Anthony J. Pennings, PhD

WRITINGS ON DIGITAL STRATEGIES, ICT ECONOMICS, AND GLOBAL COMMUNICATIONS

We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us

Posted on | May 9, 2016 | No Comments

One of Marshall McLuhan’s most celebrated intellectual “probes” was a paraphrase of Winston Churchill’s infamous “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” Churchill was addressing Parliament some two years after a devastating air raid by the Nazis destroyed the House of Commons and was arguing for its restoration, despite the major challenges of the war.

Churchill’s famous line was paraphrased in the 1960s with a more topical, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” and was included in McLuhan’s classic (1964) recording The Medium is the Massage. With the diffusion of the television and the transistor radio, it was a time when the electronic media was exploding in the American consciousness. McLuhan and others were committed to understanding the role of technology, particularly electronic media in modern society.

The revised quote is often attributed to McLuhan, but it was actually reworded by his colleague, John M. Culkin. Culkin was responsible for inviting McLuhan to Fordham University for a year and subsequently greatly increasing his popularity in the US. Culkin later formed the Center for Understanding Media at Antioch College and started a master’s program to study media. Named after McLuhan’s famous book Understanding Media, the center later moved to the New School for Social Research in New York City after Culkin joined their faculty.

The probe/quote serves in my work to help analyze information technologies (IT), including communications and media technologies (ICT). It provides frames for inquiring into the forces that shaped ICT, while simultaneously examining how these technologies have shaped economic, social and political events and change. IT or ICT means many things but is meant here to traverse the historical chasm between technologies that run organizations and processes and those that educate, entertain and mobilize. This combination is crucial for developing a rich analysis of how information and communications technologies have become powerful forces in their own right.

My concern has to do with technology and its transformative relationship with society and institutions. In particular, the reciprocal effects between technology and power. Majid Tehranian’s “technostructuralist” perspective was instructive because it examined information machines in the context of the structures of power that conceptualize, design, fund, and utilize these technologies. In Technologies of Power (1990) he compared this stance to a somewhat opposite one, a “techno-neutralist” position – the position that technologies are essentially neutral and their consequences are only a result of human agency.

In my series How IT Came to Rule the World, I examine the historical forces that shaped and continue to shape information and related technologies.

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AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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  • About Me

    Professor and Associate Chair at State University of New York (SUNY) Korea. Recently taught at Hannam University in Daejeon, South Korea. Moved to Austin, Texas in August 2012 to join the Digital Media Management program at St. Edwards University. Spent the previous decade on the faculty at New York University teaching and researching information systems, media economics, and strategic communications.

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