Are All Technologies Communication Technologies?

Friday, January 6, 2012: 2:30 PM
Sheraton Ballroom IV (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Anna McCarthy, New York University
The influence of technological innovation on social life has been a key concern in American business history since the field’s inception. But are the theoretical and methodological resources provided by the discipline of history adequate for addressing the broadest historical implications of technological change? My presentation explores this question, asking how scholars in business history and communications studies have addressed the problem of technological determinism as an explanatory schema. On the surface, this might seem like a rather shopworn, uninteresting problem, its nuances already entirely played out in the intellectual tussles of the graduate seminar. But in fact it seems that the opposite is true—as “social media” expand, the punditocracy is more and more willing to claim for communications technology, and the communications industries, a transformative role in social change. For this reason alone historians need to develop as sophisticated an understanding as possible of the ways that technological diffusion creates particular horizons of possibility in the social realm. Although not all technologies are communications technologies, I will argue that certain models in communications studies provide business historians with powerful frameworks for thinking about how all technologies communicate, and how we might translate what they are saying for a broader public sphere.