Learning from failure: the knowledge at work with ISDN, ATM, MAN, QAM/CAP and WiMAX

Deshpande, Advait (2013). Learning from failure: the knowledge at work with ISDN, ATM, MAN, QAM/CAP and WiMAX. In: International Congress of History of Science, Technology, and Medicine (ICHSTM) 2013, 21-28 Jul 2013, Manchester, UK.

URL: http://www.ichstm2013.com/


Does a technology ever fail? The history of telecommunications in the last 30 years has a number of examples of technologies and institutionally funded initiatives such as Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN), Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM)/ Carrier-less Amplitude Phase modulation (CAP) and Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access (WiMAX) that can be deemed commercial failures. Despite their apparent failure, though, these technologies played a significant part in technologies such as Digital Subscriber Line (DSL), Internet Protocol (IP), Ethernet, Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification (DOCSIS) and Long Term Evolution (LTE) which have seen or are likely to see strong adoption in the real world and are considered commercial successes.

This paper examines the circumstances in which the preceding technologies failed and how the knowledge gained from their failures played a part in other technologies developed around the same time or subsequently. Purely in terms of technical attributes, each of the preceding technologies has played a significant part in the subsequent developments. Taking a more rounded view, the paper looks at the extent to which the failure of the preceding technologies is socially constructed and whether such an understanding could ever be considered completely accurate. The paper will draw from archival material and first-hand testimony from various industry-based participants to establish the historical events and the outcomes for each of the technologies being considered. This analysis will derive influences from Kenneth Lipartito’s discussion about the social meaning of failure in relation to the Picturephone, Melvin Kranzberg’s Laws and Andrew Feenberg’s ten paradoxes of technology.

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