Television Made the Rock’n Roll Star (sort of): Another Take on the Multi-Level Perspective.

Elvis Presley is an excellent example of a socio-techincal market niche.

Before I get into too much detail about my PhD project (It really says something about the nature of a PhD that it’s going to take me a few posts just to say what it is that I’m doing), I first need to set out the theoretical debates that I’m entering into. In this post, therefore, I’m going to offer a primer on the multi-level perspective. I’ve already briefly explained what it means in a previous post, but months of reading have given me a much better understanding of socio-technical transitions theory I did when I wrote that, so I’m going to re-hash things a little bit. I thought about using the example of the car regime for this, but over the next few years, I’m going to be writing about cars pretty much constantly, so today I’m going to use a case-study from a different, and arguably more engaging technology: Rock ‘n roll.

Some may be immediately sceptical about this. Rock ‘n roll is frequently described as an art form, a social movement or a business, but it is rarely considered a technology. This, however, makes it a perfect example of what I want to talk about. There are technologies components without which rock music could not exist, and these technologies interact with and reinforce the social, political, and economic aspects of the music.  Rock is an excellent example of a  complex set of social and technical elements also known as a socio-technical system.

There is a problem with this picture, though. If socio-technical systems are composed of complex, mutually-dependent elements, then how do they come to be in the first place? And now do new systems replace old ones? It seems unlikely that all the pieces for such a complex structure could spontaneously fall into place, especially if there is another competing structure already in existence. This is the question that socio-technical transitions theory generally, and the multi-level perspective specifically, seek to answer. To sum it up in as few words as possible, the multi-level perspective suggests that transitions happen at three levels. The regime level consists essentially of the system I have just described: it is a series of technical, cultural, political, economic, scientific, and practical forces which support each other and together form a stable configuration that is very difficult to dislodge. Regimes are periodically challenged by niches, which are protected experimental spaces where a new technology that is not yet seriously competitive with the regime is developed. The largest level is the landscape, which consists of large-scale historical forces and events such as wars, major political shifts, prevailing economic structures, and the like. Transitions occur when landscape pressure causes tension between the elements of the dominant regime. This allows a developed niche technology to compete with it on more even terms and sometimes brings about a socio-technical transition.

The rock ‘n roll case-study is from a paper by my PhD Supervisor, Frank Geels. He describes a pre-rock ‘n roll radio broadcasting regime that was largely the product of the 1920s. In those days, the radio was one of the most attractive forms of media for advertisers, because there was little to compete with it. The advertisers sponsored entire programs, and demanded music aimed at the tastes of the white middle-class. The result was a fairly homogeneous musical landscape dominated by big bands, swing, and singers like Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, the recording industry in the 1920s underwent a major consolidation due to the invention electronic recording techniques, which required more expensive equipment. This consolidation reinforced the trends in the radio industry by encouraging economies of scale, as record labels sought to sell more records recorded by fewer stars. The only space available for alternative musical genres, such as country and certain styles of jazz, was at small live performances.

The stable radio and recording regimes were stable for a few decades after their creation in the 1920s, but were shaken up by a few landscape events in the 1940s. The end of the Second World War meant that music was less essential for wartime morale, and record sales began to drop off, causing record companies to begin to search for a new musical formula. The radio regime received a massive shock in the form of television, which stole a lot of its major advertisers. The smaller, local advertisers who replaced them could not afford to sponsor entire shows, so a shift from live music played over the radio to records and the first DJs occurred. Local stations catering to local advertisers had a reason to cater to local tastes, and so a more diverse mix of music appeared on the radio. ‘Black music’ and country thus found stronger niches.

As you probably know, the breakthrough of rock music occurred in the 1950s. Television meant that the radio was no longer the central family entertainment device, so a space for more individual tastes developed. Teenagers, in particular, developed a taste for loud, exuberant guitar music focused on rhythm, and the radio stations were now in a position to cater to that need. Cultural tension between the baby boomers and their more conservative parents (another landscape pressure) could now be exploited by the first rock stars to create a market for a new and rebellious kind of music.

Regime destabilizations generally do not last long. Once rock ‘n roll became popular, it lost its earlier spontaneity and a new regime began to form around it. Today, rock music is big business, and it continues to enjoy the support of groups ranging from guitar makers to itunes. Its cultural symbols are almost universally recognized, and the Rolling Stones, who used to be a symbol of rebellion, now play to audiences of middle-aged lawyers and accountants. Rock music along with the cultural, technical, and business structures built around it, have become firmly entrenched as a socio-technical regime.

The interesting thing about this story is the same thing that makes the multi-level perspective so powerful: the transition is the result of a unique set of conditions that can’t be reduced either to the initiative of a few heroic individuals, nor to the mechanistic result of societal trends. A clever observer at the end of the Second World War might have been able to predict that economic and technological trends in the radio and recording industries would cause music to diversify. They might have even predicted that the baby boom would lead to a huge generation teens eager to defy the tastes of their parents. However, this person would never have been able to predict that a handful of innovative musicians would start shouting rebellious lyrics over the melody provided by distorted riffs from closed-body guitars. The large-scale factors permitting the rise of rock ‘n roll are thus predictable social trends, but the actual content of the music is the result of individual initiative. It is through a combination of both factors that our music, technology, and society change.

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Digital Aristotle, Technological Determinism, and Visions

Not all visions of the future are accurate.

If you don’t currently follow cgpgrey on youtube, you should. He’s one of the best educational youtubers there is (see also Hank and John Green’s CrashCourse), and provides brilliantly simplified explanations of subjects that would otherwise remain arcane to most people, myself included. In a recent video (see below) crpgrey gets a little bit meta, and explains his predictions for the role of digital technology in the future of education. Given that the cgpgrey is a digital educator, it should not come as a surprise that his predictions are quite optimistic.

The video starts with a valid observation that the current model of education, in which one teacher explains the subject at hand to a room-full of students with diverse interests, attention spans, and educational needs, is deeply flawed. He uses this flaw to argue that the ideal form of education would be a model he calls “Aristotle for Everyone”, in which every student has a private tutor that can adapt the curriculum to their individual learning style.

Of course, Aristotle for Everyone is not a practical approach to reforming education, and not just because textual evidence suggests that Aristotle’s lectures were about as exciting as staring at a pile of dirt. It would be expensive, impractical, and largely ineffective to hire a private tutor for every student. This, argues cgpgrey, is where the internet comes in. The argument goes that the internet allows educational content to be made very cheaply, and that computers can use algorithms to tailor lessons for students’ individual learning styles.

I’m not going to address the practical merits of Digital Aristotle here. Instead, I’m going to take cgpgrey to task for statements like these:

  • “While it may seem primitive now, technology only gets better faster.”
  • “When Digital Aristotle arrives, it will be better, faster, and cheaper than human teachers ever could be.”
  • “What happens when Digital Aristotle truly knows students better than the teacher…Schools will be radically different, and there will be far fewer teachers working in them, doing far less”

Each of these statements is a textbook example of technological determinism-an outdated view of technology that generally says one of two things: that the development of new technologies is predictable, or that the introduction of particular technologies has predictable societal consequences. Each of these assertions is evident in cgpgrey’s video, and each of them is deeply problematic.

Firstly, it is nearly impossible to predict future technological developments with any degree of certainty. We might make reasonable assumptions that certain critical problems in existing technological systems will be solved, and we might be justified in presuming that the performance of existing technologies will improve incrementally. We are not, however, justified, in imagining that we know which radical innovations are forthcoming. If you don’t believe me, watch 2001: A Space Odyssey, and reflect on the fact that the events of the movie supposedly happened eleven years ago.

Secondly, even if new technologies are developed and diffused, it is impossible to predict how they will be employed. People tend to make predictable errors in this area: they tend to assume that new technologies will be used in the context of present-day culture (I would like to name this “The Jetsons Effect”), they tend to exaggerate the implications of new technologies, and they they tend to imagine the societal embedding of new technologies to be a much easier process than it often turns out to be. This is only a small list of the ways socio-technical predictions go wrong, but let it suffice to say that new technology is not always adopted as planned (see the Segue for more on that), and even if it is adopted, it rarely has the impact that is predicted.

The bottom line here is that the generation and use of new technology is a mediated by society. Digital Aristotle therefore has some serious potential obstacles in his way. A student’s individual educational needs might, for example, turn out to be too complex to be accurately recognized by a computer algorithm. Or perhaps it is possible to develop such software, but the task is too difficult to accomplish with the resources available. Even if the requisite technology is developed, Digital Aristotle will still face stiff opposition from teachers’ unions, old-fashioned parents, students who learn to game the system in pursuit of easy work, principals and school boards unwilling to invest in the necessary computer infrastructure, and so on. I’m not saying that it’s impossible for Digital Aristotle to become a reality, but it’s far from a sure thing.

This does not mean, however, that Digital Aristotle should be completely dismissed. I propose that Digital Aristotle is less a prediction, and more a vision. The concept of a vision is based on the fact that it takes a lot of resources to develop and market new technologies and technological systems. The boosters of a new technology will therefore try to build coalitions to support their projects. If more people are willing to lend their voice, their intellect, and their money to the success of a new technology, then it has a higher chance of actually succeeding. Visions of the future are therefore deployed to build this support. They tend to be moralized; either presenting a new technology as key to achieving a kind of utopia, or avoiding a dystopia. This is, to my mind, a fairly exciting conclusion. It means that technological futures, rather than simply being imposed on us by engineers and scientists, are tenuous constructs that require our support to be realized.

This implies that Digital Aristotle is not an accurate prediction about the future of education, but rather, a political play to get you to buy into a particular notion of idea of how technology should be used to improve education. If enough people like the idea of Digital Aristotle, then it will be easier to support the development of the relevant software, and overrule the objections of those with an interest in the status quo. Technology, like policy, should never be implemented without robust public debate, and elaborate narrative devices can enrich this debate. This process can be made more honest and useful if we strip away the technological determinism from our discussions, and see stories about the future not as prophesies, but as bids for our support. We get to choose the future we like the best.

Further Reading:

Berkhout, Frans., 2006. “Normative Expectations in Systems Innovation”. Technology Analysis and Strategic Management 18: 3/4. pp. 209-211.

Geels, Frank W., and Smit,  2000. “Failed Technology Futures: Pitfalls and Lessons from a historical survey“. Futures 32. pp. 867-885.

Smith, M.R. & L. Marx (eds)., 1994. Does Technology Drive History? the Dilemma of Technological Determinism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.