On the Social History of Technology: An Interview with Finn Brunton, Research Fellow

Finn Brunton is a postdoctoral research fellow in Steinhardt’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. Bruntonearned a BA from UC Berkeley, an MA from the European Graduate School in Switzerland, and a doctorate at the Centre for Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. At NYU/Steinhardt Brunton is studying the history and politics of computing, digital media, and information systems, ‘specifically the history of data mining and obfuscation — how people hide patterns.’ He is currently turning his dissertation, Spam in Action: Social Technology and the History of Unintended Consequences,into a book-length manuscript, and blogging about his dissertation-to-book process at http://finnb.net/spam/.

Talk a little about your scholarship. What do you study, and what is your particular method of inquiry?

Finn Brunton: I work in a zone I like to describe as the social history of technology: how we make our tools and how they make us. Every technology is a collection of metaphors and ideas — about the future, what we are and what we want to do, how the world works — but it’s also a bunch of capacities and capabilities for use, and we often take them in unexpected directions. That divergence between how a technology is envisioned and how it gets adopted and adapted in practice is the sweet spot for me, because that’s where the things I’m interested in become easier to see. So I work a lot on how things fail, break, and get misused, when the invisible “black box” of a technology stops working and makes us ask: How does this work, why, and for whom, and under what circumstances? That’s why I wrote my dissertation on spam: spammers expose the complex socio-technical history of the Internet and Web by exploiting the disparities between plan and practice. I came to this approach by a winding road: I was something like a failed architecture student as an undergrad at UC Berkeley, and I became more and more interested in how people interact with the built environment — how they inhabit, or appropriate, or resist. I ended up writing about radical political movements and the process of seizing cities and buildings for unintended purposes.

When you study the history of technology where do you begin?

Finn Brunton: Lots and lots and lots of research. Because of the particular Internet-centric nature of what I do right now, most of that research is online, in remote corners of big databases. I do a lot of emailing and chatting, too, tracking down leads, trying to get interviews from understandably skittish and busy people. (Matthew Kirschenbaum has just published a book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, that superbly describes the problems of doing serious archival research on digital material.)

How would you describe the ‘primitive period” of the Internet?

Finn Brunton: That’s a good question. As a matter of convenience and personal taste, I’d put the “primitive period” as running from the formalization of “the Internet” in 1974 — that’s when the wide array of computer networks then in operation were specified as one continuous system with a common protocol — to the arrival of the Web in the early 1990s. This is very arguable, but it works for me, for now: the text-based world of bulletin-board systems, Usenet, Gopher and so on would probably be unrecognizable as “the Internet” to a young person today. It was full of fascinating things. To take a notion from the designer Matt Webb, the early Internet was like the early solar system, before the planets gathered out of the big loose accretion disk of gas and dust and rocks. Now things are huge and getting huger, with so much of our on-line experience happening on Planet Google, Planet Facebook, Planet Amazon, but once we had many, many little planetesimals with their unique species of conversations, archives, projects, games; you could stumble onto them as though onto the Little Prince’s asteroid. I miss it, but I’m not complaining — the Web has opened up entirely different terrain and for vastly more diverse communities.

Given what you know of past and present, do you think we will see more steady progress or will it taper off?

Finn Brunton: One thing you learn from the history of technology is that predicting the future is a losing game (and that the concept of “progress” hurts more than helps, as it presets the discussion with some implied ideas about how things develop and towards what ends).
That said, a safe bet: I think the effect of networking our computers is only beginning to be felt, but the glamorous visibility of the Internet will be short-lived. Soon it will be entirely boring, ubiquitous and invisible, and then the changes will really kick in. There was a concept in the 1920s and 30s of “air-mindedness,” an evangelical fervor for flight, this utterly modern and thrilling technology that evaporated as flying became increasingly banal — and increasingly profound in its effects on matters as diverse as commerce and war and migration. The same is true of the prefix “electro-,”
which was very exotic until electricity became a quotidian aspect of most every appliance and home. We can see it happening with “cyber-,”
which has already become rather embarrassing. I’m watching with fascination as the Internet become truly boring as a topic — saying you “read something online” is as redundant as saying you have an electro-blender — even as the changes we can make on ourselves and our society through it ramify.

A few off-the-cuff predictions — I can’t resist: the future of networked computing will be mobile, about things and places as much as people, and sensor input as much as human-generated content, and will have some of its most profound and interesting effects on the scale of water and electricity grids, cities, global logistics, and very large crowds. I suspect there will also be interesting bleed-over from gaming culture and user experience design into the structure of daily life, particularly money…but I’m already drifting into science fiction. That’s enough from me.

Stay in touch with your academic colleagues: follow Finn Brunton on Twitter http://twitter.com/finnb.