I’m reading The Information by James Gleick at the moment. It’s fascinating, though not all easy going (though this might be my fault for always reading it before bed. Information theory, yes, super, zzz….) One piece, about telephones, has stuck out for me, because it rings (geddit?) so true with a lot of my current feelings about technologies, how we can understand them and how they really work.
In the chapter New Wires, New Logic, he talks about the initial reluctance and misunderstandings around the telephone. When it first arrived, many professionals, including engineers and inventors, and businesses struggled to see the point. Messages could be sent by errand boys, and this daft piece of equipment was unnecessary, and rather odd. As Gleick puts it, the problem was “the usual failure of imagination in the face of a radically new technology.” (p189). They compared it to the telegraph, which used written words, and the idea of using your voice to communicate made it seem like a toy. (How often are new technologies dismissed as rather inelegant and immature, ‘for children’ I wonder?). For a while, Bell himself tried to sell it as useful for communicating songs over great distances, as a piece of equipment valuable for musicians, because after all, who else wants to hear voices?
Of course, in hindsight this seems ridiculous. But in those early days, in the minds of engineers and inventors struggling to think what this was for, they fell into the trap “of analysing a technology in the abstract.” Out in the wild though, in the hands of people, it became clear. “As soon as people laid their hands on telephones, they worked out what to do. They talked.” And so it became the basis of one of the largest, most intricate and most valuable networks of communication.
Karel Čapek, again discussing the telephone, made a similar point in his piece Novelty (available in the wonderful collection Believe in People). He also reflects on the early days when using a telephone seemed unnatural, even rather unpleasant. He writes:
“It was dreadful. It croaked and didn’t hear you; you shouted and pounded the box to no avail; the more you shouted the worse the thing shaped up. Finally you left it… That was a long time ago. Since then you’ve invented a way of dealing with it. It was a chain of small inventions of which you were as proud as Bell and Edison were of theirs. You, too, have invented the telephone.” (p70)
It reminds me of the concept of bricolage in technology, as discussed by the ATHENE project. Bricolage is a fancy French word for ‘tinkering’. The idea, simply put, is that to understand how technology works, even what it is for, you need to watch people use it, mess around with it, find ways of getting value from it. You have to let them invent it for their own needs, not analyse it, as Gleick says, in the abstract. The tinkering and the messing about that people do isn’t something done to the technology – it is the technology. Without people working out what it was for, telephones might be an outdated instrument used by musicians to play compositions to colleagues in far flung places. Without each of us getting to grips with it, the intricate and valuable networks never would have emerged. We all invented the telephone.