Ill communication : designing media, preventing risks, and defining responsibility
This dissertation investigates how health risks have historically affected the design of communications media in the United States. Concentrating upon the telephone from 1888 through 1913, and the cell phone from 1970 through 2003, I explore how these media intersected with three epidemic risks: tuberculosis in the early 1900s, coronary heart disease in the 1970s, and electrosensitivity from the 1990s through 2003. At these junctures, I examine three social groups – physicians, industrial designers, and everyday users – who attempted to influence the design of phones and determine if institutions or individual citizens would primarily prevent these health risks. This dissertation suggests that due to their socioeconomic status and professional expertise, physicians and designers were most effective in altering telephones and cell phones. They subsequently framed the prevention of health risks as the responsibility of individual users. This dissertation argues that such design decisions were shaped by strong social prejudices, specifically a desire to limit communications media use among poor and ethnic minorities in the U.S., a desire to reinforce the health of wealthy white users, and a desire to centralize authority over the identification and treatment of disease, as well as the process of design. However, the individualization of responsibility pursued by physicians and industrial designers may have produced an unintended effect, helping to generate considerable fragmentation at the intersections where communications media, design, and health risks meet. This dissertation plumbs the ramifications of physicians’ and designers’ work by surveying a community of everyday media users who challenge medico-technological authority, articulating undiagnosed health risks and designing unsanctioned forms of prevention.