Pathology and Technology

Killer Apps and Sick Users

by D. Travers Scott (Author)
©2018 Textbook XVI, 288 Pages


Pathology & Technology is the first comprehensive look at "technopathologies." Since the days of the telegraph, electric communication technologies have been associated with causing or worsening mental and physical illnesses. Today, news reports warn of Pokémon Go deaths and women made vulnerable to sexual assault from wearing headphones. Drawing on an archive of hundreds of cases found across news, entertainment, and other sources over 150 years, this book investigates the intersection of technology and disease through original cultural historiography, focus groups, and discourse analysis, documenting a previously unexplored phenomenon in communication and media. Technopathologies occur with new and old media, the book argues, and are ultimately about people—not machines. They help define users as normal or abnormal, in ways that often align with existing social stereotypes. Courses on technological history, medical humanities, science and technology studies, and medical history will find much here to debate, in a style written to appeal to scholarly as well as popular readers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Pathology & Technology
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Pathological Technoculture: Sick Users and Reinforced Stereotypes
  • What Are Technopathologies?
  • Situational Awareness and the “Psycho Gay Killer” of the Metrolink Train Disaster
  • Tracking Technopathologies
  • Overview of Book
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 1. Pathology Shapes Subjects: Gendering and Normalizing
  • The Work of Disease: Neurasthenia’s Normalizing and Gendering
  • Representations of Neurasthenia: O. Henry and Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • From Neurasthenia to Schizophrenia: A Woman Possessed
  • Pathological Technoculture
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 2. Audiences and Users: A False Dichotomy of Entangled Subjects
  • Audiences
  • Users
  • Interactive Users: Not So New
  • Neoliberalism
  • Users in Training: Early Telephony
  • From Education to Pathologization: Emergent Technopathologies
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3. Not So Crazy: Electrical Logics of Technopathologies
  • We Have Always Been Electric
  • From Soul to Commodity
  • Creating Things, and Categories for Them
  • It All Starts with Ether
  • Spirit and the Supernatural
  • Biology and Physics
  • Health and Therapy
  • Processes of Dis-connection: Thingifications of Disease and Technology
  • Appreciating Connections
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4. The Electrical Banal: Anderson, SC, “The Electric City”
  • Topianism and the Electrical Sublime
  • “The Electric City” Today
  • Rebecoming Electrical
  • Ingredients for Topianism
  • Not So Sublime
  • Accommodation, Not Reaction
  • (Re)Becomings
  • New South
  • Race
  • Gendering
  • Power Hierarchies
  • Postscript: Becoming
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 5. Not So New: Historic Continuity and the Pathologization of Users
  • The Newness Hypothesis
  • Not so New
  • Pathologizing Users: The Individualization Effect
  • Predators
  • Technopathology and Common Users
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 6. Technopathologies as Social Disease: Reproducing Good and Bad Users
  • Degeneracy: Social Diseases
  • Eugenic Logic
  • Mass-Media Technopathologies
  • Robert Montgomery: An Ideal Audience Member is a Healthy User
  • Stop the Sick from Reproducing: Sounding Out Ringu+
  • Conclusion: Broadcasting and Networking
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 7. Technopathologies as Outbreaks: Carriers and Demonized Collectivity
  • Outbreaks and Moral Contagion
  • Identification: Technopathologies of Social Withdrawal
  • Global Networks: Mobility
  • Containment
  • The Central Park Jogger: From Outbreak to Carrier
  • Outbreak Revised: A Carrier of Feminism
  • Containing the Carrier
  • The Threat of Withdrawal: Social Reorganization
  • The Extreme Case: Monsters
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion: All Users Are Sick: The Normalization of Disease
  • Ergonomics and the Visual Evaluation of Bodies
  • The Temporal User: Interactivity and Feedback
  • OSHA’s Online Ergonomic Diagrams
  • The Sick Viewer-User
  • Feminized
  • Temporal
  • Capable of Medical and Aesthetic Perception
  • Gendered and Classed
  • Normalization of the Abnormal
  • Pathological Analysis
  • Notes
  • References
  • Index

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Fig. 1.1. “What do you suppose the doctor meant by that?” The prescription for male neurasthenia is heterosexuality. From Henry, O. Let Me Feel Your Pulse: Adventures in Neurasthenia. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co. 1910. Book by O. Henry, illustration by W. W. Faucett. Internet Archive. Public domain. https://archive.org/details/letmefeel00henrrich.

Fig. 2.1. “To Lonesome Women!” Rural women instructed on telephone use as cure for loneliness. Advertisement for Southern Bell Telephone. Anderson Peoples Advocate, 20, 93 (1910, Sept 29): 3.

Fig. 2.2. Racist stereotypes used in training telephone users. From Now You’re Talking, directed by Dave Fleischer, scenario by Max Fleischer (Inkwell Studios, 1927). Screen capture. Internet Archive. Public domain.

Fig. 2.3. “Germ-proof Glass Telephone Mouthpieces.” Devices to prevent telephones from being carriers of disease. The Baltimore Electrical Supply Company commercial catalog, 1909. Boston, MA. Huntington Library. Electrical lighting catalog collection, Box 6, item 93, p. 945. ← ix | x →

Fig. 3.1. “Relation of Science to Delusions.” Discourses and disciplines today considered very distinct shown in a more unified, connected perspective. George Miller Beard. The Psychology of the Salem Witchcraft Excitement of 1692 and Its Practical Application to Our Own Time. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1882. Huntington Library and Archives.

Fig. 3.2. “General Faradization—Application to the Lower Extremities.” Sponge used to apply electrical current to patient, an example of electrotherapy. Rockwell, A. D. and George Miller Beard. A Practical Treatise on the Medical and Surgical Uses of Electricity, Including Localized and General Electrization. New York: William Wood and Co., 1871, p. 210. Huntington Library Collection.

Fig. 3.3. “Sleep induced by mesmeric trance.” Mesmerism (hypnosis) involved the exchange of energies between parties and was used as a medical anesthesia. From L. W. de Laurence, Hypnotism, Magnetism, Mesmerism Suggestive Therapeutics and Magnetic Healing. The de Laurence Company, Chicago, 1910. Plate between pp. 128–129. Huntington Library Collection.

Fig. 4.1. Generator Park, downtown Anderson, SC. Park Shoals hydroelectric generator wheel in foreground with empty buildings in background, 2014. Photo by the author.

Fig. 4.2. Spectacles of new technology: elephants using the telephone. Advertisement for Ringling Brothers Circus. Anderson, SC. Anderson Peoples Advocate (1910, October 10): 3.

Fig. 4.3. Complex history of the old/new South. Statue of electrical innovator William C. Whitner and street sign named after him in foreground. Memorial to Confederate soldiers in background. Main Street, downtown Anderson, SC. Photo by author.

Fig. 5.1.Do Cell Phones Microwave the Brain?” Concerns around cell phones are one of the most familiar recent technopathologies, the subject of reports published by elected officials. Book cover scan, Library of Congress. Office of California Senator Tom Hayden. Sacramento, CA: 2000. ← x | xi →

Fig. 6.1. Mutant baby caused by the proliferation of video screens. Screen capture. Weekly World News, 2007. http://www.weeklyworldnews.com/news/breaking_news/5.

Fig. 6.2. “Breaking the News to Her Papa—by RADIO.” Social disorder and decay in early radio mis-use. Circa 1920s. Publication unknown. Cartoon by Herbert Johnson. Marginalia: “Future Pastimes.” Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Digital Item Display—acd1996004232-PP.png.

Fig. 7.1. “The Shut-In’s Sunday Service” illustrates the trope of the pathologized, feminized listener withdrawing into audio technologies. Clark Music Company, 1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Control #: 2004672638. Digital ID: cph 3c34575 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c34575. Original copyright Clark Music Co., J260769 U.S. Copyright Office. No known restrictions on reproduction.

Fig. 8.1. “Computer Workstations” (2003, April 23). OSHA Ergonomic Diagrams. Retrieved Nov. 2, 2009, from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/etools/computerworkstations/index.html.

| xiii →


I am deeply grateful to the many individuals who contributed to and supported this project. Apologies to anyone unnamed in this surely incomplete list: Anne Balsamo, Sarah Banet-Weiser, my advisor and committee chair; Manuel Castells, Sasha Costanza-Chock, Madeline Crowley, Joanna Demers, Nina Eliasoph, Rosa Linda Fregoso, Jennifer Natalya Fink, Alice Gambrell, G. Thomas Goodnight, Herman Gray, Larry Gross, Raquel Gutierrez, Velina Hasu Houston, Aniko Imre, Ralina Joseph, Josh Kun, Erin Maher, Mike McGirr, Tara McPherson, Roopali Muhkerjee, Sheila Murphy, Kent Ono, Lisa Parks, Steven Rafferty, Michael Schudson, Vanessa Schwartz, David Silver, Matthew Swank; Doug Thomas, Crispin Thurlow, Allison Trope, Karina Wilson, Genevieve Yue, anonymous reviewers, my cohort and colleagues at the University for Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Clemson University Department of Communication, my focus group participants and interview subjects, the staff at House of Marketing Research, Pasadena, CA; the staff and librarians of the Huntington Library and Archives, the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the ONE Institute and Archives, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the U.S. Library of Congress, and the USC Libraries and Special Collections; and the reviewers, panelists, respondents, and ← xiii | xiv → audience members of various conference presentations. Research for this project was partially funded by a 2008–09 New Directions in Feminist Research Fellowship from the USC Center for Feminist Research, a 2009–10 Dibner History of Science Fellowship from the Huntington Library and Archives, and 2007 and 2009 Stark Family Fellowships for Summer Research from USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Portions of this manuscript appeared in different forms in American Quarterly, Angelaki, Feminist Media Studies, and Rocky Mountain Communication Review.

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Pathological Technoculture: Sick Users and Reinforced Stereotypes

The Pain of Staying Connected: Experts Are Seeing an Increase in Stress Injuries from Overuse of Hand-Held Gadgets

ABC News, 2007

Cancer Risks Seen in Use of Cellphone

—Charleston, SC, Post & Courier, 2011

The E-Ego: The Web Brings Out the Worst in Us

Psychology Today, 2014

Instagram Worst Social Media App for Young People’s Mental Health

CNN, 2017

Such headlines are common. In response, sociologists tend to dismiss them as irrational fears of technological progress, conspiracy paranoia, or victim mentalities.1 Others roll eyes at media sensationalism. Consumers debate and scientists research if they are “real” diseases.

This book, the result of a 10-year research project, will show that what is not in the least ambiguous is the reality of such discourses. Throughout the Western history of electric communication technologies, such devices have ← 1 | 2 → been associated with causing or worsening various forms of mental and physical distress. I call these cases technopathologies. In addition to documenting and making legible these phenomena and the broader pathological technoculture they represent, the animating question that drives this book is: What can we learn by listening to these discourses? Instead of interpreting what they mean or judging whether they are “real,” this project aims to listen to what they have to say. Technopathological discourses contribute to ideals and norms of technology users as a subject position, I will argue, one that links them to existing social hierarchies and also attempts to preemptively resist certain challenges to those hierarchies.

Health is not external to social reality. As scholars such as Deborah Lupton have shown, medical science can be approached as an element of culture. By taking an approach of cultural analysis, I do not mean approaching disease discourses as primarily symbolic—as displaced anxieties about cultural change, newness, or evolving social identities. Nor do I reject their metaphoric meanings, as Susan Sontag famously called for in Illness as Metaphor. For, as Michael Taussig has described, ignoring the signifying dimensions of diseases mutes the contradictions they express and supports the ideological status quo.2 Although influenced by anthropologist Mary Douglas’s famous work on pollution taboos, I do not solely analyze diseased bodies as symbols of diseased social bodies or metaphors of transgressed modernist boundaries. My aim instead is to take seriously the explicit meanings of a sick user as a sick user, to identify technopathological discourses and examine their entanglements of matter and meanings. I examine disease discourses as activities in which the symbolic and the “real” intertwine and co-create. To use the language of feminist science and technology scholar Karen Barad, they are material-discursive practices, phenomena entangled in their iterations of (re)becoming. Several scholars have identified similar processes in cultural histories of disease.3 Indeed, this process of pathologizing technology users can be seen as part of the larger medicalization of technology: the territorialization of a social realm into that of medical knowledge and discourses.4 Medicalization has been explored, for example, in topics such as patriarchal medical power overtaking the previously domestic realms of midwifery and home childbirth,5 deviance,6 and rescue missions.7 Michel Foucault’s work on the history of madness and psychiatry is a paradigmatic and formative example of medicalization. As he wrote, “Nineteenth-century psychiatry was a medical science as much for the social body as the individual soul.”8 Medicalization is perhaps inevitable. Our physical and mental vulnerability, as presages of our ultimate mortality, are central to human experience. ← 2 | 3 → Yet, it is nevertheless an informative analytic. By examining how technology use has been discussed pathologically, what insights might we gain into the evolving ideals of humans and technologies, in our roles as users? How have these discourses changed over time? If we examine them across various media, institutions, and sites, what patterns and resonances might emerge?

While extending and applying scholarship on technology and the body in general,9 I focus specifically on bodily insights into technological practices. Carolyn Thomas de la Peña argues that Americans’ early-twentieth-century enthusiasm for electricity, radium, and energy shows how new technologies were understood through bodily contexts.10 Carolyn Marvin likewise argues that initial understandings of electrification were based on bodily references and applications. However, I wish to move beyond any direction of a causal arrow between technologies and bodies. Instead, I will examine cases in which the two are combined, in which bodies and technological practice intersect: cases of users.

My emphasis on the bodies and minds of users is not a focus on bodies affected by technology. Bodies are not combined, fused, prostheticized, conglomorated, transcended, duplicated, extended, informatized, uploaded, or transformed. They are simply bodies. This is not to dismiss technology; it is to offer a perspective that rejects the ontological separation of technologies and bodies as disparate things. They have been endlessly intertwined. Moreover, as this book demonstrates, technopathologies are not new, nor are they primarily about new media or innovations. Part of the perspective with which I argue this is one that does not see technologized bodies as radically different. Instead, I will argue, we have always been users. Furthermore, as I will show, technopathologies have a deep-rooted logic. Associations of biological and technological phenomena are neither fantastical nor irrational, but based in a long scientific and philosophical history, which I will examine later in a discussion of electricity.

This project intervenes in the presumed linkage of technological “newness” and utopian and dystopian cultural responses. This relates to what I refer to as the newness hypothesis: assertions that technopathologies are merely technophobic reactions to new media by irrational neo-Luddites, or, at best, unsophisticated naïfs. The newness hypothesis suggests that people fear social change, and they project these fears onto new media as symbols of such change. While not entirely untrue, this is far from the whole story. I will show that technopathologies have also often occurred with well-domesticated, dominant media, and even technologies that are safely residual or “old” media. The historical persistence of technopathologies pushes us to hear the ← 3 | 4 → ongoing processes and entanglements involved in usership. This is in contrast to studying technology using linear relations of cause and effect, which reinforce technological determinism and separate the realms of technology and culture. Furthermore, new technologies do not always provoke technophobic reactions of the sort with which technopathologies are often grouped. For example, in contrast to existing histories of awe, fear, and excitement around the onset of electrification, I will show how, in the case of Anderson, South Carolina—“The Electric City”—newness could also be experienced as a very level-headed “electrical banal.” Technopathological discourses are about users, not technologies. Pathologization focuses on individual, rather than systemic or social concerns. In these discourses, users are aligned in many ways with existing social hierarchies, such as those of age, gender, race, sexuality, and mental health. This expands sick users to a broader conception of bad users. Technopathologies are social diseases, and it is the user’s responsibility to manage them. When users get sick, they begin to pose a threat to other users. As with citizens who are healthy and sick, or good and bad, users have provoked a variety of cultural and legislative responses, and ultimately, sickness becomes a regular part of technology use. In this normalization of the abnormal, disease becomes an accepted and familiar part of usership.

What Are Technopathologies?

The cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again.

Such perspectives of technologies inducing deleterious effects on individual minds and bodies are common in news, entertainment, and the classroom. Friends, family, and colleagues have confidently paraphrased them to me across dinner tables and in conference rooms. Indeed, one can readily assembly a medical encyclopedia of technological ailments from recent news articles:

“Google makes us all dumber”11

“iPhone Separation Anxiety Makes You Dumber”12 ← 4 | 5 →

“Depression, loneliness linked to binge-watching TV”13

“E-books ‘damage sleep and health’”14

“Man Tears Tendon After Playing Candy Crush for Weeks”15

“Casual Sex Apps Blamed for Skyrocketing STD Rates”16

“Touchscreen use linked to sleep problems in infants”17

“Temporary blindness tied to smartphone use in dark”18

“Too much Facebook can kill you”—when you ignore your girlfriend and drive her to murder you19

“Mobile phones are cooking men’s sperm”20


XVI, 288
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVI, 288 pp., 15 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

D. Travers Scott (Author)

D. Travers Scott is Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at Clemson University, South Carolina. He holds a PhD in communication from Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, a Master of Communication in Digital Media from the University of Washington, and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.


Title: Pathology and Technology
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