In his extraordinary book The Presence of the Word (1967), Walter Ong wrote,

Growing up, assimilating the wisdom of the past, is in great part learning how to organize the sensorium productively for intellectual purposes. Man’s sensory perceptions are abundant and overwhelming. He cannot attend to them all at once. In great part a given culture teaches him one or another way of productive specialization. It brings him to organize his sensorium by attending to some types of perception more than others, by making an issue of certain ones while relatively neglecting other ones. The sensorium is a fascinating focus for cultural studies. Given sufficient knowledge of the sensorium exploited within a specific culture, one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects.

The idea of organizing the sensorium productively for intellectual purposes is a very powerful one, and links the history of technology with the history of institutions. Consider, for instance, the way that medieval guilds were means of teaching people the use of particular technologies but also of ratifying their abilities to participate in the life of the guild community. Medieval universities worked in much the same way: texts were scarce and had to be cared for, so people were painstakingly initiated into their responsible use. The disputatio was at once a social ceremony and a demonstration of technical mastery. This technological mastery was demonstrated by the disciplined use of sight, hearing, and speech — an organization of the sensorium embedded in a structure of social organization.

When Martin Luther came along and had the local printer print for his students a clean text of Paul’s letter to the Romans with wide margins and no commentary, he was initiating those students into a different technology and an correspondingly different model of social integration.

In light of these thoughts, the “technological history of modernity” that I have been calling for will also need to be sociological through and through. I’m getting in way over my head here, but I wonder if in trying to think about these technological/sociological connections I need to read John Levi Martin’s Social Structures, which Gabriel Rossman has described as “all about emergence and how fairly minor changes in the nature of social mechanisms can create quite different macro social structures.” And Rossman himself has written about “the diffusion of legitimacy”: how “innovations – concrete products and behaviors – [are] nested within institutions – abstract cognitive schema for evaluating the legitimacy of innovations. In effect, social actors assess the legitimacy of innovations vis-a-vis conformity to institutions such that a sufficiently legitimate innovation may be adopted without direct reference to the behavior of peers.” (Hey Gabriel: Why do you refer to institutions as “abstract cognitive schema” rather than as social organizations with significant physical presences in the world?)

Especially noteworthy in this regard are the connections between emergent behavior in social insects and internet protocols, as though there’s an underlying logic of emergence — of small acts with large consequences — shared by many different animals, including human animals with their digital machines. And these are political as well as biological and technological questions: consider Adam Roberts’s extraordinary novel New Model Army, which imagines how the conjunction of anarchist theory and secure social media tech might produce a new lifeform, what I’ve called a “hivemind singularity.”

Perhaps apparently insignificant, and merely local, adjustments in how people in a given institution strive to “organize the sensorium” can have major consequences down the line. (Not the “butterfly effect” but the “Luther’s print shop effect.”) And larger changes, like the “haptic simplification” of interacting with glass screens often to the exclusion of other forms of tactile exploration? And the ways that those screens increasingly serve as the standard user interface of automated procedures? How can those consequences not be massive?

There’s too damn much that needs to be known about all this, and I know the tiniest fraction of it. But a genuine technological history of modernity will be alert to emergent effects, social structures, and the relation between technical expertise and communal belonging.


  1. This project in the making is looking more and more like the development of a union theory — quite the opposite the usual scientific principle of breaking things into constituent parts with limited regard for the entire organism/process. I would argue that as a goal, Ong statement that "one could probably define the culture as a whole in virtually all its aspects" is a bit foolhardy, since any culture or subculture is by its nature a moving target and thus defies handy and complete description, much less definition.

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