Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#3 Lex Wouterloot 1 Jan 1990

La Logique de l'usage

Jacques Perriault, Flammarion (pub) Paris 1989, ISBN 2-08-066050-0 French text, PP253


La Logique de l'Usage -

A few years ago, the managing-director of Philips-Nederland,
F. W Rauwenhoff gave a lecture about art and culture. He remarked that without sound technology there would never have been pop concerts, nor posters without reproduction techniques. I wonder what cultural surprises the video camera holds in store, because soon everyone will have one.

Some knowledge of the history of the camera might have dampened his enthusiasm. There are few households without a camera at their disposal. In commercial terms it is an extremely successful product. Whether such a positive assessment also applies to the actual utilization of the product is open to doubt. In 1985, an average of three films was shot per camera. Generally these photographs were made in very stereotyped situations. Since cameras became widely available, this medium has mostly been used to record family life and precious moments.

In La logique de I'usage, Jacques Perriault deals with the relation between technical inventions and their social application. Perriault confines his study to the development and the acculturation of what he calls (using Pierre Schaeffers definition) ‘communication machines’. This category includes the telegraph, the telephone, the camera, television and the ‘minitel’, as well as forgotten media such as the magic lantern and stained glass windows.

The first part of this archéologie de I 'audiovisuel covers several centuries and deals with the long line of developments preceding today’s media. It is a history of inventors, their vision and their machines. It is also a history of those who popularized the medium, social workers and pedagogues, who advocated the introduction of the new artefacts in everyday life. Even more interesting is the second part, in which Perriault deals with the variable and at times capricious reception of communication machines. He shows that there is no direct relationship between the inventor’s vision, the technical possibilities of a communication machine and its actual social utilization and application. Therefore he distinguishes an independent social aspect of these machines: the logic of usage.

Many machines possess far greater possibilities than required by the community that uses them. For example, in addition to reproducing sounds, the phonograph could also be used to record sounds. In practice, however, there was no demand for an instrument that could assist in learning foreign languages; people used it to play popular tunes. An equally limited application of a perfect technical invention is the use of the computer as a mere typewriter.

The practical use of a communication machine often appears to penetrate very slowly into a community. An example of the unpredictable course such an acculturation process may take is the introduction of the telephone in France. Although this communication system was introduced there at roughly the same time as in the United States, it took much longer before it was widely used in French business communication. In the seventies, only a professionalized marketing campaign by the French Post Office could ensure the appearance of telephones in most French homes.

Perriault presents his history of acculturation from a civil perspective, which implies that he pays too little attention to the military aspects of mediatization. The weakness of this approach becomes apparent when, in his history of the telephone, he makes the following statement: The breakthrough of this medium in France was primarily the result of the large-scale use of field telephones in World War I. Though he does mention the military origin of the computer, this does not affect his social analysis. In this respect, it is curious to note that he does not refer to Paul Virilio’s work, who focuses on the military dimension in his history of the media.

Perriault sees the family as the primary context in which communication machines function. Within the family, radio and television function in sometimes unforeseen ways, e.g. as ritualizing institutions. At eight o’clock each night, the family gathers round the television set to watch the news. A communication machine determines the schedule for social behaviour within the family.
Moreover, television also acts as a buffer for tensions resulting from compulsory cohabitation. Glued to the television screen, viewers may be liberated from sometimes oppressive matrimonial ties. Perriault: In a recent survey, one in four couples admitted to quarrelling about the selection of television programmes. In any case, this implies that they prefer not to quarrel all night. Television acts as a buffer for the tensions of family life: conflicts, bad tempers, brooding silences, pent-up anger. The logic of usage has given television quite a different function from the one intended by its technical developers: an instrument that could give information and provide entertainment.
Perriault devotes some intriguing chapters to the pre history of reli-television and audiovisual myths as the driving forces behind the development of communication technology. He distinguishes two discourses related to communication technology. There is the well-known technical/secular discourse, relating to the capacity of the machines, but there is also a more loosely defined discourse, ideological and exorcist, an almost religious discourse. The aim of perfection of the technical illusion also seems to be based on a magical thought structure. In the days of the magic lantern, the Jesuits used this latest visual medium to defend the catholic faith. Re-christianization and catechism were rationalized by the use of magic lantern pictures.

Educational aspects of communication machines is a recurrent theme in the book, which is not surprising since the author works at the Centre National d’Enseignement a Distance, the French Open University, and has spent many years studying how children deal with photography , television and computers. His practical experience make it a special book. Although he holds a degree in literature, Perriault has not succumbed to the French fondness for hazy philosophical wordiness. He is not in favour of a moralistic approach of the media. Perriault prefers empirical research on how these machines are actually used.

Such ethnotechnological fieldwork requires the possession of practical skills. Thus Perriault writes about the magic lantern shows he conducted, about experiments with photography in a village school, and the difficult introduction of the computer in the classroom. It is this heterogeneous combination of historical research, personal experience and theoretical analysis that make this an interesting and challenging book. To avoid very unpleasant surprises, top managers would be well advised to read some of these essays.