Williams—The Technology and The Society

The Technology and The Society

by Raymond Williams

[Williams, Raymond. 1990. “The Technology and The Society.” In Television: Technology and Cultural Form, Second Edition, 1–23. London: Routledge.]


  • The interaction between technology and culture is often thought of in two ways:
    1. technological determinism—a new technology comes along and defines everything in culture that comes after
    2. symptomatic technology—new technology arrives as a symptom of some cultural need already in place
  • both viewpoints assume that the research and development of technology are self generating (which is not true)
  • looking at the histories of telegraphy, photography, and moving pictures, (precursors and components of television) we realize that “all were foreseen—not in utopian but in technical ways—before the crucial components of the developed systems had been discovered and refined” (11).
    • in other words, all of the components of these technologies existed, and had been invented for specific societal needs, before they combined to form the larger technological intervention with which we now associate them.
  • radio and television, for instance, were “systems primarily devised for transmission and reception as abstract processes,with little or no definition of preceding content” (17).
  • and “It is not only that the supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand; it is that the means of communication preceded their content” (17). ie. the technology, availability, and infrastructure for radio broadcasting existed before anyone cared or there was anything to put on it.
  • the broadcasting model, based on centralized transmission and privatized reception, was needed because of two tendencies of modern industrial life:
    1. mobility of the family unit
    2. a more apparently self sufficient home
    3. Williams calls this mobile privatization
  • So, rather than technology determining culture or culture determining technology, components of technology are created to suit specific needs of society, although the actual technologies may not settle into their final uses for years.

Annotation Summary for: Williams – Television_Technology and Cultural Form

Page 1 (9), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The technology and the society”

Page 1 (9), Typewriter (Red): Comment: 1974

Page 1 (9), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is often said that television has altered our world. In the sameway, people often speak of a new world, a new society, a newphase of history, being created—‘brought about’—by this orthat new technology: the steam-engine, the automobile, theatomic bomb. ”

Page 1 (9), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we often discuss, with animation, this or that ‘effect’ of television, or the kinds of social behaviour, the cultural and psychological conditions, which television has ‘led to’, without feeling ourselves obliged to ask whether it is reasonable to describe any technology as a cause, or, if we think of it as a cause, as what kind of cause, and in what relations with other kinds of causes. The most precise and discriminating local study of ‘effects’ can remain superficial if we have not looked into the notions of cause and effect, as between a technology and a society, a technology and a culture, a technology and a psychology, which underlie our questions and may often determine our answers.”

Page 2 (10), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we really do not know, whether, we are talking about a technology or about the uses of a technology; about necessary institutions or particular and changeable institutions; about a content or about a form.”

Page 2 (10), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I want to try to analysetelevision as a particular cultural technology, and to look at itsdevelopment, its institutions, its forms and its effects, in thiscritical dimension. I”

Page 2 (10), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the present chapter, I shall begin the analysis under three headings: (a) versions of cause and effect in technology and society; (b) the social history of television as a technology; (c) the social history of the uses of television technology.”


Page 3 (11), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “We can begin by looking again at the general statementthat television has altered our world. It is worth setting downsome of the different things this kind of statement has beentaken to mean. ”

Page 4 (12), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the first the technology is in effectaccidental. B”

Page 4 (12), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Similarly it then has consequences which are also in the true sense accidental,”

Page 4 (12), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “since they follow directly from the technology itself.”

Page 4 (12), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the second television is again, in effect, atechnological accident, but its significance lies in its uses,”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “which are held to be symptomatic of some order of society orsome qualities of human nature which are otherwisedetermined. ”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The first class of opinion, is that usuallyknown, at least to its opponents, as technological determinism.It is an immensely powerful and now largely orthodox view ofthe nature of social change. New technologies are discovered,by an essentially internal process of research and development,which then sets the conditions for social change and progress.Progress, in particular, is the history of these inventions, which‘created the modern world’. The effects of the technologies,whether direct or indirect, foreseen or unforeseen, are as itwere the rest of history. The steam engine, the automobile,television, the atomic bomb, have made modern man and themodern condition. ”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Yellow): Content: “technological determinism.”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The second class of opinion appears less determinist.Television, like any other technology, becomes available as anelement or a medium in a process of change that is in any caseoccurring or about to occur. ”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “particulartechnologies, or a complex of technologies, as symptoms ofchange of some other kind.”

Page 5 (13), Highlight (Yellow): Content: “symptoms”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In technological determinism, research and development have been assumed as self-generating. The new technologies are invented as it were in an independent sphere, and then create new societies or new human conditions.”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Yellow): Content: “technological determinism,”

Page 6 (14), Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The view of symptomatic technology, similarly, assumes that research and development are self- generating, but in a more marginal way. What is discovered in the margin is then taken up and used.”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Yellow): Content: “symptomatic technology,”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Each view can then be seen to depend on the isolation of technology.”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “These positions are so deeply established, in modern social thought, that it is very difficult to think beyond them. Most histories of technology, like most histories of scientific discovery, are written from their assumptions.”

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “in the particular case of television it may be possible to outline a different kind of interpretation, which would allow us to see not only its history but also its uses in a more radical way. it wouldrestore intention to the process of research and development.”

Page 6 (14), Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 6 (14), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The technology would be seen, that is to say, as being looked for and developed with certain purposes and practices already in mind. At the same time the interpretation would differ from symptomatic technology in that these purposes and practices”

Page 7 (15), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “would be seen as direct: as known social needs, purposes and practices to which the technology is not marginal but central.”

Page 7 (15), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “B. THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF TELEVISION AS A TECHNOLOGY”

Page 7 (15), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The invention of television depended on a complex of inventions anddevelopments in electricity, telegraphy, photography andmotion pictures, and radio. ”

Page 7 (15), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Yet in each of these stages it depended for parts of its realisation on inventions made with other ends primarily in view.”

Page 8 (16), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “telegraphy”

Page 8 (16), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “photography,”

Page 9 (17), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “moving pictures”

Page 9 (17), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Through this whole period two facts are evident: that a system of television was foreseen, and its means”

Page 10 (18), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “were being actively sought; but also that, by comparison with electrical generation and electrical telegraphy and telephony, there was very little social investment to bring the scattered work together.”

Page 10 (18), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Thus whenmotion pictures were developed, their application wascharacteristically in the margin of established social forms—the sideshows—until their success was capitalised in a versionof an established form, the motion-picture theatre.”

Page 10 (18), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “in a number ofcomplex and related fields, these systems of mobility andtransfer in production and communication, whether in”

Page 11 (19), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “mechanical and electric transport, or in telegraphy,photography, motion pictures, radio and television, were atonce incentives and responses within a phase of general socialtransformation. T”

Page 11 (19), Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 11 (19), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “all were foreseen—not in utopian but in technical ways—before the crucial components of the developed systems had been discovered and refined.”

Page 11 (19), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “real needs, THE SOCIAL HISTORY OF THE USES OF TELEVISION TECHNOLOGY C.”

Page 11 (19), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “are beyond the scope of existing or foreseeable scientific and technical knowledge.”

Page 12 (20), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the very broadest perspective, there is an operative relationship between a new kind of expanded, mobile and complex society and the development of a modern communications technology.”

Page 13 (21), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The development of the press was at once a response to the development of an extended social, economic and political system and a response to crisis within that system.”

Page 13 (21), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The centralisation of political power led to a need for messages from that centre along other than official lines.”

Page 14 (22), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “An increased awareness of mobility and change, not just asabstractions but as lived experiences, led to a majorredefinition, in practice and then in theory, of the function andprocess of social communication. ”

Page 14 (22), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The photograph is in one sense a popular extension of the portrait, for recognition and for record. But in a period of great mobility, with new separations of families and with internal and external migrations, it became more centrally necessary as a form of maintaining, over distance and through time, certain personal connections.”

Page 16 (24), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “‘Masses’ had been the new nineteenth-century term of contempt for what was formerly described as ‘the mob’.”

Page 16 (24), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But then this new formof social communication—broadcasting—was obscured by itsdefinition as ‘mass communication’: an abstraction to its mostgeneral characteristic, that it went to many people, ‘themasses’, which obscured the fact that the means chosen wasthe offer of individual sets, a method much better described bythe earlier word ‘broadcasting’. ”

Page 17 (25), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Unlike all previous communicationstechnologies, radio and television were systems primarilydevised for transmission and reception as abstract processes,with little or no definition of preceding content.”

Page 17 (25), Stamp (Star (Frame, Red))

Page 17 (25), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is not only that the supply of broadcasting facilities preceded the demand; it is that the means of communication preceded their content.”

Page 17 (25), Note (Orange): The technology, availability, and infrastructure for radio broadcasting existed before anyone cared or there was anything to put on it.

Page 18 (26), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “two apparently paradoxical yet deeplyconnected tendencies of modern urban industrial living: on theone hand mobility, on the other hand the more apparently self-sufficient family home. ”

Page 18 (26), Highlight (Yellow): Content: “mobile privatisation.”

Page 18 (26), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The contradictory pressures of industrialcapitalist society were indeed resolved, at a certain level, bythe institution of broadcasting.”

Page 19 (27), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Social processes long implicit in the revolution of industrial capitalism combined in a major emphasis on improvement of the small family home. Yet”

Page 19 (27), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “this privatisation, which was at once aneffective achievement and a defensive response, carried, as aconsequence, an imperative need for new kinds of contact. ”

Page 19 (27), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “This relationship created both theneed and the form of a new kind of ‘communication’: newsfrom ‘outside’, from otherwise inaccessible sources. ”

Page 20 (28), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In the early stages of radio manufacturing, transmission was conceived before content. By the end of the 1920s the network was there, but still at a low level of content-definition. It was in the 1930s, in the second phase of radio, that most of the significant advances in content were made. The transmission and reception networks created, as a by-product, the facilities of primary broadcasting production. But the general social definition of ‘content’ was already there.”

Page 21 (29), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Higher-definitionsystems, and colour, have still only brought the domestictelevision set, as a machine, to the standard of a very inferiorkind of cinema. Yet most people have adapted to this inferiorvisual medium, in an unusual kind of preference for an inferiorimmediate technology, because of the social complex—andespecially that of the privatised home—within whichbroadcasting, as a system, is operative. ”

Page 22 (30), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Television then went through some of the same phases as radio.”

Page 22 (30), Note (Orange): System before content

Page 22 (30), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “the earliest stages there was the familiar parasitism on existing events: a coronation, a major sporting event, theatres.”

Page 22 (30), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “By the middle and late 1950s, as in radio in the middle and late 1930s, new kinds of programme were being made for television and there were very important advances in the productive use of the medium, including, as again at a comparable stage in radio, some kinds of original work.”

Page 23 (31), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Thus within the broadcasting model there was this deepcontradiction, of centralised transmission and privatisedreception. One economic response was licensing. Another, lessdirect, was commercial sponsorship and then supportiveadvertising.”

Page 23 (31), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The problem is masked, ratherthan solved, by the fact that as a transmitting technology—itsfunctions largely limited to relay and commentary on otherevents—some balance could be struck; a limited revenue couldfinance this limited service. But many of the creativepossibilities of television have been frustrated precisely by thisapparent solution, and this has far more than local effects onproducers and on the balance of programmes.”

Page 23 (31), Highlight (Cyan): Content: “we have to look at the development of broadcasting institutions, at their uses of the media, and at the social problems of the new technical phase”


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