This is a message sent by Eric Rabkin on 9/28/01 to students in English 415/516

Folks, I think the following inquiry from one of the students in our class and my response may be of interest to many of you. In my response, I have to make assumptions about what the student meant and what might be behind the student's inquiry and what might happen if the student proceeded without my responses. In my responses, I have tried both to give positive advice about what one might want to do and to highlight the pitfalls that are potential in the inquiry so that the inquirer and you all are as well forearmed as possible. In reality, the student may have already foreseen these pitfalls and have been sure to avoid them. But I can't tell that from the e-message and I certainly can't expect that to be true of others who might be considering this inquiry for the first time. The fact that it often does take substantial give and take to get into a topic is one of the reasons that [...] I require that people come speak with [me] face to face about their proposals and do so early enough that proposers will have time to go off, revise, and return. Nonetheless, some interactions can sometimes be done effectively by email. I hope what follows is useful, but I also must note that composing this response took me a long time, may be off-base, and at best will be only exemplary rather than pointed for most of you. Therefore, it is a misuse of my time to create this sort of response to most inquiries. Really, face to face discussion is usually preferable. Please come see [...] me.


I have a question about the individual your opinion, would it be better to choose something that has been around for a while (in order to better examine the implications it has had on society)? I was thinking about cell phones or email, but I am unsure as to whether it is too recent of a development.

I was also really interested in developments with food (frozen food, canned food, and other "convenience" foods) and how these advances may have changed family life and/or human behavior; perhaps the role of women in family life? Of course, these aren't really technological advances; do you have any ideas on how I could explore this?

thank you!!


I do think that for recently introduced technologies we don't have as long a time for people to have thought about and commented on them, and so that makes the job of finding other observers' insights harder. On the other hand, long-established technologies that have ample commentary may make your job of making original contributions to the discussion harder. No one should want to create a mere book-report-type piece for this job but neither should one fail to show that one has been a careful, and successful, researcher. In short, the recency of a technology is an issue, but it's not clear which way that issue will cut. Very recent technologies may not have well contextualized commentary available but may have popular press discussions; long-existing technologies (the fork, say) may have readily discoverable contextualized commentary but little time-of-introduction responses available. For many currently used technologies, of course, regardless of their recency, one can observe their uses and survey their users.

I think that "implications it has had on society" sometimes may be too limiting a formulation for two reasons. First, "humanistic implications" apply to individuals and while individuals live in and constitute societies, not everything humanistic is best looked at only as social. There is a place for psychology as well as for anthropology and sociology. Second, it may suggest to some that one can discover "humanistic implications" by observing society. However, some implications are not readily observable. For example, the notion that the photocopier has atrophied the ability to summarize: where do we see this "in society"? Yet it makes a difference in how individuals spend their time and that in turn contributes to changes in society. You'll want to think widely and creatively in pursuing this project.

The second paragraph the student wrote contains some interesting specific suggestions, but it runs the risk of suggesting an approach to the project that may be mistaken. There may be a temptation to follow a line of reasoning that goes something like this. "What is a technology that has changed society? Hmm. Well, frozen foods have certainly changed the way people cook, and that has mostly meant how women spend their time. Maybe I should see what the humanistic implications of frozen food have been for women." This sort of approach is actually quite limited and, from the standpoint of scientific method, suspect, since it assumes its conclusion ("frozen foods have made a difference in women's cooking practices") and may seek to justify those conclusions rather than leave oneself open to discovery in the most unprejudiced way. Frozen foods probably have had implications that have no special relationship with women. For example, the notion of "seasonal" food (strawberry season, peach cobbler time of year, etc.) has been eroded by frozen foods and thus removed us somewhat from a sense of the intimate connection between climate and life. On the other hand, the differences in taste, use, and cost between frozen and fresh foods may have had other implications. Suddenly fresh strawberries in winter (produced under comparatively expensive hothouse conditions and often requiring expensive, quick shipping) become a sign of luxury that can mark special occasions or class distinctions, whereas a hundred years ago fresh strawberries were simply not available to anyone in the northern U.S. in the winter. (Or so I believe; I'd want to do the research to find out.) And what special occasions do they mark? Frozen delicacies like strawberries might have somewhat different implications than those of frozen necessities, like green vegetables. We have learned to live without sauerkraut and other pickles as a staple and those items have become relishes. What does that mean about pickling as an activity? It has probably contributed to taking it out of the home, and that has also contributed to a separation of the home from the production of the food we eat. Frozen foods, then, by industrializing production, have lessened our sense that we are producers of food and contributed to our sense that we are merely consumers. Or so it seems to me. All of these implications and more need to be explored.

But I notice that the inquirer didn't ask about frozen food; rather, the inquiry was about "convenience foods." This raises an important and difficult point. One could certainly do a fascinating study of convenience foods. (There's a best-selling book called Fast Food Nation that many find quite interesting. I suggest you take a look at the description of it on It's about McDonald's and so on; not a technology in the usual sense, but a complex production and distribution system that nonetheless is discussed in wide and useful ways.) However, "convenience food" is a social category, not a technology, and therefore not precisely what is asked for in our individual project. Jello is, as it happens, the first convenience food, but the category includes canned foods, frozen foods, corn flakes, and more. A patent was issued (to Peter Cooper in 1845) for making a gelatin dessert. That process might well be considered a technology. So might successful food freezing (invented by George Birdseye). But what we need to do is focus hard on the technology as our starting point and focus. Is the basic technology of food freezing also the basic technology that allows the storage of medical biologicals? I don't know, but I'd guess the answer is yes. If so, that same basic technology that allows for frozen food would also allow for those. There have doubtless been changes in eating habits, common expectations about diet and convenience, work activities, class distinctions, trucking, food retailing, and so on brought about by the introduction of frozen food continuing even to this day ("It's not delivery. It's DiGiorno!"), but there may have been changes in medical practice, too. The assignment is not to study one part of the humanistic implications of a technology but the humanistic implications of a technology. If the technology one chooses has implications in multiple fields, one should explore those multiple fields. If the topic becomes too vast, one should find a sensible way to indicate the extent of those fields but explore in detail some subset of them.

So, how do you choose a technology? Many technologies really rely on other technologies. The modern radio--which is a technology--relies on the transistor--which is a technology. Consider radio. Radio has implications for entertainment, news, and so on, but also for security (home alarms, say, and Lo-Jacks) and any devices that depend on radio frequency transmission and reception (including walkie-talkies that allow for military operations previously impossible and remote-controlled drone aircraft and the re-setting of implanted medical devices). In other words, one of the implications of radio is the possibility not only of sending information to people but to machines, and hence controlling them, that is, allowing human action at a distance. How does radio allow this? (We'd want at least a brief overview of electromagnetism and radio transmission and reception processes.) What needs to exist to make radio work? (Do we have to have big towers? What about the difference between line-of-sight radio, like FM, and wider radio, like AM?) What are its limitations? (Why, for instance, is FM higher fidelity than AM? Notice that because of that fidelity issue and the line-of-sight issue, audiophiles will want to live nearer population centers if they want line-of-sight reception [or did before satellite and cable radio], so niche tastes, like jazz, became largely urban tastes.) But let's also consider the transistor. Its basic technology is for controlling the flow of electricity (and we'd want at least an overview of how that works). Because it is much smaller and draws much less energy than a vacuum tube, it made possible portable radios, which not only changed the sounds of beaches everywhere but also led to the political coordination of disparate peoples in countries without well developed transportation and communication infrastructures; many say that the transistor radio radically accelerated the independence movements in post-WWII Africa. Transistors also made possible the modern computer. And what are the implications of that! Of course, portable radios also require batteries. The modern alkaline battery has implications for entertainment, security (it's in the radio transmitter that opens your garage door), toys, and much, much more...including the price of the natural resources that its uses and the problems of disposing of dead ones. How does an alkaline battery work? What are the implications built right into the technology? So, one might choose as one's subject technology "radio" or "transistor" or "alkaline battery."

One probably should be careful in choosing "the cell phone" and probably shouldn't choose "email." Why? Cell phones actually are of two basic types, analog and digital, and they have different abilities and hence different implications. If you are not interested in those differences, then the key point may not be the phone at all but the cell technology, that is, the system of towers and communication networking in real time for switching towers that this involves. But cell technology isn't used just for phones. It is also used for positioning. "The cell phone" is a possibility for our inquiries, but one that needs serious thought and some background research to define it properly for our purpose.

"Email" is really just one of the uses of computer networks. The networks existed before email. What makes widespread email possible? Currently packet-switching. The key technology here has to do with breaking a computer file into pieces, tagging them, sending them out in the world, routing them in whatever ways are most convenient at any given time, and then having the pieces arrive close to their destination and get reassembled for delivery. But packet switching isn't confined to email. It also makes possible the web. So, a project on packet switching would certainly be feasible, and it would certainly explore email, but it would explore other things, too. Email per se, at least as I'm conceiving of it at the moment, isn't a separable technology at all.

This definition issue is a tough one and often needs lots of discussion. The tv remote is a device that has had enormous impact on our lives, but it is not really a technology, at least in my view. There have been audible tv remotes and hard-wired tv remotes. The kind we use now, infrared remotes, have certain implications (e.g., line of sight) and lots of uses (e.g., controlling CD players). But the basic infrared technology for sending and receiving coded bursts (basically a sort of Morse code in invisible light) is also what allows wireless connections between mobile devices and many security sensors for homes. So someone might start by thinking, "Hmm. The tv remote is an interesting device. I wonder what its implications are?" and go on to recognize, after a little research, that the basic technology of interest here is infrared transmission and reception and that has implications for lots of things.

What I'm trying to make clear by example is that it is crucial that you pick a technology, but picking one is (a) difficult, (b) to some extent a matter of scale (more or less complex), but (c) NOT a matter of the particular use or environment in which you happen to usually think of the technology. You may be attracted to a given technology by what you see it doing (cars give me freedom) but you must then define your field of inquiry (say, the automobile), show what constitutes that technology, and then probe its implications (for the paving of the world, pollution, the moveable living room, job creation, resource allocation, etc.). You also should consider which implications flow from the technology per se and which do so only in certain social environments. The transistor radio did not unify America. The car did not destroy train travel in Europe and Asia. Why?

These are, I know, tough questions. They are also questions few of us often ask, especially about technologies we are used to using or have otherwise become invisible to us. But these technologies shape our lives. That's why we need to learn to ask such questions and to pursue--and share--the best answers we can discover.

Good luck!