new book: ham radio’s technical culture

Ham Radio’s Technical Culture, by Kristen Haring, is a new book out on MIT Press, found via Anne’s links.
From the blurb/summary:

Ham radio required solitary tinkering with sophisticated electronics equipment, often isolated from domestic activities in a “radio shack,” yet the hobby thrived on fraternal interaction. Conversations on the air grew into friendships, and hams gathered in clubs or met informally for “eyeball contacts.” Within this community, hobbyists developed distinct values and practices with regard to radio, creating a particular “technical culture.”

Sounds familiar in the light of hacker culture, open source, social software, and so on ad infinitum, no?

Without wanting to just impose patterns derived from contemporary culture onto history, I’ve been very interested lately in the way that emergent amateur cultures of (cultural) production have been articulated with technological change in a whole heap of contexts. I’m also increasingly interested in the articulation of the hacker ethic (or, the ‘tinkering’ discussed by Haring in the book) with masculinity. Looking through the gender+tech lens, it’s interesting to compare the history of ham radio and the personal computer with the domestication of, say, the gramophone or my old favourite, the camera. So this is one for next year – oops, I mean post-phd this year. It’s started already and slowly grinding into gear.

Happy New Year, by the way!

5 thoughts to “new book: ham radio’s technical culture”

  1. Jean,

    I believe there is a connection between the cooperative, interactive aspects of contemporary computing culture and the cultures of technical hobbies like ham radio, rocket building, amateur photography, etc. The first chapter of my book defines the category of technical hobbies and considers the motivations and experiences shared by people who took up technology for leisure. Recently I posted some brief comments about technical hobbies as historical precedents for users generating Web content. This will give you a sense of how the book unites various amateur technical practices:

    Good luck with your dissertation,

  2. Thanks for the link and your good wishes Kristen. And I’m glad my intuition about the links between contemporary amateur enthusiast communities and analogous cultural or social formations in the past matches with what you’ve found – especially given that there are some, e.g. amateur photography, that have continued from one century into the next, and are now being reconfigured in digital contexts. Best of luck with the book as it starts to circulate!

    Bill, this link should work for you:

  3. As a former radio amateur, I have to say Kristen Haring’s book does not describe the reality of the 1960s and 70s hobby well. The book is based on a literature review unleavened by interviews with any participants in the hobby. The author makes the serious mistake of taking what she read at face value. The book does not appear to have been reviewed or edited by anyone with personal knowledge of ham radio, and thus contains factual errors. In my opinion, attempting to apply a 1930s model of ham radio and 2000s social judgements to several intervening decades led Dr. Haring to glaring errors of interpretation.

    Because of these limitations, the book does not deliver on the promise of fitting the reality of ham radio to the theoretical framework of the first chapter. Nor did I gain any coherent insight into the strength of the hobby in the 1950s and 60s, and its decline in the 1970s. It is not a good history. It is not a good social critique. It does not really show how well ham radio kept pace with changing gender roles in the context of contemporary events. (The hobby probably lagged somewhat.)

    HRTC has other problems. In describing ham radio’s slow transition to solid-state electronics, Haring writes: “Hobbyists accustomed to the light that indicated a vacuum tube was working spoke of taking comfort in the ‘warm glow’ of the familiar components. By comparison, transistors were tiny, opaque, sealed devices — black boxes, literally and figuratively — that made learning by doing nearly impossible in home workshops.” This is embarrassing to read, because it is such a shallow judgement, and offensive to read, because it is such a shallow judgement, regardless of whether this passage was intended to be literal or figurative. It’s historically and technically wrongheaded besides.

    This is just one example out of many where the author never gets past the shiny surface of things. Another is that she considers building electronic equipment and operating it on the air to be inseparable parts of the hobby. In reality, by the 1960s, these two aspects were divergent forces.

    Kristen Haring peers at amateur radio through a very distorted lens in a way I can only hope other scholars of technological culture (and MIT Press!) avoid.

    Some aspects of ham radio that might relate to amateur creation in new media are the role of ingenuity, the sense of community engendered by shared mastery of technology, and whether technological changes enable or hinder continued expression by the amateur community.

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