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Author: David J. Staley
Title: Brian Winston's Media Technology and Society, A History From the Telgraph to the Internet
Publication Info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 1999

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Source: Brian Winston's Media Technology and Society, A History From the Telgraph to the Internet
David J. Staley

vol. 2, no. 2, August 1999
Article Type: Book Review

Media Technology and Society, A History From the Telgraph to the Internet

David J. Staley

Brian Winston, Media Technology and Society, A History From the Telgraph to the Internet (Routledge, 1998)

This book was the recipient of the 1999 American Association for History and Computing Book Prize. Winston's central contention is that the "Information Revolution" is "largely an illusion, a rhetorical gambit and an expression of technological ignorance." (2) Information technologies over the last several centuries form a part of a larger evolutionary whole. The recent developments in electronic digital communications are not the radical discontinuity identified by pundits and critics alike.

To make this claim, Winston argues that the appearance and development of a communications technology follows a pattern. It begins with scientific competence, which refers to scientific thought and understanding, the pool of theoretical ideas from where technologies spring. Thus, before the development of the telegraph, scientific ideas of magnetism and electricity had to first be in place.

Those thinkers who apply these scientific ideas to envision technological possibilities engage in the process of "ideation:" the creation of technological hypotheses. For example, before the invention of television, Senlecq developed the idea for using selenium to scan images. The process of ideation transforms scientific competence into technological performance: ideas become objects, in the formof "prototypes."

Winston demonstrates that technological development is dependent on more than simply technical efficacy; "intervening social necessity" moves prototypes from laboratories to the larger world. He identifies four classes of prototypes. "Rejected" prototypes are those that fail because no social use is articulated. "Accepted" prototypes are those where social necessity creates a need for the object. A "parallel" prototype is already is use somewhere and is then applied to a new situation, again determined by social need. "Partial" prototypes are those that, while socially useful, are technical failures.

When prototypes so move from lab to the mass market, they achieve the status of "inventions." In fact, Winston sees inventions as a fifth class of prototype. Inventions may be subject to a different type of social force: a brake on its further development labeled "the suppression of radical potential." This suppression make take many forms, from restrictions imposed by patent systems to constraints enabled through institutional inertia. Inventions may also lead to spin-offs—extensions of an invention, such as the video game—and redundant technologies—such as laser video disks—those that are made irrelevant by a competing invention.

Winston applies this theory to a wide range of communications technologies, from telephones, radios and televisions to integrated circuits, personal computers and communications satellites. This theory works well when explaining technological development in the industrial era, but perhaps should not be so rigidly applied to pre-industrial, medieval, ancient or non-Western technologies. In these cases, the social, scientific and commercial processes involved in the creation and dissemination of technologies are markedly different.

Winston concludes his book by using the theory to envision the future of holography, which he believes is very close to the invention stage. He notes that several prototypes already exist and that given Western culture's infatuation with "realism," the social necessity may already exist to make the invention close to realization. Imagining the invention of holography before it is developed emphasizes that inventions are not solely the product of exceptional individuals but rather of a web of social, scientific and technical processes.

While Winston takes an historical, longue duree view of technological development, his is not a teleological view. He believes it important to consider prototypes and ideas that did not become systematized as inventions. This is an excellent corrective to the teleological view of technological "progress:" that the history of technology is the story of an unbroken chain of successful inventions built by great men. For Winston, the diffusion of technology is contingent and context-dependent.

David J. Staley
Heidelberg College