Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2002


Ralph Schroeder (2002) 'The Consumption of Technology in Everyday Life: Car, Telephone, and Television in Sweden and America in Comparative-Historical Perspective'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/7/2002      Accepted: 3/10/2002      Published: 30/11/2002


This essay examines the consumption of technology in everyday life by considering three major technologies - car, telephone, and television. The argument attempts to go beyond technological determinism, which is typically not grounded in the study of everyday life, as well as beyond social shaping/social constructivist views that are tied to particular times and places, and thus unable to recognize broader and more long-term patterns of change. To make this argument, Sweden and America, two countries for which detailed evidence is available for different periods of time, including several studies of 'typical' small towns, are compared in historical perspective. In addition to synthesizing this evidence, the essay draws on neo-functionalist and Weberian ideas about technology and culture to argue that there is an overall pattern whereby the consumption of technology in everyday life simultaneously homogenizes leisure and sociable activities and at the same time makes them more diverse.

America; Car; Consumption; Everyday Life; Society; Sweden; Technology; Telephone; Television.


The point of departure for this essay is Edgerton's (1998) argument that there has been too much emphasis on innovation, and not enough on the everyday uses of technology. The recent shift toward the study of the consumption of technologies in everyday life has gone some way toward remedying the previous emphasis on innovation and production, but this shift has not had a clear focus.[1] The easiest way to recognize this is to ask: what is the study of everyday life and consumption for? The answer that I will give here, and that goes against the grain of much contemporary writing on this topic, is that the study of technology in everyday life shows that technology has had rather uniform effects. To make this argument, I examine the impact of three major technologies from a comparative historical perspective, and suggest that their uniform effect has been to increase the diversity of leisure and of sociable activities in industrialized societies.

The argument goes further than this: the empirical study of everyday life and the consumption of technologies has so far concentrated on the micro-level of social change, and thus remained tied to particular periods and places. My argument, in contrast is that these micro- changes add up to - again, more uniform - macro-level changes, and once we identify what these are, we will be in a better position to identify the distinctive role of technology in contemporary culture and society. This link between micro- and macro-, or between local and wider changes, has been ignored in writings on consumption and technology. Put differently, once the changes resulting for the role of technology in everyday life have been aggregated, we can separate out the effects of technology from the changes in the other spheres of life; politics, economics, and culture (minus the effects of technology). This will also allow us to tackle the vexed problem of the relationship between culture (which is often treated either in its particularistic local form, or in a more abstract sense globally) and technology (which can be seen as 'global' in the different sense of becoming diffused throughout modern society).

Finally, we will be able to go beyond two extremes in the study of technology, which can be represented here by Giddens and Fischer. Giddens (1990: esp.17-29, 137- 149) - and following him Castells (2000) - has argued that modern individuals are becoming disembedded from their immediate spatio- temporal and social context and that we are increasingly participating in a more global social context. For Giddens, this change can to a large extent be attributed to information, communication and transportation technologies. Fischer (1992), on the other hand, has argued that users shape technologies rather than the other way around, and from a social network perspective, he claims that (in his case the telephone) reinforces rather than disrupting existing social ties. To anticipate, Fischer's is the more difficult 'extreme' position to go beyond, but I will argue that while it may be the case that users initially shape the uses of technology, the consumption of technologies in everyday life, once 'shaped', becomes an established part of social life, and then the question becomes how technology has distinctively shaped our culture ('culture' in this case rather than 'economics' or 'politics' because consumption and everyday life mainly belong to the cultural sphere), and how this cultural change relates to social change as a whole.

The 'use' of the study of the consumption of technologies in everyday life then is that a) it documents the distinctiveness of modern culture in comparative-historical perspective, b) it allows us to assess the role of technology in social change, and c) it can help us to understand the impact and potential impact of ongoing and foreseeable technological changes (say, with the further diffusion of newer technologies).

In this essay I will focus on how technologies become embedded in everyday social life, which means looking at consumption and end-uses. Before doing this, it is necessary to mention that there is in addition an intermediate stage, the 'mediation' of consumption, a set of practices or institutions between production and consumption that have also recently moved into the foreground. These mediating institutions include consumer and marketing associations, for example, and the various ways in which consumers are taught and learn how to use new technologies. I would suggest that the main mediating institutions that one would need to include in the case of the three technologies in this essay are 'large technological systems'(Hughes 1987), not on the side of production but of consumption - telecommunications providers, electronics vendors, highway and car maintenance services, etc. Many of the most of the important technologies in modern everyday life depend on these large technological systems which, once they have become 'ossified', become taken for granted. Or, as Hughes puts it, 'as they grow larger and more complex, [technological] systems tend to be more shaping of society and less shaped by it'(1994: 112). From the perspective of the user or consumer then (unlike the perspective of the historian or social scientist), these 'systems' are of little interest since their importance has faded into the background.

Before we get on to the main topic, some brief comments about how I have selected and used the historical material. To assess the changing roles of the three technologies, it is useful to compare their role (or the lack of it, or their precursors) at three points in each country: before industrialization, before the Second World War, and today - or, translated into our three technologies, first none had it, then some had it, now (almost) all have it. Apart from giving us a rough before, during, and after divide for comparison, there is another good reason for looking at three slices in time: technology, unlike other social institutions (but like science), is both cumulative and rapidly introduces new ingredients into modern social life. This point about the role of science and technology in history, again, goes against the grain of much of the study of technology in society, from 'social shaping' to 'social construction', but this argument will only become clear in the definition of technology below and in the course of the essay.

The topic of technology in everyday life is potentially vast, so I will concentrate here on three technologies that have undoubtedly had a major impact and that are widespread (and on which there has been much research). The selection of the two countries is based on the variation- finding comparative method as described by Tilly (1984: 116-24). Among developed societies, Sweden and America provide as much of a contrast as one could hope for from a comparative-historical perspective, in terms of their political systems and patterns of industrialization. They are also quite different, as we will see, for the timing of when the three technologies examined here were introduced. But while the differences in the political and economic systems between the two countries have persisted, the argument will be that the uses of the three technologies in the two countries have increasingly converged. The main point of concentrating on these two countries is to tie the observations about the effects of technologies closely to particular times and places, and thus to act as a brake on speculation. In doing this, we will find that many of the observations below could just as well apply elsewhere.

'Technology', 'Consumption', 'Everyday life', 'Culture', and the Cultural Significance of the Everyday Uses of Technologies in Modern Society

Technological advance is a process of 'interlocking of refining and manipulating', refining being linked to scientific advance, and manipulating being what technology does in relation to the natural or social environment. Thus technological artefacts, which always also consist of physical hardware, 'are continually being modified in order to enhance our mastery of the world' (Schroeder 1997: 127-8). This definition of technology builds on Hacking's (1983) philosophy of science and on the ideas of Max Weber. A more fine-grained distinction within 'technology' between 'things', 'objects', 'artefacts', 'devices' and 'machines' could be made here (see Braun 1993: esp.41), but for our purposes, it will suffice to say that all our three technologies are 'artefacts'. In modern society, technology therefore 'disenchants' the world, constantly extending the impersonality of the external conditions of life to new areas.

Technology, because of the above-mentioned disputes, and because of the emotive charge of the word, has had to be defined precisely. Some of the other concepts used that will be used can be defined in a more pragmatic sense, to delimit the subject matter. Thus, by 'consumption' I will mean the area outside of work or outside of production, and so 'free' or 'non- committed' time for leisure or sociable activity.

From the point of view of the social sciences, 'everyday life' is culture in the sense that this notion captures the parts of social life that are outside the economic and political spheres of life. But in focusing on the consumption side of 'everyday' life we encounter a seeming contradiction: that much of the non-work part of the everyday seems to be aimed at gettting away from 'everyday' concerns in the sense of getting away from mundane or routine activities. This contradiction can be resolved by distinguishing 'everyday' in the main sense to be used here, as the arena of leisure and sociable activities, and the other sense of 'everyday' (which will also occasionally be used, but clearly indicated as such) which involves getting away from everyday routines.

What about 'culture'? 'Culture' can, again, be used in a pragmatic sense, as a way of life, or the sphere of society outside of the economic and political spheres. For the purposes of this paper, and since we are dealing with consumption, we can further narrow this down to the non- work, private or household, and everyday realm.

Culture then needs to be subdivided further into the area that is shaped by technology and the area that is not. Technology here becomes culture insofar as it is translated into everyday life. But, on the definitions used here, science and technology are also separate from culture. How technological change relates to cultural and social change is then an empirical question, or, in the case of the topic of this essay, a question of how the micro- everyday changes brought about by technology add up to larger, macro- cultural and social changes. But this will depend on the technologies in question, and what their cultural significance 'adds up to' in comparative-historical perspective, which comes at the end of the investigation rather than at the outset.

The topic of this essay can thus be summarized - or visualized - as the intersection of three overlapping circles, consumption, technology, and everyday life. (And the image can be made more complex by locating these three circles as lying mainly, but not exclusively, within the circle of culture in a picture of society as consisting of the circles of the spheres of culture/cognition, politics, and economics).

Consuming Technologies in Everyday Life in Sweden and America

Middletown and Medelby

A good place to start comparing Sweden and America are two detailed sociological studies which cover everyday life, 'Middletown' (Lynd and Lynd, 1929) and 'Medelby' (Allwood and Ranemark, 1943). Both present material about daily life in two similar settings over a half a century ago, and both also make comparisons with the situation in the two places before the turn of the century - in other words, before the onset of industrialization (and for Middletown, though not Medelby, there are follow-up studies which take the study up into more recent times[2]). The fieldwork, surveys and questionnaires for Middletown were carried out in 1924/5 and for Medelby in 1941, and the latter study was deliberately modelled on the former. Both places were selected to be 'typical': neither too large or small, neither too advanced in industrialization nor too much lacking in it, and in the 'heartland' of the country rather than being too remote or too close to a metropolitan center. With their size and location, both had recently been subject to a strong influx of industry and to the arrival of rail and transport connections.

Compared to half a century earlier, a noticeable change - if we adopt a somewhat detached perspective for a moment - is that the role of the priest and the school teacher as primary mediators of culture have been diminished by the new media, and that the authority of the local elite has been at least partially displaced by that of a more national elite. This is to a large extent due to the - then new - information and communication technologies; mass-circulation printed material and radio.

Religious reading material, which contributed by far the largest share of reading before the twentieth century in both places, is now only one source of reading material among many. By the time of the two studies, almost all of the Medelby and Middletown households buy at least one daily newspaper. The main line of stratification in this respect is the one which has persisted to the present day (see Collins 1975, and Holt 1998: 12-13 in relation to consumption), between a 'cosmopolitan' elite readership of a national newspaper and the more 'local' newspaper readership. It should be added that in terms of content, politics in the newspaper, which is often considered to be one of the most important functions of newspaper readership, is of minor interest among the two populations in comparison with the 'entertainment' or 'leisure' part of the paper - local events and shopping opportunities, advertising, cartoons, sports, and the like.

Apart from daily newspapers, Middletowners and Medelbyans have begun to consume a wide variety of weekly and other magazines which cater to diverse interests - religion, adventure, hobbies, romance, and so on. What most of the content of these reading materials has in common is that it takes the readers away from everyday concerns - work and the immediate world around them - and into the world of non-everyday hobbies, places to visit, things to consume, fun and adventure. The radio initially competes with the newspaper for delivering news and entertainment, but after a period of 'enthusiasm', it eventually comes to be a complement to print and later broadcast media, and increasingly also becomes a 'secondary' or background activity. (Another complement, the cinema, has already become popular pastime in Middletown, but there is as yet only a - very popular - tent cinema in Medelby at this time).

Cars have now also put various sorts of leisure within reach. From the side of the infrastructure, the recent arrival of automobility has caused some conflict over the resources for building and maintaining roads. But from the user side, and bearing in mind that a lot of the early uses of cars was for recreational purposes, it is also noticeable how quickly the car has become adopted - and adapted to - rather than causing conflict, despite the considerable new financial burden that this put on the users.[3] The main uses of the car (and to some extent of trains and buses) are the increasing number of leisure and shopping trips that an ever wider part of the Medelby and Middletown populations take.

Middletown and Medelby thus bear out the point that print, communication, and transport technologies are often misperceived, as Fischer (1992), Nye (1997), and others have emphasized: it is not primarily that new print media provide users with the (instrumental) means of access to a wide world of knowledge, or that cars and other forms of transport provide the means to get to places more quickly. Instead, reading and driving become leisure activities in themselves. And they do so at the same time that leisure becomes a separate (set apart from the rest of the day and on weekends, and located in the realm of private life), non-everyday (getting away from routine), and regular - and in this sense everyday - pursuit, and the consumption of technology as a means to pursue leisure also becomes a routine and everyday part of life.

If these are the effects of the new technologies, what do the people in the two towns themselves think about the influx of new technologies and their influence on social life? As ever, they are initially concerned mainly about the impact on 'morality' and on the disruption of 'tradition', a concern which eventually subsides. This 'fear' is a common pattern with new technologies that threaten to affect social life, as is its opposite, techno-enthusiasm, and these fears and hopes are perhaps best viewed from a detached perspective as constant accompaniments to the most 'visible' new technologies in modern societies.

In a similar vein, it is possible to regard both studies themselves from a critical perspective, as expressing the biases about technology of the researchers that carried them out, or of the time in which they were written (see Thörnqvist 2000, Caccamo 2000). But if we regard them in this way, we get an interesting result that sheds light on the relation between technology and society: in relation to the impact of technology one can, for example, read between the lines of the avowed social scientific 'objectivity' of 'Middletown' a romantic criticism of technology as corroding the cohesion of American society. Similarly, in 'Medelby', one can detect a typically Swedish concern that the positive or 'modernizing' beneficial effects of the new technology should be spread more evenly among the population and that the state should step in to remedy this shortcoming (this is particularly clear in an editorial by the co-author of the study in a major Swedish daily newspaper that appeared just before the publication of the book, see Allwood 1942). In short, we get the impression of characteristically national concerns.

With the benefit of hindsight and from a comparative perspective, however, we can also put these predispositions or biases themselves into context, in as much as the argument presented here suggests that the reasons for the criticisms expressed in the two studies are unwarranted; that is, there is no such 'corrosive' effect in Middletown in the end, nor an 'uneven' spread of technology in Medelby over the longer term. All the same, these 'biases' do not seem to me to affect the evidence presented in the two studies or the thrust of the descriptions of the two places, and this evidence and these descriptions can, as we shall see later, be used to draw different conclusions.

The overall effect of technology on cultural change in both cases is therefore that, in the course of industrialization, an extended range of technological means have become used to pursue more varied forms of leisure. Perhaps the most striking feature in both cases is how the growth of leisure time - or more accurately the emergence of a regular space and time set aside for leisure - was filled up with new information, communication and transportation technologies. Put differently, there is a pluralization of leisure and sociable activities inasmuch as they become more diverse (and the technologies with which they are pursued more widespread), they occupy more time and are spatially more wide-ranging, and these differences in the ways of life are technologically mediated. Bearing this new situation in the midst of 'industrialization' in mind, we can now fast forward to more recent times.

Munka Ljungby and Foley

To do this, we can begin with Erickson's (1997) ethnographic study of two small towns similar to Medelby and Middletown in contemporary Sweden and America. Although her study does not aim at a comprehensive sociological portrait like the two earlier studies - she is mainly concerned with consumption, energy and the environment - the study nevertheless covers much of the same territory as the earlier studies and of this paper. Erickson lived in the two towns, Munka Ljungby and Foley, during two periods in the early 1980s and again in the 90s. Like the two earlier studies, she used a combination of participant observation, questionnaires and surveys, though she is an anthropologist. And again, the two towns were selected to be typical in terms of size, economic make-up, and distance from metropolitan centers.

A number of points in her study are worth mentioning. The first is that the stereotypes of the conserving Swedes and the wasteful Americans - which were common among her informants themselves - were only partly borne out (1997: 3-5). What she finds striking instead is the gap which can be found in both communities between concern about excessive consumption, energy wastefulness, and environmental deterioration on the one hand - and personal behavior, which is largely not connected to these larger concerns, on the other. Another noteworthy feature is the convergence between the two communities over the period that Erickson covers. As she says at one stage, 'Sweden increasingly resembles America materially' (1997: 8). A further similarity that she noticed is a common rythm in certain attitudes - for example, the increases in concern about energy after the oil crisis in the 1970s, which then wanes in both places in the 1980s and 90s.

There are more interesting comparisons, but since Erickson's findings in relation to specific technologies and patterns of consumption fit in with the other contemporary studies of our three technologies that I will make use of, I will intersperse her material with these studies below. It should also be added, again, that we can use Erickson's results about consumption while ignoring the prescriptive part of her study - in this case, wishing to curb an excessive materialism and environmentally destructive practices by means of a renewed spiritualism and changed attitudes towards nature.

Culture and Consumption

Before discussing the use of technologies further, it may be useful to say something about the general cultural similarities and differences in which the usage patterns that will be described have become embedded. The most important difference in relation to consumption and everyday life is perhaps the difference between two types of individualism.

In America, as Hall and Lindholm argue, a deeply pragmatic attitude combined with the idea of continual self- improvement has meant that Americans have a need to display the evidence of self- transformation in outward signs - accumulation or consumption being foremost among them (see also Nye 1998: esp.182). In Hall and Lindholm's words, 'the pervasive pragmatic modular approach to life permits Americans to...[visualize] the world around them as a machine that can be retooled, or taken apart and rebuilt, in order to achieve maximum efficiency...even the self is considered to be a kind of modular entity, capable of being reconfigured to fit into preferred life styles' (Hall and Lindholm 1999: 86). And: 'each striving individual seeks to become "all you can be" through ceaseless labor, accumulation, consumption, and display'(1990: 90).

Swedish individualism, in contrast, is oriented more, on the one hand, towards nature, and the peace and isolation that can be found there, and towards living up to the expectations of a communitarian society in which norms are highly transparent on the other (see also Frykman and Löfgren, 1987). Orfali's characterization can be quoted in some detail: 'The dream of every Swede is essentially an individualistic one, expressed through the appreciation of the primitive solitude of the vast reaches of unspoilt nature' (Orfali 1991: 443). 'In Sweden, perhaps more than anywhere else, the private is exposed to public scrutiny. The communitarian, social democratic ethos involves an obsession with achieving total transparency in all social relations and aspects of social life' (1991: 418). At the same time, in Sweden, consumerism has of course also become a means to express individualism (Löfgren 1995).

The different implications for consumption (for example, America is often regarded as the apogee of materialism, and Sweden the home of a strong environmental consciousness) and the similarities will be readily apparent. These cultural differences may also have more specific consequences for the issues discussed here, especially energy consumption in relation to transportation. But the cultural characteristics of 'individualism' that Swedes and Americans share may be more important than the differences. As Löfgren points out in his study of vacationing (especially in Sweden and America), 'the credo of modernity is "life can always be improved"' (1999: 268). This may be why studies like Medelby and Middletown show such similar patterns of consuming new technologies, or why Munka Ljunbyans and Foleyans share basic attitudes about consumption.

Note too that they share the same contradictory attitudes: Munka Ljungbyans and Foleyans are tired of materialism and excessive consumption, but among both populations, shopping has nevertheless become a more popular pastime over the past two or three decades, and the pattern of uses of increasing amounts of energy have resumed - once more energy- efficient technologies have been taken out of the equation - after a period of net savings and increased awareness in the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s (Erickson 1997).

Put differently, there are cultural differences that shape the forms of consumerism in Sweden and America, but these should not be exaggerated. As Campbell has shown (1987), there is a common cultural source for the constant striving for new experiences in modern societies, and this striving has become firmly institutionalized within a stratified status hierarchy. This hierarchy, in turn, means that consumption is not just an individual pursuit, but entails social emulation. And the social mechanisms for this emulation are well-known: as Corrigan (1997: 171) argues, the aspiration towards an ever- receding horizon of status goals or goods should be regarded, not in terms of Simmel's 'trickle-down' model, but rather, following McCracken (1998: 94), as 'chase-and-flight' - that the ante is constantly being upped for high-status groups which need to consume ever more in order to maintain their social superiority.

Thus, individually and socially, the culture of consumption expresses itself in a constant stream of new goods, especially consumer technologies. What Sweden, America and other industrialized countries thus have in common is that they are 'consumer cultures', a culture that has achieved a stable form, and that is at the same time continually changing because of the combination of new technologies and high economic growth (macro-) and new modes of experience and experience-seeking (micro-). As Mintz puts it, 'the history of United States society, particularly since the end of World War Two...has been one of a long-term process of...the intensified ritualization of consumption'(Mintz 1997: 198), and this could just as well be said for Sweden and other industrialized societies.

With this, we can turn to a more detailed consideration of the everyday consumption of each of the three technologies in contemporary America and Sweden. Before we do so, it is worth mentioning that for recent decades, there is much better data for both countries, and I will make use of this wherever appropriate[4]. And, as mentioned earlier, there have been follow-up studies to 'Middletown', which allow very detailed comparisons over time. But it must also be pointed out that all types of data - quantitative (often national) data, longitudinal data (again, often at the national level, but there are also some time series for Middletown (see Caplow, Hicks and Wattenberg, 2001)), fine-grained ethnographic studies, and sociological and historical studies of individual technologies - have their advantages and disadvantages. In what follows, I will use a mixture of all of these since, in my view, grasping the nature of change in everyday life and in a comparative-historical perspective simultaneously requires a combination of sources.


Television is still changing, but it has also become a stable part of everyday life. As Silverstone (1984: 97-103) has argued, the technology took the form that it has today in 1950s America, when the medium was 'domesticated' in the suburbs, and used partly for information but mainly for entertainment. The television set took its pride of place in the living room, as it still does in Sweden and America today, and it offered a type of entertainment that was suitable for - and acceptable to - a wide family audience.

In terms of content, as Meyrowitz has pointed out, the similarities in what people watch are more striking than the differences (Meyrowitz 1985: 79-80, compare Höijer 1998: 276). And it is only within this overall uniformity of how television has become embedded in everyday life that we can notice the main difference in how different groups use this technology, both in Sweden and in America: children and pensioners are the groups that deviate most from normal viewing patterns both in time spent and in content (Meyrowitz, 1985: 79-80; Höijer 1998: 262-5). We can also notice, as with cars and telephones, a general proliferation of apparatuses - multiple television sets and related devices.

But the most important feature of television is that it has become the single largest filler of the emerging niche of available leisure time, and, despite differences, Sweden continues to converge with American patterns in this respect. Like the advent of mass- printed material and radio one or two generations earlier, television has come to occupy a central place in everyday life and introduced diverse content into recreation. In this case, however, it is not content but the change in the use of time that is dramatic: as Robinson and Converse already noticed in the 1960s, television constituted the single largest change in the daily use of time, displacing a number of other activities since its arrival (Robinson and Converse, 1972). This trend has continued, though less dramatically, into the 1990s, such that television watching now occupies 40% (or 15 hours) of the weekly free time of adults in America (Robinson and Godbey, 1997: 125).

How have the everyday patterns of watching television changed over the course of time? Höijer (1998) has argued that in the Swedish case, there has been an important shift: in the early days of the 1960s and 70s, when Swedish television was restricted to one and later two state-owned channels, television viewing took place in the context of the family gathered around the set at certain times and for certain programmes, programmes which were, moreover, shared by the whole nation. Nowadays, with the addition of two additional broadcast channels, one of which has commercial advertising, plus videos, satellite and cable, as well as a much wider offering of programmes - especially American feature films and series and also entertainment shows - watching patterns are much more individualized, fragmented and diffuse. This is also partly made possible by the fact that the majority of households now have more than one television set, as in the US. And although viewing hours per day have only increased somewhat over the past decades in Sweden (up by half an hour per day to two and a half hours, 1998: 263) and a plateau has possibly been reached, it is clear that the audience is becoming more fragmented while the use of television as an 'escape' or as relaxation has become more common and is now routine.

It may be that there are differences in television watching between Swedes and Americans, such that Munka Ljunbyans watch less and say (in Erickson's study) that this is a less popular pastime than do Foleyans (Erickson 1997: 49-50, 119). But we should also note that Erickson found, like Höijer, that Swedish viewing patterns have become more similar to American ones as the more diverse and entertainment- oriented (often American) offerings have become more widely available in the 1980s and 90s. The difference in viewing patterns that will have existed earlier because of the difference between the Swedish state-owned broadcast system and the American commercial one has thus become weakened, partly as a result of users' preferences. It is also interesting to note that, when asked about the relative importance of different consumer electronic devices in the home, Swedes rate the television set as being more important to them than do Americans (Venkatesch 1999).


Two points stand out immediately in the longer-term changes brought about by car use: the first is that cars have changed the nature of leisure, making the family holiday by car a widespread middle-class institution. This is a major change since prior to the advent of the car, extended family holidays away from home were restricted to the upper classes (Flink 1988: 169; Löfgren 1999: esp.69, 90). This also goes against the widely held belief that that the automobile has led to isolation at the expense of sociability: on the contrary, in relation to leisure, the car has been used much more for recreation than is commonly believed, and in this respect the car has increased or enhanced sociability according to several writers (Löfgren 1999: 63; Fischer 1992: 253).

Second, in the case of the car, unlike the telephone and television, the differences between Swedes and Americans make a difference. As Nye points out (Nye 1998: 223), half of the difference in between European and American energy consumption can be attributed to transport, and if a substantial portion of transport is devoted to recreational or leisure uses, the impact of consumption on the environment may be considerable. The lower energy consumption for transport does not mean, however, that Swedes think any less of the car as a vehicle for pleasure; as Hagman shows, Swedish advertising has played very much on this theme, and he also notes that Swedes drive cars with a higher average energy consumption than other Europeans (1998:36).

If the car, in Fischer's words, more than anything 'added to the sum total of social activity'(Fischer 1992: 253), or, according to Nye, has mainly served to give expression to a 'pre-existing penchant for mobility' (1998: 177) among Americans, then we nevertheless need to add to these views some characteristics which they leave out: one is that car driving is the second-most expensive item of household consumption (after housing itself, if that is counted). In Sweden in 1992, 14-20% of household income is spent on transport according to Polk (1997: 204), or doubling from 8% in 1950 to 16% in 1985 according to Kajser (1994: 198) - and similar estimates of up to 20% of household income can be found for Americans.

The second is that car travel is not far behind television in being a major daily activity, despite the fact that the time allocated for travel is restricted in a person's daily life. For example, in Sweden, where, as in America, car travel is dominant, the amount of time has not changed very much in recent decades - just over one hour per day, according to Vilhelmson (1999: 179), or 10 hours per week in America according Robinson and Godbey (1997: 117, though the two should not be strictly compared since different measurement techniques are used). What has changed, albeit slowly, during recent decades is the 'activity space' (just over 50km per person per day in 1995 in Sweden), and also, the number of cars per person (Vilhelmson, 1999: 178). This is part of a longer-term trend towards greater daily mobility in Western societies, and for our periods, it can be mentioned that Kajser estimates that for Sweden, daily travel by vehicle was .5 kilometers at the turn of the century, approximately 3 km in the 1930s, 20 km in the 1960s, and 40 km in the 1990s. It should also be noted that 'free time activities...dominated the total trip almost 50% of the total' in Sweden (Vilhelmson 1999: 178), or again that, according to Robinson and Godbey's estimations, it is 'free time' travel (and travel for child care) that shows a small increase in recent decades in America (Robinson and Godbey 1997: 117).


Fischer's (1992) study of the telephone is one of the most detailed and comprehensive social histories of the everyday uses of technology that we have, and his main argument is that users have shaped the uses of this technology instead of technology shaping society. But Fischer goes too far when he argues that the telephone did not fundamentally change American society. To elaborate my disagreement with him, I would like to begin by conceding his points that the telephone did not greatly expand the relations with distant others, that it reinforced sociability on a local level, and that it led neither to more social isolation nor to greater overall social 'connectedness'.

The shortcoming of Fischer's argument can be seen if we consider that the telephone has led to an increased frequency of contact with others, and to a greater diversity of the circumstances in which - and purposes for which - contact is made. While the telephone may therefore not have transformed American society in terms of the networks of social relationships, there have been more mundane changes; namely, that using the telephone has added to and complemented the existing ways to keep in touch, make arrangements, and express emotions (Nye 1997: 1083), and thus, as Fischer himself points out, made 'aspects of daily life more convenient' (1992: 267), and 'expand[ed] the volume of social activity, and, in that way, add[ed] to the pace of social life' (1992: 254).

Among the aspects that Fischer ignores are the content and diverse communication needs in relationships. And in this case, although it is difficult to pinpoint aggregate changes, it is nevertheless possible to say that an important tool - perhaps the most important tool for practicing conviviality - has been added which has allowed individuals to cope with the increasing frequency and diversity of circumstances in which contacts need to be maintained in a more complex society (in a Durkheimian sense) of denser and 'thinner' social ties. (I am aware of the circular, 'functionalist' logic of explanation of this argument and will return to it later). Thus the number of personal telephone calls per day, both local and long distance, has increased markedly in recent decades. Putnam, for example, cites a recent study which 'reported that two-thirds of all adults had called a friend or relative the previous day "just to talk"' (Putnam 2000: 166; see also Caplow, Hicks and Wattenberg, 2001: 274-5).

All this can be put differently: Fischer may be right to criticize those who argue that the telephone changes people's social relationships. But what his view - 'that telephone calling solidified and deepened social relations' rather than changing them (Fischer 1992: 266, see also 262) - fails to take into consideration is that this technology has become an additional means to cope with the greater frequency and more diverse forms - the greater 'complexity' - through which social relationships can and need to be maintained. As Wellman (who, like Fischer, adopts a social network perspective) has argued, our ties have not diminished or become more global, but have rather become more 'multiplex', both denser and 'thinner', and going beyond instrumental and material needs: 'community ties have become ends in themselves, to be enjoyed in their own right and used for emotional adjustment in a society that puts a premium on feeling good about oneself and others' (Wellman 1999: 33). Hence the continuing expansion in frequency, number of contacts, and types of calls in the daily uses of the telephone, which adds to and complements previous communications media (just as newer communications media add to and complement telephony), and the not insignificant amount of time (4.4 hours per week out of 39.6 hours of free time) that is spent on home communication in America (Robinson and Godbey, 1997: 125).

Culture and Consumption Again

We can briefly summarize some of the cultural changes that relate to technology: one is that the daily social world of the non-elite population before the industrial revolution was largely local, whereas it nowadays reaches beyond the local in terms of access to places (cars), sources of mass media content (television), and connections with people (telephone). This fits well with a broader pattern noticed by historical sociologists which has occured over the course of the 20th century, away from the local to the national level: 'National education systems, mass media, and consumer markets are still subverting localism and homogenizing social and cultural life into units which are, at their smallest extent, national' (Mann 1993:118).

Secondly, whereas leisure had previously not been segregated in time and space from the rest of everday life, this segregation is now firmly in place. In this context, a brief comment about the 'place' of everyday consumption is called for, and this can be done by considering the distinction between the 'public' and 'private' spheres: Some have argued that a 'privatization' of the household has taken place, and others, conversely, that the private household has been penetrated by the public sphere. Without going into either of these arguments, for our purposes it is sufficient to note that these two processes are compatible with the 'segregation' of leisure that I have stressed here - as long as we bear in mind that homes can provide a separate space for leisure, and that a separate time for leisure can be carved out, while the 'traffic' between the private household and the realm outside the home can simultaneously increase. In this context we can take note of Nye's argument that that the car has enhanced the separation between work, home and leisure (Nye 1998: 243). In a similar fashion, Silverstone has argued that television maintains - rather than blurring - the separation of between everyday life and the 'non-everydayness' of television viewing (Silverstone 1984: 169).

Again, this segregation of leisure in connection with consumer technologies is part of a larger pattern which Collins, also a historical sociologist, describes as follows: 'The modern organization of life into private places, work places, and public places in between them is a historically recent development...The realm of consumption is now separated from the places where production takes place and politically- and economically-based power relations are enacted. Consumption now takes place in private or at least outside of situations where it is marked by socially visible rank. The center of gravity of daily life switches to the realm of consumption. This is reinforced by the growth of consumer industries, including entertainment and the hardware which delivers it, into the largest and most visible part of the economy.'(Collins 2000: 37). In America and in Sweden, the visibility of the automobile and information and communication technology industries has of course been particularly 'visible'.

'Theory' - Made in Germany

How can we make sense of the myriad of changes that have accompanied the three technologies over the course of time? In relation to the role of technology in everyday life, Braun distinguishes between the 'rationalization' and the 'culturalization' theses: 'whereas rationalization theses emphasize the tendency to standardize everyday life behaviour, and the convergence of the everyday world and the working world resulting from this standardization, culturalization theses stress the diversification in behaviour and the resulting dissociation from the working world' (Braun 1994:100). Braun, and also Joerges (1988), promote the culturalization thesis, or what they call a 'technology-culture spiral' of increasing complexity whereby more diverse behaviour leads to new technologies, these new technologies result in an integration of several previously different behaviours, this in turn opens up options for new and more diverse forms of behaviour, which, in its turn, promotes the use of further technologies, and so on.[5]

This idea, derived in part from the theory of 'social differentiation' of Niklas Luhmann, suggests that the role of technology in everyday life is to lead to increasingly diverse ways of life.[6] Braun and Joerges focus mainly on the immediate social context, and thus on the aquisition of every greater competencies in the use of domestic technologies. Their 'technology-culture' spiral deals with social action, and not with more long-term and more macro- changes. But despite the focus on 'action', their 'culturalization' thesis and 'technology spiral' idea seem to fit the material presented here: our ways of life have become more complex with the greater use of technologies, and so we use more technologies to cope with this greater complexity. In short, there is a proliferation of technologically-mediated cultural activities.

In my view it is useful to apply the Braun/Joerges theoretical perspective in relation to the material presented here, as long as we keep in mind the larger frame which puts this increasing diversity or pluralization into context - above all, the scarcity of resources, time and money, which put an upper limit on the consumption of technologically-mediated leisure pursuits, and thus on the uniformity or diversity (again, from a comparative- historical perspective) of a life-style of consumption throughout industrialized societies. In other words, we need to go beyond a 'social action' perspective and put the culturalization/technology-spiral into the larger context of long-term social change.

Here we can come back to the earlier 'functionalist' logic of the argument (that was mentioned earlier in connection with my argument against Fischer's ideas about the telephone): perhaps in the consumption of technology there has been a Luhmann-like (functionalist) evolution towards greater complexity in the sphere of culture - to parallel Beniger's (1986) revolution in 'control' and Chandler's (1990) extension of 'scale and scope' in the economic sphere and Dandeker's (1990) growth of 'surveillance' in the political sphere. Such an 'evolution' makes sense of the way I have described the proliferation of technologically-mediated cultural activities - on the side of how comparative-history or sociology need to 'add up' the various diffuse micro-contexts into larger macro-changes, and on the substantive side how these changes consist of 'more'. This would explain the greater diversity of consumer technologies, their proliferation, and the development of user competencies, and the greater reach, spending of more time, and greater density of ties.

But here we also want to be careful: the greater 'complexity' in everyday life, after all, remains confined to the orbit of the household or of private life. So that although this change in everyday life generates more 'needs' on the level of the 'system' (especially from 'large technological systems' and from the economic system), there remains a disjunction between the micro- and the macro- here. Everyday life remains just that - a way of life - without larger social repercussions except for the forward creep of increasingly complex social needs on the macro-level. This is why the Luhmann/Braun/Joerges view of the evolution of social complexity needs to be put into a more limited (everyday life) context, and also why the Giddens/Castells view, whereby macro- changes translate directly into the 'disembedding' of the social actor, and vice versa, the new disembedded 'reflexivity' of social actors which becomes directly relevant to (for example political) macro-social changes, is (literally) misplaced.

This is perhaps the most important balance that needs to be struck in relation to our topic: that the ownership of cars, television sets and telephones have become 'universal' in late modern societies, with all the general consequences that have been described - greater mobility, denser and 'thinner' contacts, and the domination of time by broadcast entertainment - and that this use of technologies represents neither more freedom or constraint, nor greater disenchantment or reenchantment (Schroeder 1995, 1997) per se - but a more uniformly diverse consumption life-style. This way of life is the product of a society in which the consumption of technology - or technologically-mediated cultural activity - has come to occupy the largest share of culture, and this role of technology and way of life are common to all industrialized societies - and they are exclusively modern.[7]

If we come back to the relation between technology and culture then, this argument implies both rationalization (uniformity) and culturalization (increasing diversity), but it implies that the cultural significance of technology is that the micro-changes in modern everyday life that have been documented here add up to larger, macro-changes. The truth in the 'rationalization' thesis which Braun and Joerges overlook is that disenchantment does take place if we mean by this the progressive displacement of a non- technological culture by a culture that is technologically-mediated, on the micro- and (if we aggregate the micro-) the macro-levels. Perhaps in relation to consumption this is simultaneously disenchantment and 'reenchantment' - a 'rubber' as much as an 'iron cage' (Gellner 1987: 152). The cage is 'rubber' in as much as it leaves plenty of scope for comfort or 'user-friendliness', 'individuality', 'choice', and 'meaningful' sociability - but also 'iron' in as much as the array of technological mediation between ourselves and our natural and social environments has become a 'necessity'. (This also requires a time perspective in relation to the career of individual technologies: initially, new technologies seem to open up lots of 'possibilities', but once in everyday use, technologies become 'routine'.)

A different balance to weigh is thus between continuity and change, but this is perhaps best described in terms of a contrast between different disciplinary perspectives: from an anthropological viewpoint, we can say, following Löfgren (1995: 53) and others, that the consumption of cars, television sets and (in his case radios, but the same applies to the telephone, as here) become routinized after a period of novelty. That is, they become used so routinely that they are taken for granted. From a sociological point of view, on the other hand, we do not want to overlook - or to exaggerate - the social changes that have been brought about by the new technologies.

The argument that I have made here is that the critics of technological determinism are right (on the consumption side) to criticize widely the held belief that technologies have caused profound transformations - outside of their social context. But their criticism has also gone too far: the three technologies examined here have led to cumulative changes in social relations and activities; to more mobility in space, to more expenditure (both quantity, and a greater share of) in time and in money on consumption, and to an intensified and more uniformly diverse (to repeat my earlier phrase) pursuit of leisure experiences.


If we concentrate not just on the role of technology, but also on the other two terms in the title of this paper, we can summarize as follows: everyday life has changed in becoming more uniformly diverse and more leisure-oriented, with an increasing separation between work and leisure into distinct spheres. Consumption has become more central in social life, with economic growth enabling a greater share of resources to go towards leisure and consumer technologies; and conversely, consumption for its own sake occupying a more central part of the economy. Thus, our three circles (to come back to an earlier image) overlap more, and this overlapping area is also simply bigger in size at the end than at the beginning of the century - the added complication being that, at the micro- level, the consumption of technologies in everyday life also occupies a segregated place. This overlap can also be seen as the main macro- connection between spheres, as the earlier quote from Collins (2000: 37) indicated, between a technological culture and the economy, as well as a micro-macro connection, whereby the cumulative changes in everyday life add up to a continual expansion in the consumer economy.

We can now bring the comparative-historical and theoretical parts of this paper more closely together. As we have seen, the patterns of consuming technologies and their role in everyday life have been rather similar - though with time-lags - and converged over the course of the century. This is also a story of 'more' - a proliferation of technologies and their roles in everyday life, and an ever wider spread or diffusion among the population.[8] This role, however, is also bounded by everyday life, or by the constraints of existing patterns of time, space and social interaction. So that although we can speak, with Braun and Joerges, of an increasing mediation of our social life by technology, this mediation needs to be put in the contexts of everyday life and the scope for change within it. Whether the consumption-led economy, including a stream of new technologies, will continue to expand is an open question, but our 'freedom' in today's society, including the way new technologies mediate our everyday lives, will be confined to particular times and places.[9]


1Cowan's (1987) essay outlined a useful new agenda for research on consumption and technology, but her focus was on the diffusion of new technologies, and not on their uses, as in this study. There have been extensive debates about the reciprocal influence of science- technology and society, which space does not permit me to review here (but see Bijker, Hughes and Pinch, 1987; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1999; and Jassanoff, Markle, Petersen and Pinch, 1995 for good introductions and overviews). In view of the aim of this paper, I will focus on engaging with the part of this literature that is most directly relevant here: studies which deal specifically with the consumption of technology, with the social history of the three technologies, and with technology in everyday life (Kline 2000; Fischer 1992; Nye 1997 and 1998). In the conclusion, I will argue for the relatively neglected ideas in the debate about the role of technology in everyday life put forward by Joerges (1988) and Braun (1993; 1994).

2See Caplow, Hicks and Wattenberg (2001: xiv and 279-80) for references to these follow-up studies.

3Braun (1993: 25-6) has also commented on the relative absence of conflict in relation to non-work everyday technologies, especially once problems of standards and compatibilities at the outset have been overcome. Much of this may have have to do with the pluralization or diversification effects of technologies - again, Braun's argument - that will be discussed below. The reason that conflict in the sense that Kline (2000) describes in relation to the introduction of the car, for example, strikes us as 'odd' or 'amusing' from today's perspective is because of the way in which the car has vanquished this type of conflict so decisively and with such finality.

4A few of the most relevant (mainly online) sources will suffice here: The still ongoing publication of material from the Middletown study can be followed at <>. The 'America's Use of Time Project' can be found at the University of Maryland Survey Research Center <www.bsos.umd.ed/src/>. For time spent and uses of Swedish media, see <>, which includes annual surveys of daily uses of different media, as well longitudinal data going back to the late 1970s. Perhaps the most useful for comparisons of Sweden and America today will be the currently ongoing study by Venkatesh, who has carried out an in- depth analysis of the uses of the internet and other media in Swedish and American households (as well as in India), concentrating on consumption, forthcoming on the project's homepage (< tions.htm>), and Polk (1997), which contains references for Swedish-American comparisons of mobility.

5This diversity of new social 'actions' makes it hard to pin down the effects of new technologies on the micro-level except in the general terms that I have done here (greater spatial reach, more time spent, frequency of contacts, etc.). The effects of new technologies are diffuse in that television, car and telephone don't simply allow or constrain the user to do one thing, but many things. Braun and Joerges are close to Luhmann's ideas about 'social differentiation', but it needs to be mentioned that Luhmann himself has not theorized the role of technology in everyday life, though he has written extensively about the role of science in society.

6Braun and Joerges are close to Luhmann's ideas about 'social differentiation', but it needs to be mentioned that Luhmann himself has not theorized the role of technology in everyday life, though he has written extensively about the role of science in society.

7This formulation indicates my disagreement with Latour (1993), who has argued, as the title of his book suggests, that 'we have never been modern' in relation to the role of science and technology in society. I am not aware of studies that have made inventories of the main technologies that are used in everyday life across industrialized and industrializing countries, but prima facie there is a lot to be said for the idea that these technologies are very similar in 'modern' societies. If we think, for example, of the stock of technologies in a typical household in Sweden and America - not only car, telephone, and television, but also kitchen appliances, computer (not yet a standard item, but possibly becoming one) and others, then many of the items are basically the same. But if the items are the same, then so, too, according to the argument here, should their uses. Does this imply that the consumption of technology is becoming 'globalized'? We cannot be sure, since, as far as I am aware, systematic evidence on the uses of technologies among consumers outside the industrialized world has not been collected in the detail that we have for Sweden, America, and a few other countries (though see Stearns for a global history of consumerism, which, incidentally, also emphasizes the 'modernity' of consumerism (Stearns 2001; see esp. p.44)). It is worth stressing here that because technology and culture are kept analytically separate in this essay, the argument does not entail the much criticized view that cultures will converge or that 'culture lags' behind technology: the view presented here does not address culture apart from technology, and argues only that those parts of culture that have been transformed by technology become both more homogenous and more diversified.

8Here the connection with the definition of technology offered at the outset becomes obvious: 'refining and manipulating' and 'disenchantment' on the side of (cumulative) technological advance translate into 'more' on the side of uses, consumption, and the technological mediation of cultural activities. This also means that 'more' entails a greater ability to manipulate the social and natural worlds, even if, on the consumption side, technology does not have this instrumental 'feel' to it since the main purpose in this case are leisure and sociability.

9Thus the practical 'use' of the study of technology and everyday life that was mentioned in opening paragraph of this essay (in addition to the value of enhancing our understanding of the cultural significance of technology in modern society) could be to serve as a template for other studies of ongoing technological changes in comparative perspective, for example Venkatesh's study of the uses of the internet and other consumer electronics in Sweden and America. One question that the study of everyday consumption can shed light on is whether the internet is likely to be used more like the television or more like the telephone, with all the different consequences for everyday life that this might entail. It can be mentioned in this context that Venkatesh's America-Sweden comparison (Venkatesch 1999) and Haddon's five country European study (Haddon 1999) of the uses of the internet broadly support one of the arguments made here; namely that the similarities in everyday uses of the internet across countries are more striking than the differences.


I would like to thank participants at the SHOT2000 meeting, where this paper was first presented, for their valuable comments. Thanks also to Nina Degele, Thomas Heimer, Leslie Haddon, Bertil Vilhelmsson, Lennart Weibull, Bengt Berglund, Eric Hirsch and the journal's anonymous referees for useful comments and criticisms.


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