Understanding Televisions

“Understanding technologies, especially our media and computational technologies– as part of our cultural and social systems, and not as a separable domain.” This statement is easy to be taken for granted. Technologies do shape our lifestyles, environment, and perspectives to view the world, but the more important question is how this process happens? And what role do technologies play in a shaping process? According to Latour, technologies are not “instrumentality” which was my thought before reading articles this week, but an “inter-agency” emphasizing the interaction between human and machines. To view technologies as “inter-agency” is to reexamine their functions and symbolic meanings in the whole socio-technical system.

I would like to take televisions as an example. Television is a vital medium in the history of human beings, or in other words, in a sociotechnical system, which largely alters people’s habitual behaviors of absorbing information, spending their time with their families, and so on. As a black box, technologies inside a television are opaque and invisible, which requires us to decloak of its normal invisibility. I would like to follow the instructions organized by prof. Irvine to de-black box televisions as a medium technology.

First of all, a digital television consists of three major parts, the front-end, transmission and allocation, and the terminal. Each of these parts has its physical and symbolic functions.The front-end is responsible for dealing with sources, transmitting original signals, and dealing with the transmission in order to gather data and signals and digitize analog signals. The transmission and allocation involve satellites, cable wires, network or microwaves, and cable broad bands. The terminal is what we usually call a “television”, which adopts a screen and a set-top box (a receiver). Simply speaking, they play the role as a source, an encoder or transducer, and a receiver.

Moreover, television as a sociotechnical artifact, delegates what should be done by humans to itself. For instance, before the era of television, people have to go to a theatre to watch a show, sometimes they also need to wait for the troupe to come to their cities. But with television, they can simply just sit at home comfortably without wasting time in transportation. In the process stated above, television plays the role of an actant which substitutes humans to do something.

As McLuhan says, “medium is message”. Television is one of the most powerful and popular media in 20th. Its characteristics, such as immediacy and hypermediacy, result in new forms of the message based on televisions, like TV news, TV series, and reality shows.

In addition, a medium is also an environment which cultivates certain genres of culture, value, and social function. For example, the first debate between president’s candidates on TV was between Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy reversed his disadvantageous situation by showing on TV with decent clothing and excellent speech and won the election eventually. This example is often used to illustrate the magic televisions have to shape audiences’ impressions. Based on this observation, we can tell that televisions are not only transmitting “content” or “information”, but also “a two-way interface for mediating social-cultural authority, value, meanings.”

Although with the emergence and popularity of laptops and YouTubes, the importance or power of television eclipse, it is remediated into these new-coming media in a way with the redistribution of value and power. Besides that, remediation affects the scenarios televisions are used and their symbolic meanings. Television often represents the union of a family because it is placed in the living room where people spend their time together. If people are alone, they incline to use laptops or other media to watch videos instead of televisions.


1.Irvine, M. (2018). Media, Mediation, and Sociotechnical Artefacts: Methods for De-Blackboxing.

2. Latour, B. (1994). On technical mediation. Common knowledge3(2), 29-64.

3. Latour, B. (1990). Technology is society made durable. The Sociological Review38(1_suppl), 103-131.

4. Zhang, J., & Patel, V. L. (2008). Distributed cognition, representation, and affordance. Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends Our Minds16, 137-144.