Chekhov, trains, and telegraphs

Social Systems Theory

If we are going to discuss social change, we have to consider the materials, technologies, or media that facilitate and shape communication. We can’t just talk about “the history of ideas,” as some disembodied thing. This is why Luhmann wrote about the impact of the printing press, among other technologies, in the evolution of modern society.

In a post on Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, I mentioned trains and telegraphy as important technologies. Adopting the vocabulary of Latour, we can call trains and telegraphs actants in a communication network. Prior to the invention of telephones, a person who wanted to communicate with someone else at a distance could send a letter or a telegram or physically travel to meet the other person(s). Trains carried mail as well as human beings, and telegraph wires were strung along railroad right of ways. The railroad operators also realized that they could…

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