Susanne K. Schmidt and Raymund Werle, Coordinating Technology: Studies in the International Standardization of Telecommunications [Book Review]

  • Thomas J. Misa
  • Published 1999 in IEEE Annals of the History of Computing


According to The Soft Edge, a drive for media “anthropotropism“ forces media technologies to go through a tripartite Hegelian-like scheme. There is an initial stage of original balance between human nature and media technology, a subsequent break of the balance in favor of technology, and, finally, an advance to a new balance (pp. 60-61). The balance between the natural and the technological is guaranteed by the existence of a Darwinian mechanism, operating so as to eliminate technological characteristics that are incompatible with human nature (pp. 6144). Hegelian technological evolution and Darwinian natural selection produce a media technology that confirms the Kantian argument concerning the human predisposition toward space and time (p. 61). An open Popperian society, the society of historical capitalism, can influence the evolution of media technology. In this sense, Levinson refers to anthropotropism as a “soft” determinism. The book starts as history, continues as policy, and concludes as futurology. Chapters on the history of the alphabet, the book, photography, telegraphy, telephony, electricity, and the radio are offered as corroboration of Levinson’s aforementioned philosophy. Chapters on electronic media technologies and the issues that they bring about (video, word processing, the Web, the fax, artificial intelligence, and intellectual property) appropriate this philosophy for the interpretation of our technological present and future. Several insightful observations about media technology, an elaboration on Marshall McLuhan and Isaac Asimov, keep the reader interested in Levinson’s narrative. There is, for example, considerable elegance in Levinson’s argument about the “fourway square dance” of the camera (sight’s extension acms time), the telegraph (sight’s extension across space), the telephone (sound‘s extension across space). and the phonograph (sound‘s extension in time) (p. 60). The professional historian has several reasons to be frustrated with Levinson’s account. The author’s personal experience is a fnquent substitute for a reference to the appropriate historical literature. Accotdingly, recent arguments about the social (political, economic. ideological) construction of media technologies are completely ignored. As a result, aspects of the regulatory apparatus of the state are blamed whenever the opportunity arises in the book without any mention of how indispensable the politics of the state has been, for example, in launching and sustaining electronic computation. As an economic phenomenon, change in media technology is discussed as if it were indifferent to the presence of historically specific actors and institutions (e.g.. inventors, entrepreneurs, firms, and multinational corporations). Last but not least, the argument about evolution ignores ideology. For example, Levinson sees natural progress, not ideology, in the elimination of the black-and-white picture and the silent movie. If he was focusing as much attention on media software as he does on media hardware, he would perhaps have wondered if there is anything natural and progressive in the transition from Charlie Chaplin to the sitcom. Levinson’s natural history renders all social sciences unnecessary. Human biology seems to be better equipped to speak about the past, the present, and the future of media technology. Differently put. Levinson wrote a book defending a historiographical tautology: Who would ever doubt that, given a choice, a human would not eventually choose a technological medium that is more compatible with human physiology? I suspect that historians and the other social scientists are interested in other kinds of questions. Considering the long history of human existence in nature, the telegraph, the radio, the television, and the computer (in short, all that now seems so natural) are recent exceptions. What is the historical cause, the social pattern, that explains this recent phenomenon? Sociologists would perhaps ask a similar question, albeit a bit differently: Is there anything natural in the fact that a few of us act as if there was no life before email, whereas, by contrast, over half of the people on this earth have never even placed a phone call?

DOI: 10.1109/MAHC.1999.778992

Cite this paper

@article{Misa1999SusanneKS, title={Susanne K. Schmidt and Raymund Werle, Coordinating Technology: Studies in the International Standardization of Telecommunications [Book Review]}, author={Thomas J. Misa}, journal={IEEE Annals of the History of Computing}, year={1999}, volume={21}, pages={76-77} }