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A Study of Mass Communication and Technological Advancement in "How Are Media Born"

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A Study of Mass Communication and Technological Advancement in "How Are Media Born" essay

In Brian Winston’s “How are Media Born” Winston attempts to answer a specific question, “How does technological change occur in mass communication(766)?” In order to give potential answers to this query, Winston introduces us to two methods of historical accounting describing different techniques of how technologies and media make there way into society’s ethos. The first of these methods is technological determinism, defined by Winston as historical documentation style in which “ technology is the dominating, determining factor in the process (766).”

In other words, technology is the autonomous engine that pushes society in regards to new media. The second method is cultural determinism, defined as a historical documentation style in which “technology is but one of many forces, influenced by and influencing social, societal, and cultural developments. (766)” In other words, many different variables influence societies evolution in the world of media. The importance of determining what drives humanity to accept new media is massive in that we can learn what factors cause society to keep revolutionizing the world’s technology.

To properly conclude which method is most accurate, we must compare and contrast the different historical documentation techniques. Winston describes both methods by giving examples of both kinds of historical accounts. I will start with a summarization of Winston’s technological determinists account “Case 1: Cinema Projection.” Winston goes through different notable men’s contributions to the media of cinema chronologically going from 1555 with Della Porta’s invention of a simple camera to 1895 with Edison producing the kinetoscope(767).

He then addresses the flaws with this kind of historical thinking, stating that this type of account is driven from the need to create “great men” who are seen as monumental figures, as well as being driven by the idea of patriotism (as the account would list the men’s country of origin after his name). This kind of thinking leads to a narrow view of history, as it appears that the only force that drives new technology is a relatively few genius men, when in reality many societal factors and “collective inventiveness” were factors as well. The main issue of this technological determinists history of cinema is that we are simply given the dates and works of great men, we learn nothing of why these men invented what they did, or why society deemed their invention worthy of use.

Winston acknowledges the fact that the first technological determinist article was one of simple form and gives a more sophisticated account through “Case 2: Sound in Film”. Winston goes through the development of sound through several technological advancements and we are introduced to some outside factors. We are told that “The application of this technology (amplification of electrical signals) to silent cinema was interrupted by World War I, but experiments continued suing various systems(790).”

So we are starting to delve into how outside forces can retard or accelerate the development of new technologies, but this account still portrays technology as autonomous from society, as technological breakthroughs “can be delayed by external factors, such as World War I and industrial inertia. But in the end the technology triumphs(790).” which implies that society and technology follow separate paths. More so, Winston concludes that neither case can answer the important question “why a change occurs at a particular time(790).” In other words, what factors caused, for example, Della Porta to pursue the simple camera and not the ancient Chinese who had developed projected images much earlier.

Now that flaws in the technological determinist method have been introduced, Winston gives the reader a familiar historical account in the history of sound in film but from a cultural determinist perspective through “Case 3: The Economics of Sound in Film.” This case describes an economy-centric view of history. We see that the technological advancements of sound are discussed seldomly, however, how and when the film industry decides to implement these technologies are discussed often.

Winston describes that certain economical advantages had to be active in order for the film studios to exercise the technological revolution of sound in cinemas. To summarize, while a technological determinist considers technology to be the driving force of societies new media, the cultural determinist in case 3 considers the economy to be the driving force. Winston concludes “The explanation given in Case 3 is not a substitute for the information in Case 2(793).” Meaning that a complete history would need to incorporate ideas from both cases.

Finally, Winston gives us a hybrid of the two methodologies through “Case 4: Television”. We see early that the hybrid adds much more information then the separate methods, Winston states “As industrial capitalism, from the end of the eighteenth century onward, began to stimulate scientists’ inquiries into more practical and profitably applications, so substances were discovered that responded to light in various ways.(794)”

Here we are given a reason for scientists further technology, through industrial capitalism, and the result of this incentive through discoveries of new substances that respond to light. As the historical account goes on we see that the technological determinist will be satisfied through various scientific advancements being recognized and the cultural determinist will be satisfied through various societal and economic factors being recognized. Winston uses the success of the hybrid to illustrate the fact that in order for an “prototype” to become an “invention” is when society deems the prototype “ to have a real use(797).”

The issue of technological determinism vs. cultural determinism is of vital importance when discussing the history of new media. Winston’s conclusion that a combination of both methods is of most use draws the supposition that many different factors go in society accepting new media. Technology cannot be summarized historically through a chronological list of invention, society must deem technology useful in order for new media to come to fruition.

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