Thursday, January 22, 2015

Stumbling upon television?

One of the questions that intrigued me in this week’s readings is that of intent in relation to technology. Technological developments, argues Raymond Williams, can not be conceived outside the socio-cultural complex within which they emerge. For him, technology is not an independent sphere of human existence that plays a determining role in social change, nor is it merely a symptom of transformations already underway. Instead of attributing paradigmatic shifts to particular inventions such as television, he begins by linking it to a number of pre-existing technologies like electricity, cinema, radio, photography etc. According to him, the technological possibilities attributed specifically to television were already present. Thus, the cultural force of television derives not from its distinct technological features but from the manner in which capital and other resources were directed towards developing and distributing it as a mass medium. Williams attempts to ‘restore intention’ (6) to a process seen as accidental by pointing out the ways in the which the State and military were complicit in advancing television as a means of control and centralization. 

Marshall Mcluhan, on the other hand, offers a divergent perspective on questions of intent and control in relation to technology. According to him, the effects of a technology may be directed only to a certain extent by the functions and uses it is put to. For him, electric technology necessitates entirely new ways of thinking about cause and effect, making them non-sequential and almost simultaneous as both thought and action converge. Television, for instance, participates in a re-ordering of the senses where the viewer is not merely a passive consumer but engaged in a creative process of interplay. While Williams lays emphasis on television as ‘a new and powerful form of social integration and control’ (15), Mcluhan argues that electric technologies have an inherently decentralizing tendency that resist and undermine patterns of uniformity. The effects of the medium lie beyond conscious control and judgement as it involves a fundamental change in modes of perception. Where the political charge of Williams’ scholarship emerges from an awareness of the hierarchical structures that shape the flows of technology, Mcluhan moves towards a scholarly practice that concerns itself less with the question of origins and intent. Instead, in shifting focus to the specificity of the medium’s sensory impact and its reconfiguration of spatio-temporal categories, he foregrounds the need to develop new modes of analysis.

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