Claude Fischer and Raymond Williams

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When a theorist develops a construct, he or she often attempts to make a compelling argument for those concepts they wish to foreground without denying the salience of that which they wish to background but cannot completely excuse – McLuhan excepted. Consequently, it falls upon the reader to determine the extent to which the theorists genuinely disagree, or are simply highlighting different aspects of a similar model. I encountered this realization again upon reading Fischer (1992) and Williams (2003) on technology (including media) determinism. Both authors are concerned with a technology that has a profound relationship with the social sphere. Fisher writes that "The telephone captures most cleanly the magnification of social contact …” (1992:23) Williams writes that television is and “outstanding case” as an element of interaction between technology, social institutions and culture that “is in effect unparalleled” (2003:xiv). Both authors imply that this tight coupling prompts confusion – and hence their attempt at clarity – on the question of, “Does technology drive social change?” as Fischer asks, or is technology an effect or a cause, as Williams asks.

Both authors address this question by stepping through a range of perspectives: from simple technological determinism, hybrid forms, to structuration and beyond. (The table below includes the major perspectives of each.)

Fischer

Williams

Characteristics

impact

pure

Technology is an external cause

impact-imprint

 

Transferable technological essentialism

symptomatic

symptomatic

Mere expressions of a social Geist

structuration

structuration

A recursive engagement of many forces

 

 

 

 

 

 

user heuristics

 

Nuanced analysis of end-use

 

originator intention

Critical engagement of incumbent interests

The first such perspective is what Williams calls a pure form of technological determinism; it asserts that technology is a central/internal process of research and development, “which then sets the conditions for social change and progress" (2003:5). Fischer’s corresponding critique is of “impact analysis”, akin to Ogburn’s billiard-ball model in which “a technological development rolls in from outside and ‘impacts’ elements of society, which in turn ‘impact’ one another” (1992:8). Like Williams’ critique of pure determinism, Fischer notes objections to the, "assumption that technological change comes from outside society as part of an autonomous scientific development and application of a device follows straightforwardly from its instrumental logic” (1992:8). According to Fischer (1992:10), the proposition that culture sometimes lags the technological cause does little to rescue this perspective from conceptual and empirical “insufficiency.”

Fisher also identified a less-direct form of technological determinism, impact-imprint, wherein causal power is not attributed to the technological artifacts, but its essence. He cites Stephen Kern and others for arguing that new technologies eradicate space and shrink time: “The crux of Kern's argument is that the essences of the technologies-the speed of the bicycle and automobile, the instancy of the telegraph and telephone – transfer to their users" (1992:10). Yet, Fischer notes that such claims are made selectively: one might argue that the car accelerates the pace of life, but it also might make a road trip more leisurely since it permits one to proceed on one's own pace and stop to "smell the roses." Consequently, Fisher argues that the word impact should be abandoned all-together: the metaphor misleads with respect to both mechanistic and romanticized notions of technology's effects.

The critique of the second major perspective is what prompted me, upon my initial reading, to think that Fischer was taking issue with Williams: "’Symptomatic’ analysts, to use literary critic Raymond Williams term, describe technologies not as intrusions into a culture but as an expression of it.” Yet, upon reading Williams it is obvious that he is not advocating this view as it, "considers particular technologies or complex of technologies, as symptoms of change of some other kind” (2003:6). Granted, the symptomatic approach may be more nuanced than “pure” technological determinism, However, both views are problematic because they depend on the "isolation of technology." In fact, each of the nine forms of causality identified by Williams contain this artificial break between technology and society:

Fischer's states that symptomatic analysts "described technologies not as intrusions into a culture but as expressions of it" (1992:12 ). His concern with this approach is related to his criticism of impact-imprint theory but the terms are inverted into imprint-impact. Instead of technologies’ central characteristics contaminating culture, it is a larger social Geist, or spirit, that is “an increasing rationalization of life, carrying with it mechanization, inauthenticity, and similar sweeping changes.” This force spawns a set of homogeneous technologies that are in essence a manifestation of the fundamental Geist (1992:13). Williams writes, "While we have to reject technological determinism, in all its forms, we must be careful not to substitute for it the notion of a determined technology" (2003:133).

Fischer notes a few of the problems of this approach. First, the logic of causation in this theory is usually opaque. Do people learn rationalization through using the devices, or is using a device simply an expression of practice learned elsewhere, such as the media? Second, there is an implicit claim that technologies operate in parallel and with a homogeneous effects. Third, there is the assumption that technologies’ effects are the same for all people. And finally, that the effects of technology are cumulative: “the more of the cause, the more the consequence” (1992:15).

The final perspective that Fisher and Williams address, and are sympathetic to, before offering their own contribution is that of the social construction of technology – though not explicitly named as such by Williams. In this view, "struggles and negotiations among interested parties shape … history" (1992:16). In a particularly elegant passage Williams writes (2003:138-139):

We have to think of determination not as a single force, or a single abstraction of forces, but as a process in which real determinant factors – the distribution of power or of capital, social and physical inheritance, relations of scale in size between groups – set limits and exert pressures, but neither wholly controlled nor wholly predict the outcome of complex activity within or at these limits, and under war against these pressures.... Thus whether the theory and the practice can be changed will depend not on the fixed properties of the medium nor on the necessary character of its institutions, but on the continually renewable social action and struggle.

The social construction view of technology is a mature and respected understanding of technological development; Fisher and Williams have arrived at this position through a parallel critique of other (more or less) deterministic approaches. So, with respect to the realization I offered at the beginning of this essay, I conclude that these are similar constructs with differing focuses. And here is where Fischer and Williams diverge: Williams is acting as a social critic and turns to intention, and Fisher acts as a social historian and focuses on end use.

As discussed, Williams is concerned with the autonomous character of technological research and development under theories of determinism; his alternative is a socially constructed understanding with a shift in emphasis towards intention, "The technology would be seen, that is to say, has been looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind” (2003:7). This approach also differs from symptomatic technology in that “these purposes and practices would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the technology is not marginal but central” (2003:7).

Williams wishes to append the question "To what purpose?" to Laswell’s analytic questions of “Who says, what, how, to whom, with what effect? (1992:122). Williams argues that failing to ask this question is common because through such concepts as “socialization” and “social functions” the functionalist view of perpetuating existing structures is privileged. Under such conditions, to study "effects" is already rationalized according to incumbents’ interests – and such studies are financed by those interests. Thus, to study TV’s effects is to study at the “tertiary level” removed from the “total social practice” (1992:128).

Yet, Williams does not provide, or at least I cannot discern, a methodology for the study of intention. Granted, through his historical analysis we learned that its development was a complex process with "specific military, and administrative and commercial intentions." Perhaps, to ask for a methodology is to misunderstand Williams’ purpose. For he uses intention to argue that if we can understand common effects as secondary or tertiary, and that "current orthodox theory and practice are, on the contrary, effects" – instead of causes – we have a right to question the genuine causes, the primary causes, within the orthodoxy of capitalist democracy.

On the other hand, Fisher extends the social constructivist view with respect to end-use: “People are neither ‘impacted’ by an external force, nor are the unconscious pawns of a cultural ‘Geist’” (1992:17). Fisher believes that such an approach, in addition to remedying faults with determinism, permits one to acknowledge that people have different, even contradictory purposes; that technology has second or third quarter consequences, some of which are unintended; and that there are collective consequences and externalities' in technology use.

Both authors share a trajectory of critique through deterministic models, both technical and social, and share an appreciation of the social constructivist position. When they diverge, it is a matter of differing emphasis rather than disagreement. Williams is attempting to make a social critique and an argument for intervention when he engages television; Fisher is attempting a more nuanced social history of technology by considering end-users of the telephone.

Fischer, Claude. 1992. America Calling A Social History of the Telephone. Berkeley: UC. excerpts ch. 1.

Williams, Raymond. 2003. Television: Technology and Cultural Form . London: Routledge Classics.