Book Project

The Theater of Invention:

Live Performance in the Tech Industry

On the brink of public release, new technology often makes its first appearances through acts of live presentation. Think of Steve Jobs, standing onstage, unveiling the iPhone, or pitch-off contests, where startup founders compete for venture capital by staging demonstrations of new products and prototypes. The Theater of Invention establishes these spectacles as foundational to the development and circulation of technologies that come to define public life. Perhaps because technological demonstration has neither the technical integrity of hard science nor the cultural prestige of high art, its role in technological production seldom garners critical attention. Yet the very unseriousness that characterizes much tech demonstration belies its import. A ritual performance that cues audiences to imagine how a technology might take hold in public life, tech demonstration constitutes an act of cultural production and a tactic of industry power.

To understand the theater of invention, acts of live performance through which technology debuts, this book investigates theatrical spectacle as integral to the construction of technology. These presentations underscore the slipperiness of cultural construction, even – or especially – in an industry increasingly devoted to making sentiment a quantifiable value.As acts that cue audiences to understand technologies in new ways, tech demos index the social dimensions of technological epistemologies. And at the same time, as presentations designed to advance the interests of particular companies at industrial sites, they evidence the expansion of promotional practice, from a means of targeting prospective consumers to a mode of cross-sector discourse foundational to late capitalist production processes. Apprehending tech demos as promotional acts involves looking at these presentations not only as iterations of sales devices but as practices of meaning-making, giving significance to technological forms through symbolic logics that pave the way for their entry into commercial markets and their uptake in public life.