Historical Parallels

When Old Technologies Were New Cover

On my recent long plane ride back from Italy, I read When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century , by Carolyn Marvin. In this book, Marvin explores how two inventions – the telephone (near and dear to my heart) and the electric light – were depicted in specialized engineering journals and popular media during the early 1900s.

Public reaction to the telephone and the electric light was broad and widespread, causing transformation of traditional class, family and gender relations. I see many parallels to the transformations we are experiencing as a result of modern technologies, like the Internet. Marvin also talks about the history of electrical engineering as a discipline, and the characteristics that shaped its culture from its earliest days. I found this part full of potential relevance for what we call the "hostile environment" in computing today. I've selected a few excerpts from the book to share with you.

On the impact of technical innovation on social institutions and norms: "With the advent of the telephone and other new media came relatively sudden and largely unanticipated possibilities of mixing heterogeneous social worlds – a useful opportunity for some, a dreadful intrusion for others. New media took social risks by permitting outsiders to cross boundaries of race, gender, and class without penalty. They provided new ways to silence underclasses and to challenge authority by altering customary orders of secrecy and publicity, and customary proprieties of address and interaction.

"In expert eyes, some of the most radical social transformations appeared to be brewing not around people at a distance, but around those close to home. Particular nervousness attached to protected areas of family life that might be exposed to public scrutiny by electrical communication. How would family members keep personal information to themselves? How could the family structure remain intact? …. The escape from parental supervision made possible by the new communications technologies carried great risks.

"The association between sensational crime and new electric media was strong in popular and expert literature."

On the electrical engineering culture: "Electrical professionals were the ambitious catalysts of an industrial shift from steam to electricity taking place in the U.S. and Western Europe at the end of the nineteenth century. Electrical experts before 1900 were acutely conscious of their lack of status in American society relative to other professional groups …. The American Institute for Electrical Engineers was the last of the major engineering societies to be organized.

"Priestly groups effect and maintain power by possessing significant cultural secrets. Training in the codes and rituals of these secrets is characteristically arduous, often lengthy, and reserved to elites.

"Late-nineteenth-century electricians constituted a self-conscious class of technical experts seeking public acknowledgment, legitimation, and reward in the pursuit of their task. They sought to define insiders and outsiders in electrical culture, to enforce standards for professional training, and to arbitrate the use of technical language.

"Technical ignorance as a form of worldly ignorance was a virtue of "good" women, as they invariably were in the professional literature ….. there was an even more important and insistent point that women's use of men's technology would come to no good end."

How about you? See any parallels?



Lucy Sanders is CEO & Co-founder of the National Center for Women & Information Technology and a Bell Labs Fellow.