What Can Business History Learn from Media History? Media Archaeology and the Challenge of Technological Determinism

Over the past decades, business historians have increasingly recognized the crucial impact of technology within modern business enterprise. In his seminal contribution, A.D. Chandler (1977) was among the first to illuminate the cardinal role of new technology in what was thought of as “an unprecedented output and movement of goods,” which would fuel a managerial revolution. Subsequent scholarship, such as J. Yates’s (1989), made a crucial step toward a broader understanding of the role of technology within a managerial context, by expanding the notion of technology to the realm of communication and information. While science communication and information theory were developing as scholarly disciplines, Y. took on the challenge to address the multilayered interactions between information technology and business organization, and thus shed light on the gradual formation of a “modern communication system” typical of a newly achieved form of “managerial control.” It is today widely acknowledged that such scholarship provided significant insights into the history of modern enterprises. However, the emphasis on technology, while allowing for a better understanding of managerial implementation strategies, also conveyed a sense of technological determinism that has long been shaping our understanding of technological agencies and power within business context. As this paper shows, media history, and “media archaeology” in particular, provide important clues on how these methodological pitfalls can be overcome. Their epistemological potential for business history lies in their ability to sidestep teleological perspective and to point to the intricate nature of media materiality, uses and discourses, as well as its ever-changing contexts (Gitelman, 2008; Huhtamo & Parikka, 2011). Addressing scholars from different levels and backgrounds, this paper aims to open a path for fruitful methodological dialogue between two closely related – and yet rarely thought together – fields.