Ups and Downs
When scholars write about communication technologies, they often focus on successful technologies. Successful technologies, in turn, are usually described as ever-expanding or "diffusing" throughout society until they are widespread. In this context, Fischer's analysis of the decline in rural telephony in Chapter 4 is remarkable and unusual. Please evaluate this argument in chapter 4. You might comment on his evidence for the decline, his analysis, or his explanation of it. Is the explanation convincing? You might compare it to discussions of other technologies we have read. Does this analysis demonstrate a strength or weakness in his method? (Or, Why did he find this decline when other scholars rarely if ever highlight any declines?)
Instead of focusing on the merits of the argument which Fischer makes (which I agree with many of my classmates contains a number of flaws), I have chosen today to focus on Fischer’s choice to focus on this issue. It seems almost odd to have such a significant chunk of this book focused on a decline in use of a specific technology. It seems even odder for the author to go searching for an alternative explanation of this decline beyond a major economic downturn in the country. Yet this passage seems to accentuate strength in Fischer’s method.
Fischer is quite clear early on that the book is to be “concerned with the manner in which turn-of-the-century technologies made a difference to North American’s way of life, in particular to community and personal relations,” (5). This focus requires him to go beyond what the technology was capable of doing, or how the businesses attempted to sell the technology, but instead to examine the ways in which people actually interacted and utilized the technology. With that in mind it is extremely important to be able to track the ways in which different social groups such as rural and urban populations handled the technology. It is then also significant to acknowledge the pervasiveness of the technology at any given time in order to establish how universal these changes were. While this decline was only temporary and would be easy to gloss over if the focus were on the actors and forces that guided the technology to its height (as seems to be the case in Douglass’ work), Fischer’s focus on community and personal impacts requires us to examine the ways in which use or lack of use altered the pace or impacts of the technology itself, and as a result, requires a better understanding of the reasons the decline may have occurred. By focusing on both rises and declines in the utilization of the technology it enables us to have a more accurate view of the process that the telephone went through as a consumer product, and as a result make it easier to provide a context for how many consumers lives it altered at a particular historical moment.