Monday, November 08, 2004

Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form (Rachel)

Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form
Rachel Moe
1974, 146 pgs.

Television: Technology and Cultural Form is a comparative analysis that investigates various aspects of British and American broadcasting. Williams examines the role of communication technology in modern culture. He strongly opposes the technological determinist school of thought and argues against it throughout his book. Williams believes that texts (television, novels, etc.) contribute to our social construction of reality. Media are part of historical material processes not just economic and political forces, thus most likely changing over time. Williams believes that political and economic goals guided the development of broadcast technology. For example, television was created with certain military, administrative and commercial intentions that interacted with scientific intentions. During a transitional stage in the invention of television, the commercial intentions came to dominate the other intentions.

He argues that we are used to viewing broadcasting as a major social institution, which seems to have been predestined by technology. “This predestination, however, when closely examined, proves to be no more than a set of particular social decisions, in particular circumstances, which were then so widely if imperfectly ratified it is now difficult to see them as decisions rather than as (retrospectively) inevitable results.”

In the comparative analysis of the British and American programs, Williams examines the “flow” of unrelated texts such as advertisements, programs, and promotional material. This flow of information creates the overall experience of watching TV. He believes that cultural differences are demonstrated through the flow broadcasters choose. Concerning the various combinations of flow, he states that, “In all these ways and in their essential combination, this is the flow of meanings and values of a specific culture.”

Since Williams believes that intention is involved in the creation of communication technologies, he offers suggestions for improving the future of broadcasting. He thinks we should seek equal access to media production to allow for a more democratic culture in which people have the opportunity to discuss issues, formulate ideas and creatively envision their lives. He projects that the future technologies ranging from “general television through commercial advertising to centralised information and data-processing systems is now or is becoming available and can be used to affect, to alter, and in some cases to control our whole social process.” If we do not use these technologies to shape the future into a participatory democracy, then they will become tools of a few para-national corporations that will limit choices to their programming decisions.

After reading Marshall McLuhan’s technological determinist view in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, I thought it would be interesting to study William’s opposing view. For me, William’s theory that we choose the direction of a new communications technology is more realistic than McLuhan’s theory of media as psychic extensions of man. However, this “choice” for which Williams discusses is not as simple as he describes. When a communications technology is at the point where its future uses are developed, the public does not usually have a voice in the process. Furthermore, technological developments can occur so quickly that it may be difficult to see this turning point. William’s optimistic ideas about a democratic culture where people have equal access to media production is almost obsolete in this day and age. It is interesting to look back at the progression of communication technologies and find where choices were made that led us to our current commercially driven media system. William’s sense of optimism is contagious, yet I have a hard time believing that the people can take back the media from the clutches of corporations.

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