Several days ago, I accompanied the advisor team’s supply officer and the Afghans’ supply NCO on an overcast beige-sky afternoon with rainclouds threatening as they went to a warehouse to receive several dozen pallets of laptops. The forklift driver offloaded them from the trucks — one pallet teetered and toppled to its side, but fortunately no damage — and into the central aisle of the warehouse, where another soldier with a skid jack maneuvered them into secure chain-link cages that were then locked and taped, and the doors to the warehouse themselves locked and bolted. A feral cat had made its home in the corner of one cage among the sacks of grain and beans and stacks of boxes and crates, suspicious of people, but clearly healthy and able to find its own way in and out of the warehouse. I took pictures of the unloading. The supply officer was reluctant to have his picture taken signing for the computers with the Afghans and the contract representative.
Raymond Williams, in his (neglected?) essay “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” argues that there are some obstacles to actually understanding the means of communication as the means of production:
First, the means of communication, having been reduced from their status as means of social production, are seen only as ‘media’: devices for the passing of ‘information’ and ‘messages’ between persons who either generally, or in terms of some specific act of production, are abstracted from the communication process as unproblematic ‘senders’ or ‘receivers’. (51)
I’ve seen a rhetorical habit in some scholarship today that attempts to avoid or defuse or otherwise subvert this (what I see as valid) criticism of enthusiasms over “new media” by offering a caveat along the lines of but of course all media are material. We think that if we just say we’re doing Actor Network Theory enough, or what-have-you, we’ll be let off the hook for performing those generalizing and abstracting moves.
Williams also points out that
the grouping of all or most mechanical and electronic means as ‘mass communications’ [ME: recall that this essay was first published in 1978] conceals… the radical variations between different kinds of mechanical and electronic means. In fact, in their differences, these necessarily carry both variable relations to ‘ordinary, everyday language’ in ‘face-to-face situations’… and the variable relations between the specific communicative relationships and other forms of social relationship…. (52)
Even when we talk taxonomically about “Computers and Writing” or “Digital Humanities” in careful ways that avoid homogenizing, abstracting generalizations about technologies, we’re still performing a sort of technological determinism in the way we situate those technologies in relation to a presumed (and often abstracted) culture, or — worse — situate those technologies as somehow outside or independent of a particular culture. Even in the commonality of an ostensibly academic context intentionally based on an American model, the technological and cultural gulfs are absolutely huge.
Williams notes that a final obstacle to understanding is the way scholars often “use… the term ‘production’ as if its only forms were either capitalist production — that is, the production of commodities, or more general ‘market’ production” and rely upon “mechanical formulations of base and superstructure, in which the inherent role of means of communication in every form of production… is ignored, and communication becomes a second-roder or second-stage process, entered into only after the decisive productive and social-material relationships have been established” (53). I think that the work of Shoshana Zuboff in In the Age of the Smart Machine and Johndan Johnson-Eilola in Datacloud has largely taught us to avoid the second half of that trap (and scholars in technical communication continue to extend their worthwhile effort, although I’m sometimes confused by the way that those who call themselves ‘compositionists’ seem to still fall into said trap), but despite lip service paid to the “gift economy,” the first half — the presumption that all production is capitalist or market-based — remains.
These are partly the reasons I tell you about the too-large forklift that the Afghans brought to unload the trucks, the team of Afghan workers in sandals who surrounded and pushed and guided the pallets into the cages, the piles of English children’s books in the third cage: too often, when we look at computers, we only see the items themselves — the computers-as-objects, as capital-intensive devices — and not the aggregated life-labor that goes into them, and we see only the homogenous and undifferentiated and unproblematic culture as context into which we plug those devices, rather than seeing the aggregated life-labor that goes into producing that culture.
Or perhaps this seems entirely obvious: but it’s to the point for me now where I’m only beginning to understand how non-obvious it necessarily is.