Thomas Streeter has been a faculty member of the Sociology Department of the University of Vermont since 1989. He has an undergraduate degree in Semiotics from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has also taught for the School of Cinema-Television at the University of Southern California, and for the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was a Member at the Institute for Advanced Study, School of Social Science, Princeton, NJ, in 2000-2001.
What one insight from your field, approach, method, findings etc. do you think is most important for scholars working in this topical area?
That the only way to understand if, when, and how technology matters is historically—not in the sense just of facts about the past, but in the senses of conditions not of our own making, and in terms of contingent forms of collectively organized human agency. Another way to put it is to say that it’s usually not interesting to suppose that “this technology allows x or y” in general or abstract terms; the research that’s interesting to me starts with specific things happening in specific times and places—the U.S. political situation in 2003, for example, or Egypt in 2011—when there’s a specific mix of pressures, limits, desires, and movements in which technology plays a role. Technology in the abstract is not interesting; one could argue it does not exist.
What are two issues that are not adequately treated within current work on cultural production in the digital age in your field or in others?
1) I’m interested in the role of technology in the lives of people who hate it. Technophiles are too easy to study. And I don’t mean just marginalized groups such as the elderly for whom the technology really doesn’t matter that much anyway. Something more like lawyers: lawyers initially hated the introduction of databases and microcomputers—perhaps because they subjected men in pinstripes to the indignity of doing their own typing—and yet these are more fundamental to their work today than in many other fields.
2) I am less certain about this one, but I suspect that mobile phones in the developing world are deeply significant in many ways and might be something completely different in terms of their social effects/roles/functioning than in the developed world. Introducing cell phones in societies that have been talking on phones for a century might be a completely different (and less interesting) thing from cell phones in a culture/society that had been previously without much in the way of electrical communication.
Are humanistic values such as justice, equality, democracy or (insert preferred humanistic value here) currently served by cultural production in a digital networked environment?
Yes absolutely, but we need to get beyond the middle-school-social-studies version of these values before we think about their relevance to digital contexts. Dichotomies like freedom/constraint, haves/have nots, dominant/oppressed, are too simple. As is the idea that voting = democracy, and the idea that more communication is automatically better and/or more democratic. In all the thinking and discussion that has gone on influenced by Habermas, Foucault, Bourdieu, Butler and others (and the debates between them), there is a much richer set of concepts for tackling these connections.