the Society

From: Television and Cultural Form. Hanover, N. H.:Westleyan University Press, 3-25, 1992. 1st printing London.

  • We are used to statements about technologies that alter our world. We got so used to statements of this kind that we fail to realise their specific meanings.
  • When we discuss the effect of some technology on social behavior we tend to take for granted that technology is the cause. In order to avoid superficial observations we must look at the notions of cause and effect between technology and society, technology and culture, technology and psychology.
  • Questions about cause and effect between society and technology may seem very difficult and impractical, yet they are intensely practical. Without them it is impossible to establish if technology is the cause or the effect, these questions form an important part of our cultural arguments.
  • I will try to analyise television according to three headings; (a) versions of cause and effect in technology and society. (b) the social history of television as technology; (c) the social history of the uses of television technology.
  • A. versions of cause and effect in technology and society:
    (i) what does it mean that television altered the world? it can mean several things:
    (ii) Television was invented as a result of technological research. Its power as news and entertainment medium was so great that that it altered all preceding media of news and entertainment.
    (iii)Television was invented as a result of technological research. It altered social relationships.
    (iv)Television was invented as a result of technological research. As an electronic medium it altered our perception of reality and our relation with each other and the world.
    (v) Television was invented as a result of technological research. together with other inventions it altered the scale and form of our societies.
    (vi) Television was invented as a result of technological research. It had unforeseen consequences on family, cultural and social life.
    (vii) used as an investment vehicle.
    (viii) emphasized passivity.
  • The first class of opinions (i-v) states that the technology is accidental, i.e. there is no particular reason why this technology was invented. Similarly, the consequences are also accidental. If television was not invented certain cultural forms would not develop.
  • The second class of opinions (vi-viii) state that television is a technological accident, but its significance lies in its uses, which are symptomatic of some order of society or some qualities of human nature.
  • The first class of opinions is known as “technological determinism”
  • Second class is less determinist. It sees any particular technology as a by–product of a social process that is otherwise determined. (Lets call it “social determinism” – DR)
  • These are the two main positions in our thinking about technology, both make important points but in the end they are sterile, because both abstracted technology from society.
  • It is possible to outline a different kind of interpretation which will allow us to see the history of television in a more radical way, by restoring the intention to the process of research and development. Technology is researched and developed with certain purposes already in mind.
  • B. The social history of Television as a Technology
  • A whole range of technologies was developed over several centuries in connection with and in response to social and economic changes. Developments in the fields of electricity, telegraphy, photographic imaging, cinema and radio where at once incentives and responses within a phase of general social transformation.
  • C. The social history of the Uses of Television Technology
  • Unlike all previous communication technologies, radio and television were systems primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes, with little or no definition of preceding content.
  • Broadcasting was a social product of the tendency towards mobility on one hand and self-contained family unit on the other.
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