Power and Agency in Technological Development 1 Power and Agency in Technological Development: Revisiting the Rural Adoption of the American Automobile Janae Gerard COM 539 Theories of Technology and Society University of Washington
Power and Agency in Technological Development 2Previous research about the power and agency of technological development focusedprimarily on technology producers. This research assumed that any challenging of theuse or meaning of technology was done by the producer and happened during thedevelopment stage. Before the technology was introduced to the user, it was stabilizedand could not be modified. By adopting stable technology, users were forced to conformto the technology. (Kline & Pinch 1996, p. 767) In response to this research, Kline andPinch used the model known as SCOT (Social Construction of Technology) to argue thatusers and other social groups contributed to the development of the Americanautomobile. Kline and Pinch also documented an extensive list of alterations of theautomobile developed by rural users. With this research, Kline and Pinch shifted thefocus of the field away from technology producers to include users, and other socialgroups as agents of change. They also showed how a relatively stable artifact could bereinterpreted and redesigned by its users. (Kline & Pinch 1996, p. 765)Using SCOT, Kline and Pinch were unable to explain why embedded attitudes abouttechnology suddenly shift and new users and new producers are introduced andeliminated once dominant technologies are modified. It is my intent to add to thisargument by showing how the complex interactions between producers, users, and othersocial groups, can be modeled using Castells’ theory of network power. By adding thistheory, gaps in Kline and Pinch’s analysis are explained by showing how existing powerstructures and network programming affect change in technological development.
Power and Agency in Technological Development 3Castells’ theory of networks is intended to describe digital and global networks but manyof his ideas apply here as well. For Castells, “a network is defined by the program thatassigns the network its goals and its rules of performance.” (Castells 2009 p.19) Anetwork is made up of interconnected nodes of varying importance to the network. Thenode’s importance, “does not stem from its specific features but from its ability tocontribute to the network’s effectiveness in achieving its goals, as defined by the valuesand interests programmed into the networks.” (Castells 2009 p. 14) A network’sprogramming is a, “set of goals that simultaneously ensure unity of purpose andflexibility of execution by their adaptability to the operating environment.” (Castells2009 p.21) This flexibility and adaptability means that networks are not permanentorganizations; “when nodes become unnecessary for the fulfillment of the network’sgoals, networks tend to reconfigure themselves, deleting some nodes, and adding newones.” (Castells 2009 p.19)In Castells’ theory, power relationships are asymmetrical between the nodes. Nodes aremade of social actors, which are human and can be institutions, groups, or individuals.An asymmetrical relationship means that one social actor has power over another actorusing either coercion, “and/or construction of meaning on the basis of the discoursesthrough which social actors guide their action.” (Castells 2009 p.10) Power, therefore, isexerted based on a values system initiated by dominant network actors that tells non-dominant actors what to think and how to act. We see this often in institutions telling
Power and Agency in Technological Development 4their constituents how to vote, what to protest, and who to blame. In some cases,violence is used but this results in a different relationship between the actors.Since the relationship is asymmetrical, one actor necessarily has more influence orcontrol over the other, however, “in any power relationship there is a certain degree ofcompliance and acceptance by those subjected to power.” (Castells 2009 p. 11) Thismeans that power is a relationship not an attribute and is not absolute. Though dominantactors have control of the construction of meaning for the networks, there is, “always thepossibility of resistance, when resistance becomes strong enough, power relationships areover turned.” (Castells 2009 p. 10) When resistance and rejection become significantly stronger than compliance and acceptance, power relationships are transformed: the terms of the relationship change, the powerful lose power, and ultimately there is a process of institutional change or structural change depending on the extent of the transformation of power relationships. (Castells 2009 p. 11)Without absolute power, “conflicts never end; they simply pause through temporaryagreement and unstable contracts that are transformed into institutions of domination bythose social actors who achieve an advantageous position in the power struggle.”(Castells 2009 p.14)
Power and Agency in Technological Development 5In Castells’ theory, there are three main types of power relating to networks. Networkingpower is exerted by an actor from one network onto another network. Network power isthe power the network has over the actors of that network. The final and most importantpower is network-making power. In a world of networks, the ability to exercise control over others depends on two basic mechanisms: (1) the ability to constitute network(s), and to program/reprogram the network(s) in terms of the goals assigned to the network; and (2) the ability to connect and ensure the cooperation of different networks by sharing common goals and combining resources, while fending off competition from other networks by setting up strategic cooperation. (Castells 2009 p. 45)The two different aspects of this power are performed by programmers and switchers.Programmers are actors from one network who can exert power over another network.They do this by redefining the goals and values of the other network, essentiallyreprogramming it. In order to alter the programming, “a new program (a set of goal-oriented, compatible codes) needs to be installed in the network- from outside thenetwork.” (Castells 2009 p. 20) This is a hostile takeover. In the same way that acomputer virus can take control of your computer, one network can hijack another. Thisis because, “once set and programmed, networks follow the instructions inscribed in their
Power and Agency in Technological Development 6operating system, and become capable of self-configuration within the parameters of theirassigned goals and procedures.” (Castells 2009 p. 20)Switchers also control the interactions between networks by controlling the connectingpoints between networks. They accomplish this “through the switching process” whichthe networks use, “to communicate with each other, inducing synergy and limitingcontradiction.” (Castells 2009 p.47) Switchers can be very disruptive during competitionbetween networks. When networks attempt to connect, “their expansion or contractiondepends on the compatibility or competition between the interests and valuesprogrammed into each network.” (Castells 2009 p.19) Networks are not compatiblewhen their programming does not correspond. When this occurs either they competeexternally or the dominant one reprograms the other. By changing the networkprogramming, programmers and switchers can dramatically alter the relations betweennetworks.Many ideas from Castells’ network theory line up directly with the ones that Kline andPinch used when they applied SCOT to the technological development of the automobile.The main ideas of SCOT are relevant social groups, interpretive flexibility, and closure,which line up with networks, programming, and stability. To Kline and Pinch theautomobile was a closed technology that, once introduced to new social groups,developed interpretive flexibility. Eventually the interpretive flexibility of theautomobile was replaced by a new closed state. Using Castells’ theory, we can describe it
Power and Agency in Technological Development 7as two stabilized network attempting to join, which caused them to program andreprogram each other destabilizing the network. Once the power is redistributed, anddominant nodes reappear, the network stabilizes.The work of Kline and Pinch dramatically improves our ability to understand power andagency in technological development. Using Castells, we can take their argument furtherand remove some of the paradoxical findings that Kline and Pinch report. By usingCastells we see why attitudes shift, how social groups are arranged and rearranged, andwhy social groups seem to act against themselves.The rural adoption of the American automobile can be broken into three phases. The firstphase involves two closed networks, one for rural users, and one for urban users. In thesecond phase, we see these two networks attempt to combine and as a result, a discourseof programming and reprogramming destabilizes both networks. During this process, wesee power relationships shift, nodes appearing and disappearing, and alternativeinterpretations of the automobile. In the final phase, dominance is achieved in the newnetwork and the automobile resulting in the stabilization of both network and artifact.Before the automobile was introduced to the rural user, farmers depended on horse andbuggy for transportation. This dependence limited the social groups and locations thatthe rural user could come into contact with, this was essentially their networkprogramming. The main cause of complaint from the rural user was the effect that the
Power and Agency in Technological Development 8automobile had on livestock, particularly horses. The horses, “reared at the car’s noisyapproach, often breaking away or upsetting buggies.” (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 769) Thiscould potentially harm the farmers, or their wives, and cause damage to the horse orbuggy. To a social group programmed to use horses for transportation, the automobilewas seen as a direct threat to their way of life.For Kline and Pinch, “the main social groups of relevance to understanding thedevelopment of rural car are manufactures, farm men, and farm women.” (Kline & Pinch1996 p. 773) By viewing rural users as a network interacting with other networks, wecan identify other social groups pertinent to the rural adoption of the automobile. Inaddition to farmers and their small network of churches, schools, and markets, we canadd anti-auto leagues, agricultural media, and local government. Because these networksinteracted regularly, and were not in competition, we know that their programming wassimilar.To the rural farmer, cars were as annoying as they were dangerous. Cars were oftenreferred to as a “red devil” or “devil wagon.” (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 768) Communitiesworried how the car would change their way of life. Farm people had built up a whole network of crucial institutions such as schools and churches based upon the transport system of the horse and buggy. The car with its much longer range threatened such institutions.
Power and Agency in Technological Development 9 Children could go to consolidated schools further away, other churches than the local one came within rage. Worse, with the option of visiting friends or family in a nearby town for the day, or other temptations which such a visit offered, why got to church at all? (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 768)Farmers saw cars as, “expensive, unreliable, and certainly not quiet.” (Kline & Pinch1996 p. 770) It was a common sight to see farmers pulling unreliable cars out of ditcheswith their horses. In addition to the annoyance of the cars, farmers were unreceptive tothe drivers who were urban and upper class. All of these sentiments about the meaningof the automobile reinforced the programming that cars were not for farmers and fueledthe antagonism between the two networks.In order to maintain this programming and protect their network from outside influence,farmers acted upon their dislike. Many formed anti-auto leagues such as the Farmers’Anti-Automobile League in Illinois, the Anti-Automobile Club in Missouri, and theFarmers’ Protective Association in Ohio. (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 771) These leaguesgalvanized the anti-automobile sentiments and encouraged farmers to fight back. Farmersused legal and illegal means against drivers and roads. Farmers, “spread a tire-cuttingslag on roads,” they plowed and barricaded roads, and weakened bridges. (Kline & Pinch1996 p. 771) Farmers even, “shot a chauffer in the back in Minnesota, stoned a motoristin Indiana, shot a car passing a horse-drawn buggy in South Carolina, and assaulted a
Power and Agency in Technological Development 10chauffer in Wisconsin.” (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 771) These violent acts show just howcommitted farmers were to their programming.These anti-auto sentiments were echoed by the local media and government. The acts ofviolence committed by the anti-auto leagues were reported in newspapers and magazinesall over the country. The media interviewed rural residents about their anti-auto ideas,such as the newspaper that reported a New York woman saying, “people who are able toown and run an automobile are able to build their own roads to run them on.” (Kline &Pinch 1996 p. 769) Local governments condoned and encouraged anti-auto sentimentsby passing laws to ban or restrict cars on rural roads and, “legislatures withheld moneyfrom road improvement schemes.” (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 771) Vermont passed a lawthat, “required a person to carry a red flag and walk ahead of the car.” (Kline & Pinch1996 p. 771) The echoing of network programming reinforced and encouraged thefarmers to maintain programming. As long as the social meaning of the automobileconflicted with their network programming, farmers were not going to adopt it.For a different set of users, the automobile had a very different set of meanings. For theurban user the automobile was the dominant technology of their network and thereforecars were essential to their network programming. The urban network was made up ofsocial groups and other networks, which included auto enthusiasts, urban media, carmanufacturers, and car dealers. Like the rural network, each social group of the urban
Power and Agency in Technological Development 11network had separate but similar understandings of the car, which lead to actions tosupport the network programming.As we saw earlier, many cars were, “driven by rich city folk out for a spin.” (Kline &Pinch 1996 p. 771) Auto-enthusiasts drove cars for luxury. They would assemblemotoring parties to ride in the country. For them, cars were for pleasure as well asconvenience. The media reinforced this idea. Auto-enthusiasts and their mediacountered the “red devil” slurs with, “the traditional antirural insults of ‘hayseed’ and‘rube,’ but also coined such new phrases as ‘autophobe’ and ‘motorphobe’ for all thecritics of the car.” (Kline & Pinch 1996 p. 768) Auto manufacturers as well as dealerswere the driving forces behind the pro-auto programming. For them, cars meant moneyand network power. Because of this, the Ford Company and other manufacturers becamea dominant node in the urban user network.At this point, we have two closed networks, which are encountering friction because theirprogramming does not align. However, in the next phase of the automobile’s evolutionwe see the two networks attempting to join. Why then, did the rural users’ sentimentschange? Kline and Pinch argue that the anti-auto movement failed because the carmanufacturers decided to include rural users by, “producing more cars designed tonavigate country roads.” (Kline & Pinch p.772) These cars were less expensive andeasier to fix. Kline and Pinch also state the media of rural users began to decree that carswere not just for urban users and, “The National Grange had passed a resolution that
Power and Agency in Technological Development 12summer stating that the ‘motor vehicle is a permanent feature of modern life’ and had theright to use rural roads.” (Kline & Pinch p.772) These examples point to the change insentiments but not to their cause. Kline and Pinch thought, “the anticar meanings wereobviously intense, but also transient, and disappeared for the most part whenmanufacturers introduced cars that were economical and met the criticism of the “antis.”(Kline & Pinch p.782) Farmers were willing to kill and maim to protect theircommunities from automobiles, how could their sentiments change so dramatically? Bylooking at this using Castells’ network theory, we see a very different set of behaviorsand causes.The urban users’ network programming was in direct competition with the networkprogramming of the rural user. We know that when networks attempt to connect, “theirexpansion or contraction depends on the compatibility or competition between theinterests and values programmed into each network.” (Castells 2009 p.19) Whennetworks are not compatible, either the networks compete externally or the dominantnetwork reprograms the other.“Faced with the saturation of the urban luxury car market,” the Ford Company introducedautomobiles specifically designed for the rural user. (Kline & Pinch p.772) This bothdisrupted the switch of the competing network and altered the constructed meaning of theautomobile. A new constructed meaning of the automobile caused a shift in the networkprogramming. The rural user was programmed to think that automobiles were expensive,
Power and Agency in Technological Development 13loud, and faulty, however, this new rural car had a different meaning. Now, cars wereaffordable and easily fixed. This coupled with the fact that the rural media was echoingthe sentiments of the urban network, essentially embedded new programming into thenetwork.From Castells we know that, “once set and programmed, networks follow the instructionsinscribed in their operating system, and become capable of self-configuration within theparameters of their assigned goals and procedures.” (Castells 2009 p. 20) This meansthat now that the rural network has been reprogrammed, it will self-configure to fit thenew programming.The programming for both networks involved the constructed meaning of the automobile;these programs are now in conflict in the same network. Combining the two networkschanged the power structure as well as the relevant social groups, and as we know fromCastells, “when nodes become unnecessary for the fulfillment of the network’s goals,networks tend to reconfigure themselves, deleting some nodes, and adding new ones.”(Castells 2009 p.19)The combining of the two networks was not instantaneous. The two sets of networkprogramming reverberated between the nodes of the combined network fighting fordominance. Though the dominant urban network initiated the consolidation of the twonetworks, by opening up the urban network, it was also destabilized, and consequently so
Power and Agency in Technological Development 14was the automobile. During this transitional phase, several shifts in programming, thesocial meaning of the automobile, and network power occurred. We also see new socialgroups and networks attempting to gain power in the newly combined transitionalnetwork. Dueling network programming and network nodes opened the black box of theautomobile and the urban network.The transitional network combined social groups and power structures from the previousnetworks, all of which were fighting for power in the new network. Two groups thatwere rendered unnecessary by the new network programming were the anti-auto leaguesand the rural community network. The new pro-auto programming left little room for theanti-auto leagues and they soon disbanded. The rural communities, “which defined thecar as destroying the rural fabric of general stores, one-room schools, and local churches,eventually disappeared precisely because the countryside was transformed in the verymanner feared by critics.” (Kline & Pinch p.782)The nodes with the most power to gain were the manufacturers and dealers. Initially,manufactures sold urban technology to the rural network. The rural network liked twourban cars a, “technologically out-of-date but inexpensive buggy car, whose high wheelscleared the hump in rutted roads; and a touring car with a removable tonneau (backseat)that could easily be converted into a small truck.” (Kline & Pinch p.773) Thesepreferences show the difference between the constructed meaning of the automobile inthe rural and urban networks. Farmers were interested in cars that were functional and
Power and Agency in Technological Development 15appropriate for their lifestyles more than they were interested in luxury. Though,“manufacturers of both types flourished for a brief time” other manufactures starteddeveloping cars specifically for the rural market. (Kline & Pinch p.773) “Because they produced the car, the automobile manufactures exerted influence on the form the technology initially took. But their position although influential, was not overwhelmingly so. New manufacturers could (and did) produce new and different cars with different users in mind. Furthermore, although manufacturers may have ascribed a particular meaning to the artifact they were not able to control how that artifact was used once it go into the hands of the users.” (Kline & Pinch p.775)
Power and Agency in Technological Development 16The meaning of the automobile was more than just transportation for the farmers. Earlyon, “farm families started to define the car as more than just a transportation device. Inparticular, they saw it as a general source of power.” (Kline & Pinch p.775) Unlike theirurban counterparts, “the farm man’s technical competence…enabled him to reopen theblack box of the car (by reinterpreting its function) jack up its rear wheels” and use it topower agricultural machinery, such as “corn shellers, water pumps, hay balers, fodderand ensilage cutters, wood saws, hay and grain hoists, cider presses, and corn grinders.”(Kline & Pinch p.775) These alterations injected a new meaning of the automobile intothe network programming.The media reinforced the reinterpretation of the automobile as farm equipment.According to Wallace’s Farmer “the ideal farm car should have a detachable backseat,which could turn the vehicle into a small truck, and that it should be able to provide ‘lightpower, such as running a corn sheller, an ensilage cutter, or do light grinding.” (Kline &Pinch p.775) Wallace’s Farmer even began promoting cars, “using the same methods itemployed for any new technology it favored: advertisements, editorials, articles, andrequests for readers’ experiences.” (Kline & Pinch p.773) The media had networkpower, and money, to gain by encouraging the rural adoption of the automobile. Thelocal governments also came around when they realized, “the possible income to bederived from wealthy city people” with their support “tourism thrived, as did repairshops.” (Kline & Pinch p.773) In doing so, the media and the government spread the
Power and Agency in Technological Development 17new meaning of the automobile across the network from the farmers to themanufacturers.Not everyone encouraged the reinterpretation of the automobile. “Many automobilemanufacturers counteracted, rather than supported, the interpretive flexibility of the ruralauto in the early days of the industry.” (Kline & Pinch p.784) For them, the new ruralinterpretation of the automobile was in direct contrast to their programming and theirpower in the network. When asked in a survey whether on not they supported using kitson cars, “six out of seven auto manufactures adamantly opposed this common practice,mainly because it could damage the engine or differential gear. (Kline & Pinch p.784)Most likely, they were concerned with sharing network power with the new nodes.Others like the Ford Company seemed, “to have been ambivalent about them beforedeveloping its own line of tractors and trucks.” (Kline & Pinch p. 790) The developmentof new products was an attempt to regain network dominance and shut out the newnetwork nodes.The automobile dealers were caught in the middle; “although the dealers shared aninterpretation of the car with the kit makers and many farmers, they had a subservientcontractual relationship with the Ford Company.” (Kline & Pinch p. 791) They sold kits,“typically consisting of tractor-like drive wheels, a heavy axle, reduction gears to lowerthe speed to about three miles an hour, a large radiator, forced-feed lubrication system,and other means to reduce overheating problems.” (Kline & Pinch p.787) They sold
Power and Agency in Technological Development 18these kits on the side to increase profits until the Ford Company, “told its dealers in 1916that it did not want them to convert ‘Ford cars into trucks and other makeshifts notrecommended or sanctioned by us.’ Making such alterations would cost them theirdealership.” (Kline & Pinch p. 790)In addition to kit and accessory makers, stationary gasoline engine and farm equipmentmanufactures also tried to join the transitional network. Initially, neither of theseproducts could compete against the automobile. Gasoline engine manufacturers, “facedstiff competition from the power take-off capabilities of automobiles and tractors”because of this, “the Maytag Company responded in 1915 by adding a kick-start gasolineengine to power its washing machines.” (Kline & Pinch p.793) Once the technology wasimproved, “farm people who could afford the device no doubt preferred it to jacking upthe car to do the wash.” (Kline & Pinch p. 793)Tractor manufactures fought against tractor kit makers who claimed that their kits, “hadcompeted successfully with gasoline tractors in a national plowing contest in Fremont,Nebraska” by appealing to more powerful nodes. (Kline & Pinch p.792) In a retaliatory move, the American Tractor Association, a powerful trade group, requested in the late 1918 that the War Industries Board modify its order reducing the amount of iron and steel allotted to manufacturers of tractors by adding a provision that would ‘prohibit entirely the
Power and Agency in Technological Development 19 manufacture of attachments for converting automobile and motor trucks into tractors for farm use.” (Kline & Pinch p.792)The media had a hand in spreading around both sets of programming. Journals changedadvice and recommendations often based on who was dominant and who was advertising.The Rural New Yorker reported recommendations from experts such Robert Smith who,“placed his expert authority behind the journal’s earlier policy of warning that homemadekits could damage a car’s engine and differential gear.” (Kline & Pinch p. 784)By adopting the rural interpretation of the automobile the media and the kit manufacturesgained power in the new network. This new interpretation spread to other manufacturersfor farm equipment and stationary engines who also gained power by adopting the newinterpretation. In order to maintain dominance, the Ford Company and other carmanufactures were forced to include the rural interpretation into their own products. Byincluding the rural network into their own, the car manufactures temporarily destabilizedtheir dominance. By leveraging what power they had left over the dealers and media,they were able to regain dominance and the network stabilized, albeit, with a verydifferent artifact.By examining the story of the automobile through Castells’ theory of network power, wecan see why the rural adoption process took the course it did. The rural user wasprogrammed to think that the automobile was a threat to their community. That
Power and Agency in Technological Development 20programming was so strong they resorted to violence to protect it. By redefining themeaning of the automobile, as well as distributing the meaning throughout their network,the car manufacturers were able to reprogram the network. This reprogrammingreverberated throughout both networks with unintended results; some nodes gainedpower, others lost it. Dominant nodes from the urban network fought to maintain powerover the new nodes until eventually dominance was achieved and the network stabilized.
Power and Agency in Technological Development 21BibliographyCastells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Kline, R., & Pinch, T. (October 01, 1996). Users as Agents of Technological Change:The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States. Technology andCulture, 37, 4, 763-795.