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Machines That Become Us: The Social Context of Personal Communication Technology

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The quaint Midwestern town I grew up in seemed to have been plunked down, whole and immutable, in the middle of a vast farmland quilt. From its compact downtown, a vista of unbroken cornfields stretched in every direction, sealed hermetically at the distant horizon by a brilliant azure bowl of a sky. Throughout the summer, the prairie winds hissed through the cornstalks. The sound was like retreating ocean surf, though the nearest ocean was, quite literally, a thousand miles away.

In 1956, the town celebrated its centennial with the theme “A Century of Progress,” in retrospect a somewhat ironical choice. Our town was like one of those living history museums, except that no one ever stepped out of costume or dropped the script.

Still, growing up where I did gave me plenty of other opportunities to consider change and stability, especially in relationship to technology. Farming, our way of life, was symbolized on our town coat-of-arms by an ear of corn and a snarl of barbed wire. During spring planting, as our Allis-Chalmer tractor furrowed the fields, flint arrowheads would occasionally tumble to the surface. I enjoyed marching the freshly turned earth and stooping to pick up an occasional relic. Looking at an arrowhead in the palm of my hand, I would ask myself who had made such a primitive but effective implement, and how had it come to this place. Did an Indian boy my age make it? Perhaps it had been lost when this boy aimed too high at a deer, and his arrow disappeared into the tall grass. Perhaps it had been shot into the ribs of a boy, my age, who had been trying to hide himself in scrub as his village was being raided.
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