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Social Meanings of a New Technology

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David Nye traces the up hill process through which electricity was integrated into America’s everyday life. Muncie in Indiana was the touchstone used by the author to analyze how the use of electricity seeped into the American culture and redefined it. He provides a thought provoking panorama of a fundamental technology to modern life. He emphasizes the experiences faced by ordinary men and women instead of inventors and entrepreneur’s lives. The book is primarily about the contributions of electricity to the history of modern technology. It gives a thorough analysis on the socio-cultural impact of electricity. A variety of approaches not usually found in histories of technology is put into play. The approach can be described as that of the social historian and its extended approaches’ is inspired by: - literature, art history, record of material culture and anthropology. The book is both a coherent and fascinating narration on how the average American responded and adapted to a new-fangled technology.

Nye approaches electrification as a technical possibility set that was partially adopted to create the street car suburb, the assembly line, the industrialized farm, the amusement park and the “Great White Way.” He brings to book how electricity affected all spheres of American life and its extensiveness in political ideologies. He strives to prove how it has created the image of the modern city virtually and  its marriage with new colloquial speech, therefore confirming values of high energy and standards in the twentieth century that have become hallmarks. He makes it his quest to pursue social meanings regarding electrification expressed in utopian ideas and exhibitions at world fairs. He furthermore examines the evocation of electrical landscapes in photography, literature and painting.

Chronology and topicality in the analysis of important forms of light and power as they came to use, are combined by the author. It portrays that in the city, electricity prompted the possibility of new art appearances and new consumption environments by virtue of a more varied landscape development. Electricity brought about a restructuring of the size and scale of operating in factories, making power to be shifted away from shop floors to managers. Moreover, electric appliances redefined domestic work thereby transforming the landscape of the home. He traces electricity as having laid a foundation to modern age agribusiness.

 However, Nye stresses out that it is inappropriate to deem electricity as an external force that influences both humans and their social material institutions that are passive objects. He chooses to see electricity as a social construction. It would be of interest to observe that social construction is part of the greater structural functionalism theory. This theory bases its foundation on the different components of a society, which can give birth to a new one. If there is a structure that is not utilized oftenly in the society, then it is bound to burn itself out.

Nye also points at the electric technology and its symbolic nature. Symbolic interactions mean that humans define the world in terms of symbols, which are interpreted differently by individuals. For instance, the color red may mean one thing in one community but have an entirely dissimilar meaning in another community. He expresses his dissatisfaction with those who claim that the social history of electricity should be explained in purely functional terms. Such objections are not entirely new, but it is the way Nye sheds some new light on the need for a non-functional history of technology that is intriguing.

Having addressed the strong points and premises contained in the book, we are also able to contrast them with the shortcomings of the literary piece.  First of all, the book gives much coverage on: - motors, refrigerators, electric medicine and washing machines among other utilities that immediately impact our lives. However, telephony and telegraphy receives no attention at all even though these branches of electricity were of no less importance. The book is also found to be wanting in terms of not focusing on traditional aspects such as;- the invention and development of new technologies. These aspects should have been included by the author because; their omission has narrowed the number of facts that would have given the reader a broader perspective regarding the discipline.

Contrary to that, it is more engrossed to the attitude of ordinary people towards the technology and the utilization of a particular technology. The author struggles throughout the thesis to back up his ideologies and this is reflected in the text. This is not to say that the book excludes more technical and innovative approaches like other related works but, it is the same subject matter approached from a different angle. Looking at the history of electrical technology, there is space for the inventions of Thomas Edison and the attitudes of the unknown citizens of the town, which was used as a case study. The use of Middle town has its host of weaknesses which are also overlooked in the book.

A good instance of the unprecedented dangers of relying on the residents of Middletown is the fact that it does not include the poor, blacks and Hispanics but rather the white folks in the middle income bracket and the wealthy few aristocratic families. Nye should have improved his argument that electrical technology was socially specific at the time he authored the book by including the minority communities and groupings in this society as well. Nye fails to factor in the importance of religious, social differences and geographic differences and how these factors affected the history of electricity. Electrification process is also not compared with the progress, technologies and cultures existing in other parts of the world such as: - Europe and Asia. The omission is fatal because, it would have provided depth in his findings. In America, electrification of the family Christmas tree was incorporated into the culture while in Denmark, it was almost regarded as blasphemous to electrify the same tree.

 In this regard, the restriction of his analysis to the American scene misses a whole new aspect and variations that should have been covered. We are only able to see the attitudes expressed by one culture. The only olive branch that he stretches out is when he notes the differences in the ownership of appliances between Europe and America and mentions the fact that Europe was in the lead in terms of rural electrification, but the buck stops there in terms of a comparative analysis.

Nye’s understanding and explanation of new technologies as being social constructions have to be re- examined as he refrains from explicitly expounding and explaining on the said subject. His many examples also fail to save the situation. A social constructivist theory is what this thesis approaches because; there are more than enough similarities between the two although the extensiveness in usage of this school of thought is unclear. Most of the given examples tend to imply that ways through which electricity was incorporated into the everyday experience or specific use of electrical technology in the societal forms were social constructions. If this is what is being insinuated by Nye, then the thesis is either non-controversial or it is warranted to be somewhat trivial.

Nye, as a consequence of the idea of technology being a socially constructed reality therefore, objects all manner of technological deterministic thoughts. What Nye should take into account is that technology should not be seen as an abstract force with its own developmental logic. In other words, technology should be seen rather as a technical potentialities set. Parts of this of this set should inculcate the decisions made by ordinary people. In essence, this ordinary citizen and not the researcher, inventor, scientist or manager, is responsible for the creation of a given technology by virtue of their own free will. The choices of what technological devices to use and how to assign the meaning should also be selected by this individual.

A strong inclination towards voluntarism is taken by the author when it comes to assessing the consumer. This is because, there is an over estimation of an individual consumer’s impact on technology. Globalization and the general tendency of uniformity in technology around the globe makes it a hard task to easily accept Nye’s position. The issue of technological determinism is not exorcised easily from the mind of a critic reader. A clearer and more analytic discussion of some fundamental historiography of technology questions are omitted in the text that the book implicitly addresses.

The hoard of weaknesses notwithstanding, Electrifying America isan impressive, carefully documented exploration and a work of art regarding the ordinary American's cultural and material interaction with electricity. The work spans a period of six decades, which means that it takes into account the effects of time on the cultural aspect and integration of electricity to a local community. Disregarding the uncivilized methodologies used, the works of Nye are highly rated and recommendable in terms of reading in order to attain the ancient developments in this field. It is also a plus for the reader because, Nye helps us to look at the world through his eyes and we find ourselves face to face with an ideology different from what we are accustomed to.

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