What’s the Frequency, Kendra?

One of my most cherished possessions is a clunky, rickety, out-dated and rather ugly record console that I was given after my grandmother, Ilene Burt, passed away. Aside from the fact that I’m a nerdy music collector (both analog and digital), I love the console because for the first few years I had it, I could still smell my grandmother’s apartment whenever I opened the doors.

And whenever I see it now, I am always rushed back to times spent with her in front of the radio. It’s a sonic technology that not only captures sound, but it has captured time for me. I have inherited my grandmother’s records, my uncle Bruce’s records, my aunt Shari’s records, as well as my parents’. The piece itself is a mid-century furniture console model with dials that indicate “loudness” instead of volume and with an instruction manual so detailed, that I was able to order needle replacements fifty years later. And I couldn’t help but think of my tired turntable as I read through the radio and television readings for my History and Theory of Communication Technology class.

For one of my first classes in the doctoral program, CRD 701: History and Theory of Communication, we explored not only what these communicative technologies brought forth, but also we studied how they have molded individuals and cultures. For this particular week, we read Lynn Spiegel’s Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Post-War America, Daniel Czitrom’s Ethereal Hearth, Doron Gallili’s 2011 Dissertation, and William Urrichio’s Television’s First Seventy-Five Years: The Interpretive Flexibility of a Medium in Transition and we discussed the chimaeric bond that cultural ideologies and communicative technology exhibit–each one needs the other to survive. 

In both the Spigel piece as well as the Urrichio, one of the driving questions is how did the technologies shape American ideologies of the time and conversely, how did American ideologies shape the technologies themselves? I was especially interested in the non-linear presentation of both radio and television to American audiences. Neither technology followed the traditional innovation narrative: invention of technology, presentation to consumer audience, and grateful acceptance; rather, both technologies went through great ebbs and flows during their initial releases. Spigel explains that during the early 1920s, radio receivers were rather crude with “faulty reception and crude tuning mechanisms, early receivers required the practical know-how of the radio ham” (27).

Collecting, playing, and searching for vinyl records is a much more active process

This knowledge of tuning mechanisms or the “active sport” of radio seems to have persisted for several decades because in my original instruction manual (thank goodness, my grandmother saved everything) there are not only instructions for use, but detailed explanations of circuit features and “schematic diagrams” for customer use.

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I can only assume that these detailed diagrams operated on the assumption that the “Stereo Am/FM Music Console” wasn’t just a musical piece of furniture for entertainment, but a technology that would require active participation not only through the manual placement of records and the tuning of dials, but also in its maintenance and general function. Users would have to have a general “mastery” of the mechanics and circuitry for its operation—they would have to actively participate in the technology.

If this sort of active participation in technology potentially shapes American ideology of that time (mid-century ideals such as hard work and importance of education), then I can’t help but wonder what our current tech model of “plug and play” or manual-less (knowledge-less) computing will do for shaping our ideology? I recently bought a Macbook and was blown away by the fact that all I had to do was turn it on and it was ready to go—no manual necessary. In fact, I think that the manual consisted of some product reference information and then a website for troubleshooting.

If the popular relationship to technology is to use it, but not understand how it works, then what does that say about the current ideology and/or zeitgeist?

Furthermore, how much control do we have over our actions in the future if they are being shaped by the technologies in the present?

I’m still not sure about that one. So for now, I’ll just step back in time and enjoy the music.

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