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From turntables to bitstreams

A blogpost on technological objects, their identities and system functions, and the research path behind it.

By Jochen Runde, Professor of Economics and Organisation at Cambridge Judge Business School

Motion of the turntable of warm toned image with shallow depth of field

Editor’s note:

As the pages of this website attest, academic research takes a lot of forms. Some studies are highly accessible, such as one showing that money can in fact buy happiness. Others take a bit more explaining, such as studies on sourcing and supply chains. And as Professor Jochen Runde explains in this blog post, there is research such as his that is highly abstract, aimed not at the general public but in assisting fellow academics in their own research – what the philosopher John Locke called “under-labouring”, or clearing the ground for others.

Yet as outlined in this blog by Jochen (“not a natural blogger”, in his own words) the process behind this sort of abstract research provides a fascinating insight for academics and the broader public alike as he sheds light on “things” – notably the distinction between their form and their function or use – and connects the dots (ever abstractly) between record turntables, dishwashers used to cook food, and the digital bitstreams that continue to disrupt our world.

Jochen Runde.
Professor Jochen Runde

The usual recipe for business school blogs on academic papers is to highlight their practical, business-related implications. My own research is not especially conducive to this approach, since it focuses instead on developing abstract concepts that might help future researchers come up with more headline-grabbing findings. This is illustrated by the journey that led to a forthcoming study on the social positioning of digital objects in the journal Management Information Science (MIS) Quarterly, co-authored by myself and Philip Faulkner, which I thought I’d share in this blogpost.

The story begins about 15 years ago when colleagues at Cambridge Judge Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology generously allowed me to gate crash their research project on the emergence and social impact of the shift from analogue to digital photography and the move online in the newspaper industry. This project raised some intriguing questions about what exactly technology is and its “fit” in the social world. It felt that there may be some mileage in exploring these issues in their own right, and then not least because I have often been struck by how even expert social researchers who know enormous amounts about whatever it is they are experts on — money, capital, the firm, technology or whatever it may be — are nevertheless often hard-pressed to come up with precise statements of exactly what they mean by those things, their nature, limits, mode of being and so on.

Phil Faulkner, a friend and fellow economist then teaching at St Catharine’s College and now at Clare College and a Cambridge Judge Fellow, agreed to join me on this project. This led to a series of papers, the first of which, reflecting our early ambitions, we called “Getting to grips with technology”. The core presuppositions of this paper has informed everything we have done together since in this area: that while the many instances of technology that surround us (from spoons and smartphones to aeroplanes and buildings) exist as structured objects in their own right, what we call their “social identity” depends also on their use and, more generally, on how they are positioned in the communities in which they arise.

The version of this paper that was eventually published (by then retitled “On the identity of technological objects and user innovations in function”) uses the example of the gramophone turntable to convey these ideas. What interested us about this device, and especially the well-known version that is the Technics SL-1200, is that it has also had a very successful life in a very different capacity as a musical instrument. We quickly learned that this was nothing new, since using turntables as sound-generating devices in larger musical performances had already been pioneered in a 1939 composition by the avant-garde composer John Cage. But the idea went mainstream with the advent of the hip-hop music phenomenon in the early 1970s, in which the DJ / turntablist played such a central role. Indeed the influence was so powerful that the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston introduced turntable classes in 2004.

The turntable is a paradigm case of an off-the-shelf device that is pretty much the same thing physically for whoever purchases one, but which serves very different purposes – effectively is – a different thing in different communities. This idea eventually led to a fully fleshed out theory of technological objects as socially positioned entities, and how their identity and what we call their “system function” flows from their social positioning. Unexpectedly, for us, it also led to a practical connection with researchers working on the idea of user innovation, and being able to say something about the drivers of innovations that take the form of repurposing an existing device or object rather than altering or creating a new one (innovations in “function” as opposed to innovations in “form”, such as using top-loading washing machines to mix cocktails, rotary toothbrushes to de-scale shower heads, and dishwashers for low-temperature cooking). There are close links here to the work of some of my other Cambridge Judge colleagues, such as Jaideep Prabhu on “jugaad” or frugal innovation, and Khal Soufani on the circular economy.

Initially our work was restricted to objects with a physical or what we call a “material” mode of being — objects that can be touched, have mass, volume, a unique location, that wear out in use, and so on. This feature prompted an important observation from peers: that we didn’t appear to have anything to say about the many “nonmaterial” entities that populate the digital world — software, algorithms, data and so on — that don’t have these properties.

This observation led to three further papers, in which we returned to first principles to derive a very general conception of what an object is, and on the basis of which we were then able to distinguish between objects that have a material mode of being and nonmaterial objects that don’t. We focused especially on what we call “syntactic” objects — objects composed of symbols phrased into well-formed expressions, where “well-formed” means that these expressions adhere to the syntactical and semantic rules of the language in which they are couched — and the important subset of syntactic objects we call bitstrings, namely the arrays of 0s and 1s of the digital world.

Syntactic objects have three notable properties. The first is that to be used, stored or communicated they have to be contained or written down somewhere on an appropriate medium. That is to say, they have to reside on what we call a “bearer” — such as the paper printout or screen on which you are reading the syntactic object that is this blog post.

The second property is that, like all nonmaterial objects, the same syntactic object can be used simultaneously by an indefinitely large number of people without anyone’s use interfering with anyone else’s, so long as each of them has unhindered access to an appropriate material bearer.

These two properties are well known. The third, however, is less so, and one of the contributions of our research is to highlight this: that particular syntactic objects have the capacity to serve as bearers of other syntactic objects, and therefore that there may be nonmaterial as well material bearers of syntactic objects. The predominant nonmaterial bearer in the digital realm is the bitstring, since just about all the information currently stored and manipulated on computers is ultimately encoded in bitstring form.

The capacity of the bitstring to serve in this role, perhaps its principal system function, accounts for one of the wonders of the digital world: the ease with which it is possible to transport the same syntactic objects to a potentially infinite number of new material bearers almost instantaneously and without loss of quality. It is this property that makes it possible to channel things like text, music, videos and so on directly to our personal material bearers (our phones, tablets, smart TVs and the like), rather than being forced to consume such things in tandem with whatever particular material bearer they may have been tied to before (printed books, music CDs, video cassettes or whatever else it may have been).

And it is the same property that has disrupted so many business models, what with the non-excludability and copy-protection problems associated with digitised goods, and led to a world in which the principal assets of some of the world’s most valuable companies are nonmaterial rather than material objects. (This has led to lots of debate about job creation not keeping up with asset valuation in these companies, and about the fairness of national and global tax regimes as they relate to digital giants—but that’s a separate blog post I’ll leave to others.) People in business schools understandably want to get to the practical quickly, and that conceptual work of the kind described is therefore never going to be the most attention-grabbing research one can do. But it is difficult to understand the digital world without a clear conception of its constituents and the relations between them. We hope that our research captures some of these in a useful way and, in the process, offer some new angles on digital technology.