Social Technologies and the Rise of American TV

(Republished from my personal blog on July 29, 2017, “A Historical Vignette of Social Technologies and the Rise of American TV)

Technology can be defined as any tool created for the purpose of aiding in particular human tasks, needs, and/or desires. Social technologies serve as facilitators in the exchange of ideas and perceptions across a given human network. After art and language, books are one of the oldest and pivotal forms of social technology.

Prior to the debut of the printing press in Europe (c.1440), books were produced by hand. But by the turn of the 16th century the new print technology gained in popularity and resulted in the production and circulation of millions of various narratives at an unprecedented rate. Historians often focus on the printing press as the technological star of the early modern period, yet tend to neglect the role of books as mass transmitters of social narratives. The printing press merely amplified the communicative and influential power of books and their authors.

People who would have otherwise never connected became exposed to textual and visual narratives from other humans and cultures by way of books. They served as social conduits for the transmission of select textual and visual perceptions of people, thoughts, emotions, material objects, and religious doctrines. Books came to shape Western culture.

On a macro-level social technologies have great impacts upon societies, on a micro-level, they have great cognitive impacts on humans. Though both the action of reading and viewing images utilize the eyes for processing, each action has different cognitive functions. Unlike reading, the act of viewing something (i.e. an image, a face) entails perception and activates particular regions in the brain. Reading is an activity unique to humans. Not only does the brain have to visually interpret symbols and code (letters and words), it must also process language and sentences to form meaning. Our brains have a specific region dedicated to the action of reading.

Types of Cortical Areas, illustration from Anatomy & Physiology, Connexions Web site, Published Jun 19, 2013.

Roughly four centuries after the printing press, the next pivotal form of social technology came along — the telephone. America’s mainstream adoption of the domestic telephone in the early twentieth century altered the way preexisting social networks communicated and transmitted stories. The telephone enhanced communications on a micro-level by establishing a bridge between members of a related human network, by way of sound, in live-time, and over the course of a great distance.

Alongside the ascension of telecommunications’ popularity was the major sonic advancement in social technology — the radio. As a tool, it provided a new means for mass communication to American audiences. On a one-way channel, radio programming sonically transported different perceptions of people, thoughts, emotions, and material objects unknown, to a large mass in live time. It established new social practices in the realm of storytelling, altering the social dynamics of early to mid 20th century America.

Humans process sonic narratives differently from visual narratives, the result being the activation of different sets of cognitive functions. Christopher M. Conway, David B. Pisoni, and William G. Kronenbergeri’s 2009 study on sound and cognition found that sound enables “the development of cognitive processes that rely on the encoding, learning, and manipulation of information and behaviors occurring in sequence.” Sound also aides in perceiving emotional states. Whether by phone or radio, listeners are provided unique sonic scripts that are left open for interpretation.

Print, telephone, and radio communications are similar technologies in that they all rely on single human sensory channels for processing — sight or sound. Providing external sources of content, the reception of their transmission provokes cognition in humans. The result is a co-authored cultural script — a blend of external content and an individual’s reasoning and imagination. Consider the following scenario: Have you ever read a book, then saw the film version afterwards, only to find that the film was rendered differently from what your mind conjured? Have you ever heard a person speak via a phone, then met them in person for the first time, only to find that their physical appearance was different from what you thought?

Man and woman using telephones, c. 1910 postcard
1920’s Photo of an African American Gentleman Reading next to a Candlestick Phone, Atlanta, GA
Farm family listening to their radio By George W. Ackerman, probably Ingham County, Michigan, August 15, 1930 National Archives & Records Administration, Records of the Extension Service (33-SC-14524c) [VENDOR # 172]
A young Frank Sinatra (left) does an interview for one of the many programs produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service for broadcast to the troops overseas during World War II with Alida Valli, an Italian actress. Unidentified date, presumably 1941–1945. Unidentified place.
Sound Waves and the Ear, illustration from Version 8.25 from the Textbook OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology, Published May 18, 2016

With the advent of television, visual and sonic technologies were combined into a more comprehensive social communication tool. As disposable income increased during the post WWII boom, televisions quickly became technological staples within American households. Between 1948 to 1954, the number of homes with televisions increased from 0.4% to 55.7%. By 1958, 83.2% of American households owned a piece of TV technology. Despite the existence of various economic classes within America, TVs were rapidly adopted into American households due to ranges in affordability, due to drastic price cuts for the production of TV technology.

With America’s mainstream adoption of televisions, millions of people were able to both see and hear various people, who they would have otherwise never met, in the comfort of their own homes, via a screen. Viewers/listeners’ visual and audial sensory receptors were simultaneously activated and primed to receive transmitted content. Television’s innovative ability to transport moving images, sounds, ideas, and social narratives, shifted the realm of storytelling and established a new culture.

On the subject of culture, the late American anthropologist Ward Goodenough wrote:

“A society’s culture consists of whatever it is one has to know or believe in order to operate in a manner acceptable to its members…Culture Is not a material phenomenon; it does not consist of things, people, behavior, or emotions. It is rather an organization of these things. It is the forms of things that people have in mind, their models for perceiving, relating, and otherwise interpreting them.”

According to this view, a culture (i.e., American or mainstream culture) is a standardized organization of social perceptions within a given society. A person’s ability to accurately translate the existence of a particular person/people, object(s), emotion(s), idea(s), language(s), and/or behavior(s) is dependent on the observer’s/author’s relationship to the subject matter. Disseminating such perceptions across a vast society is not a solitary task. A small network of people can create and define such standards, but when it comes to circulation and implementation, manual communication techniques can only reach so many. Technology on the other hand, such as television, enables mass communication transmissions.

Based upon Goodenough’s view on culture, it is plausible to suggest that TV programming, channeled through televisions, is an architect for the social organization of ideas, things, people, behavior, and/or emotions. Should we equate American TV with American culture? If so, one must take into consideration who are the authors, conveyors, and distributors of TV culture.

TV programming requires a script, a director, a cast, visual artists, among other things. In essence, such roles are similar to the role of an ethnographer. According to the late Clifford Geertz, the role of anthropology is the “enlargement of the universe of human discourse,” and the role of an ethnographer is to interpret and translate their observations of complex conceptual structures, “which he must contrive somehow first to grasp and then…render.” Whether intentional or not, the TV industry became accidental anthropologists and ethnographers.

Geertz went on to describe the field of ethnography as the attempt to read incoherent and unconventional manuscripts and develop a way to translate their substance and context by way of “thick description.” He advocated that ethnographers should immerse themselves in a subject’s language and various behaviors to truly grasp the best way to communicate its essence to a group of people who exist beyond the subject’s primary social unit. Just because a person may have a Ph.D. in the social sciences, or an Emmy for writing, does not necessarily mean that they can generate, or apply authentic, “thick description.” On the surface, both a given body of research or script can be perceived as exceptional, but its foundation can also be built upon “thin descriptions.”

As a conduit for transmitting visual and sonic “thick” and “thin” descriptions, the social technology regarded as the television is equipped to disseminate various narratives across a wide social landscape. It is a multifaceted social creation that has the power to educate, entertain, and misguide. Diving deeper into the history of television and TV programming can offer deeper insight into American Culture. Furthermore, such an investigation offers an aerial perspective on the circulation and rendering of various cultural scripts with in popular American culture.

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