Cracking the code: Technology, historiography, and the "back office" of mass culture

Social Epistemology 19 (2 & 3):261 – 282 (2005)
Abstract
This article contributes to the project of historicizing the emergence of printed books as a mass cultural form in the 20th century and after, in addition to exploring the political-economic struggles both occasioning and occasioned by their constitution as such. In doing so, it both models and reflects on what a possible historiography of technology "after social constructionism" might look like. More specifically, it attempts to account for the behind-the-scenes or "back office" processes through which commodification takes place in the sphere of book distribution, and it does so by focusing principally on communication and information technologies such as the international standard book number (ISBN) and machine readable bar codes. This history, overall, complements the more hopeful narratives of mass culture's democratizing potential, by telling a story about how increased opportunities for middle class social advancement depend on intensified - and intensely technological - work processes for those employed in the sphere of commodity distribution. This essay demonstrates, moreover, how dominant metaphors and frameworks that have guided Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) research (e.g., "actor-networks," "seamless webs," and so forth) must be amended to account better for power, contradiction, and antagonism within the history of technology.
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