Techne: The Manipulation of Knowledge

In James W. Carey’s Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph, a vivid picture is depicted; a global canvas clearly altered by one and only one of today’s greatest modern inventions — the telegraph.

Sky Wire

The telegraph was not only the inception of the entire electronic goods industry, but also the cause of divergence between communications and transportation. Much like Tu mentions in her post, this singular piece of technology revolutionized the world in more than just economics, but also socially, politically and, most importantly, culturally. It allowed for transnational business and a system of communication so simple that it was unheard of at the time. By keeping John Storey’s Cultural Theory and Popular Culture in mind, we can surely assume that the “ideologies” that Carey references are deeply influential to people’s culture as well as their knowledge.

Our ideologies become our dogmas and the lenses through which we live and perceive our realities. Because clusters of people categorize themselves as liberal or republican, cynical or realist, these ideologies began to shape our identities and define our culture.

So, keeping the importance of ideologies in mind, it’s no wonder that Carey asserts that the telegraph was an aspect of technology that affected popular ideology. He goes on to list examples of the ways which the revolutionary device changed people’s lives. One of which surprisingly ties the telegraph and electricity to religion and Christianity.

What’s most interesting about this point is that religion and its definitions of good and evil hold an incredible amount of clout in this country. No matter what your socio-economic background might be, chances are that you had a Judeo-Christian upbringing, thus most of your values have been shaped through church and one or both Testaments of the Bible.

The telegraph created another mysticism among the people. Deemed as a powerful and invisible force, many began to see this piece of technology as a potential divine instrument. An instrument that could not only allow them to communicate across vast distances, but also spread their personal religions and bring universal salvation to all of mankind.

Though it may be hard to comprehend from a modern and often disillusioned or secular perspective, the fact is that this solitary piece of technology was able to manipulate knowledge through of one of the most definitive parts of American culture: religion. Through its mode of communication via electrical wires and the invisible force of electricity, the Americans of the 19th century linked it to the hidden omnipotence of God Himself.

By comparing a piece of technology to a divine being, it isn’t hard to understand how the telegraph affected millions of people across the world and altered the very way they lived their lives. Other than being linked to religion, the telegraph also affected lives on an even baser level: language.

Entire dialects and manners of speaking were changed due to the proliferation of the telegraph. Journalists and newspapers began to resemble each other in their reporting and respective formats because they could only relay so much information due to the high cost of transmission. Though this most evidently impacted the field of journalism, it also affected literature and even gave birth to a writing style known as “cablese” (Carey, 8). Gone were elaborate and decorative stories; now was the time for facts and brevity.

Ultimately, all of these elements speak to the telegraph’s function as a piece of technology. Yet nothing depicts its manipulation of knowledge more than its extraordinary effect on our perception of time and space. Due to the telegraph, time zones were created, New York was made to be on the same time as Boston and divisible measurements such as hours, minutes and seconds were instituted.

Through its alteration of time and space as we knew it, the telegraph is undoubtedly one of the most important man-made tools ever created. Here is a piece of technology that incited religious zealots, empowered global-minded capitalists and even united workers under the almighty clock.

I look back on my life and remember how far the Internet has come since I started using AOL on dial-up when I was 7, but frankly, I can’t even begin to fathom how a device could permanently transfigure entire continents’ definition of time and space. Knowledge is indeed malleable and it is through instruments like the telegraph, the telephone, the computer or even the calculator that we change said knowledge.

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One thought on “Techne: The Manipulation of Knowledge

  1. I think the observation you make at the end of your post about the relationship between technology and knowledge is really interesting. It certainly seems difficult to deny either that “knowledge is . . . malleable” or that “we change said knowledge” through communication technologies. Do you think knowledge can also become something else, or that something else can become knowledge, and if so, do ICTs play a role in this as well? Some easy examples of this might be the idea that the earth was flat or the belief that the sun revolved around the earth, but I suspect there may are many examples of “everyday” knowledge either emerging or obsolescing that might tell us quite a lot about how technology informs and transforms what we know and how we know it.

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