Saturday, September 1, 2012

TV as a symptom?

By: Claire Hwang (can't figure out how to change the clairebear thing...)

Did anybody else think of symptomatic technology when they read Boddy's "Television Begins"? While Boddy never explicitly details his preference in theory (determinism vs. symptomatic), the latter half of his essay strikes me as particularly sympathetic to the idea that widespread acceptance of TV did not in itself bring about dramatic social change. While significant, the spread of television did not in itself prompt the demographic shift from urban to suburban or rabid anti-communism. Rather, Americans' embrace of TV was, in Professor Retzinger's words, a "symptom of change already taking place" and even a "by-product of a social process" already determined by human nature and behavior. Television capitalized on the shifting social norms and structures in the 1950s to secure a place in every American household's living room.

Particularly interesting is the discussion of political pressures in the TV industry. Here, it is clear that television itself did not drive political change. Those determined to establish a dominant political ideology made clever use of the technology and industry to further propagate anti-communist hysteria. But on that note, it is also altogether arguable that TV and film had direct, deterministic effects on this political era. To his (dis)credit, Senator McCarthy's television savvy was of indispensable help to his witch hunt, and what high school American history class is complete without a lengthy discussion of Hollywood's blacklist? The distinction between determinism and symptomatics is not so clear here. So while I began writing this blog post with the determination to spend two paragraphs waxing eloquent on symptomatic technology, I end my musings with a status update. It's complicated.


  1. Claire,

    Your comments on technological determinism and symptomatic technologies also made me think of Professor Retzinger's third point in lecture: that human nature is deterministic of technology, and that "our systems looks the way they do...because they were fashioned in particular ways through political and economic choices" (Lynn Spigel).

    While Boddy talks about the symptomatic side of television's developments and effects, I feel that he also speaks to the very human choices that have shaped it, such as the fact that "under...conditions of rising prosperity and ideological conservatism many of the persistent aesthetic features of American television programming were established and defended by the powerful economic interests" (251). Of course, as you've already pointed towards, it is not just one of these theories on technology that explains their effects and developments, but rather a mixture.

  2. Claire and Sophia: I personally find Boddy useful in that he points to the less glamorous, but still important regulatory constraints of government oversight (the FCC) and the equally important physical constraints of the electromagnetic spectrum. Though we won't go into the gory details of UHF vs. VHF and AM vs. FM, etc., it's certainly worth remembering that new technology still must operate within established political/legal and scientific frameworks.

    Tomorrow we'll talk more about the forties and fifties and just how "complicated" the introduction of TV into the home was for Americans.