The orig­i­nal record­ing of this lec­ture is avail­able at Culture Digitally.

Most of the ques­tions that engage media researchers and pop­u­lar observers of the media focus only on one dimen­sion of our media envi­ron­ment: the con­tent of media mes­sages. Typical con­cerns cen­ter on how peo­ple (often chil­dren) react to what they are exposed to through var­i­ous media; how insti­tu­tion­al, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal fac­tors influ­ence what is and is not con­veyed through media; whether media mes­sages accu­rate­ly reflect var­i­ous dimen­sions of real­i­ty; how dif­fer­ent audi­ences inter­pret the same con­tent dif­fer­ent­ly; and so on. These are all very sig­nif­i­cant con­cerns, but con­tent issues do not exhaust the uni­verse of ques­tions that could and should be asked about the media.
Joshua Meyrowitz, Medium Theory”

Joshua Braun: Welcome to Media, Technology & Culture. This is the last in our series of install­ments on what makes new media new. That clip comes from pro­fes­sor Joshua Meyrowitz’ essay Medium Theory.” And it reminds us that to tru­ly get a grip on how media tech­nolo­gies inter­sect with cul­ture, we have to con­sid­er more than just the con­tent they car­ry.

This is a big project. One that’s going to stretch beyond the cur­rent series of install­ments. So far, we’ve explored how ele­ments of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture shaped the lan­guage we use to talk about con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. And we’ve looked at sim­i­lar­i­ties in the ways peo­ple expe­ri­ence and react to emerg­ing forms of media that seem to exist over much larg­er time scales, and across a sur­pris­ing array of media tech­nolo­gies. It’s a phe­nom­e­non that sug­gests that at least some of our reac­tions have less to do with the specifics of each par­tic­u­lar tech­nol­o­gy than with the deep­er hopes and con­cerns of our cul­ture pop­ping up time and again, the way themes from Shakespeare or Gilgamesh do.

So, how do we make sense of new media? How can we guard against our temp­ta­tion to assume, our implic­it sense, even, that every­thing in our expe­ri­ence of today’s emerg­ing dig­i­tal media is brand new and unprece­dent­ed? And how do we do that while also appre­ci­at­ing the things that real­ly are new or unique to our cur­rent cul­tur­al con­text and moment in his­to­ry? Here’s Meyrowitz again:

A hand­ful of scholars—mostly from fields oth­er than com­mu­ni­ca­tions, soci­ol­o­gy and psychology—have tried to call atten­tion to the poten­tial influ­ences of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies in addi­tion to and apart from the con­tent they con­vey. I use the sin­gu­lar medi­um the­o­ry” to describe this research tra­di­tion in order to dif­fer­en­ti­ate it from most oth­er media the­o­ry.” Medium the­o­ry focus­es on the par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter­is­tics of each indi­vid­ual medi­um or of each par­tic­u­lar type of media. Broadly speak­ing, medi­um the­o­rists ask: What are the rel­a­tive­ly fixed fea­tures of each means of com­mu­ni­cat­ing and how do these fea­tures make the medi­um phys­i­cal­ly, psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, and social­ly dif­fer­ent from oth­er media and from face-to-face inter­ac­tion?
Joshua Meyrowitz, Medium Theory”

Meyrowitz’ notion of medi­um the­o­ry offers one pro­posed solu­tion to our prob­lem of eval­u­at­ing what’s new about new media. Which is to pay atten­tion to the par­tic­u­lar com­bi­na­tions of fea­tures that make them up. One hint that this is cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant is the way new tech­no­log­i­cal prod­ucts get mar­ket­ed and reviewed.

Paul du Gay and his coau­thors in the book Doing Cultural Studies, for exam­ple, point to the way in which the Sony Walkman, upon its intro­duc­tion in the late 1970s, was some­times described as a very small and more mobile ver­sion of the stereo tape decks peo­ple lis­tened to in their homes. In oth­er words, peo­ple under­stood the portable music play­er as a mashup of fea­tures from tech­nolo­gies they were already famil­iar with. It was like the tape deck they already used, but with the addi­tion­al qual­i­ties of being small and easy to car­ry with you on the go, not unlike the pock­et tran­sis­tor radios that had been pop­u­lar since the 1950s. And as du Gay and his coau­thors point out, we almost always come to grips with new devices, tech­nolo­gies, and pieces of cul­ture by com­par­ing them to what went before, as mashups of, or depar­tures from, the fea­tures of devices we already know. A new device is like Gadget A, but with a few aspects of Gadget B, but it also has fea­ture C which is all new.

In fact in writ­ing this, I had a nice reflec­tive moment when I real­ized that some of the folks lis­ten­ing may not be old enough to remem­ber what the orig­i­nal Walkman was. I instinc­tive­ly want­ed to explain it as being a portable music play­er that was sort of like an iPod, only it played cas­sette tapes not dig­i­tal files. Which is total­ly du Gay’s point here. Whether we’re look­ing for­ward and fig­ur­ing out the lat­est gad­get in terms of what went before, or look­ing back­ward and call­ing the Walkman the iPod of the 80s, or talk­ing about the tele­graph as the Victorian Internet. We’re lost with­out com­par­isons. Spend a few min­utes read­ing about the Walkman’s intro­duc­tion, inci­den­tal­ly, and you’ll get a tremen­dous feel­ing of déjà vu regard­ing the iPod. The sell­ing points for the orig­i­nal Walkman are near­ly iden­ti­cal. Things like the abil­i­ty to make your own track mix­es, take your music with you on the go, and oh, check out these nifty new head­phones we designed for it. Apple clear­ly took more than a few pages from Sony’s play­book in intro­duc­ing the iPod.

And it’s not like this is even unique to media tech­nolo­gies. Back in the 1990s and ear­ly 2000s when peo­ple were hyp­ing the hydro­gen fuel cell, for exam­ple, I can remem­ber read­ing arti­cles about how tech­nol­o­gy firms were strug­gling to make the price and pack­ag­ing of fuel cells sim­i­lar to that of gasoline-powered gen­er­a­tors. Not just so that they might be more afford­able to busi­ness­es and home­own­ers, but so they’d be able to mar­ket the things. Engineers knew that if they had to explain what a fuel cell was, they’d have a hard time sell­ing any. But if you could offer it to con­sumers as a deluxe mod­el gen­er­a­tor you could jack into an exist­ing mar­ket, the same way Apple did when peo­ple began dump­ing their Walkmans for the new iPod.

One point that emerges in this dis­cus­sion is that the peo­ple and com­pa­nies that make gad­gets have to con­cern them­selves with a lot more than gad­getry. It’s nev­er enough to wor­ry about whether a tool works from a tech­ni­cal stand­point. You also have to think about how peo­ple, from end users to gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tors, under­stand the tool. And that includes every­thing from how much it costs to whether peo­ple will want to be seen with it on a date. The stereo­type of engi­neers who make bril­liant tech­ni­cal deci­sions that turn out to be night­mares for their users is fun, but often mis­lead­ing. Engineers and design­ers suc­ceed by bal­anc­ing many dif­fer­ent inter­ests and man­ag­ing trade-offs that go beyond the strict­ly tech­ni­cal ones. This impos­si­bil­i­ty of sep­a­rat­ing social and tech­ni­cal con­cerns is what soci­ol­o­gists and his­to­ri­ans are talk­ing about when they use the wonky term sociotech­ni­cal sys­tems,” an idea we’ll explore more ful­ly in the com­ing weeks.

For now, it’s enough to remem­ber the point that media tech­nolo­gies and devices, any tech­nolo­gies and devices for that mat­ter, are cul­tur­al prod­ucts. New gad­gets demand com­par­isons with what went before, and for this rea­son they play on and with our expec­ta­tions. To bet­ter see what I mean, let’s com­pare this to our expe­ri­ence of media con­tent.

Take an agreed-upon cul­tur­al form like movies, for exam­ple. Filmmakers, film crit­ics, and film schol­ars all love to talk about movie gen­res. The west­ern, the hor­ror movie, the rom-com, the spy thriller. In the over a cen­tu­ry we’ve been watch­ing movies, both film­mak­ers and audi­ences have grown very accus­tomed to the tropes of dif­fer­ent sorts of films. The duel between gun­fight­ers or the fist­fight aboard a mov­ing train are so well-established in Westerns, for exam­ple, that many movies use the same sequence of shots to set up the action, know­ing that all it takes is a few quick visu­al cues for the audi­ence to catch on to what is hap­pen­ing. This allows the direc­tor to ratch­et up the sus­pense, and to mess with our heads.

We as audi­ences have got­ten so good at read­ing the visu­al short­hand of movie gen­res, at think­ing three steps ahead based on rec­og­niz­able shots and plot devices, that for decades already, much of film­mak­ing has been less about estab­lish­ing these expec­ta­tions and more about tin­ker­ing with them, either by selec­tive­ly vio­lat­ing estab­lished aspects of a genre, or by mix­ing and match­ing between dif­fer­ent gen­res alto­geth­er. The movie Skyfall, for exam­ple, isn’t a Western at all. It even begins in Istanbul, which isn’t exact­ly cow­boy cen­tral. But none of that stops us from real­iz­ing at the moment James Bond ends up on top of the train that we’re about to see a high-speed fist­fight with the bad guy.

When we watch a movie, in oth­er words, we under­stand it based on com­par­isons with all the movies we’ve ever seen before. Some of this we do con­scious­ly, like when we get an explic­it ref­er­ence or a joke in one movie that relies on our knowl­edge of anoth­er film. But a lot of these com­par­isons and con­trasts we process almost by reflex. We get antsy when the teenag­er in the hor­ror movie decides to check out the noise in the base­ment. And if we stop to think about it, we know it’s because this leads to a bad out­come in so many oth­er movies we’ve seen.

But while we’re watch­ing, we may be so caught up in the moment that we’re not quite aware of all the asso­ci­a­tions we’re draw­ing on a less-conscious lev­el. All this is, I’d con­tend, not so dif­fer­ent from what’s going on in our expe­ri­ences of new tech­nolo­gies. When we first encoun­tered the Walkman or the iPod, we may or may not have stopped to con­scious­ly com­pare it to sim­i­lar devices of the past. But, to under­stand what we were look­ing at, we instinc­tive­ly drew con­nec­tions to gad­gets we knew.

In soft­ware design, there’s even a whole inter­face design strat­e­gy called skeu­mor­phism that relies on these sorts of con­nec­tions, pur­pose­ful­ly cre­at­ing new tech­nolo­gies that draw on your asso­ci­a­tions with exist­ing gad­gets, and par­tic­u­lar­ly with the real-world objects. Think, for exam­ple, about your computer’s desk­top” and trash can.” Or the icon for the mail pro­gram on your phone that resem­bles an enve­lope or a postage stamp. Think, too, about more sub­tle allu­sions to famil­iar objects. Like the win­dows on your com­put­er screen that cast shad­ows on one anoth­er like a stack of papers, allow­ing you to eas­i­ly see which one is on top. Or the way the eread­er app on a tablet turns the next page when you flip the device to one side as you would the page of a book. Think about the fact that ebooks have pages at all. We’re con­stant­ly rely­ing on a finely-developed sense of what’s alike and what’s dif­fer­ent to find our way around the tech­no­log­i­cal world.

These com­par­isons often seem uncon­scious, intu­itive. But they rely on a huge back­log of expe­ri­ence, much as our abil­i­ty to fol­low film nar­ra­tives does. It’s a sense that engi­neers, design­ers, and mar­keters are con­stant­ly try­ing to tap into in order to make devices intu­itive while at the same time con­vey­ing a sense of new­ness, just as a film­mak­er manip­u­lates and occa­sion­al­ly vio­lates our expec­ta­tions of dif­fer­ent movie gen­res to cre­ate sus­pense, sur­prise, or humor.

Much of what I’ve described so far about the log­ic of com­par­i­son and reuse comes pret­ty close to an idea from media schol­ars Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. They painstak­ing­ly doc­u­ment the way in which each suc­ces­sive cul­tur­al medi­um draws on forms of media that went before. So, for exam­ple, con­tem­po­rary 3D video games bor­row from visu­al styles devel­oped for tele­vi­sion and film, which them­selves bor­rowed styles from paint­ing. Video games cre­ate life­like pho­to­re­al­is­tic graph­ics using tech­niques like lin­ear per­spec­tive that were first devel­oped in Renaissance paint­ing, and reworked in suc­ces­sive medi­ums from the print­ing press all the way down to Grand Theft Auto and Minecraft. Newspaper web­sites mim­ic the lay­out and feel of print news­pa­pers. And web design­ers have bor­rowed all sorts of graph­ic design con­ven­tions from print­ed mate­ri­als, some of which date back to stuff man­u­fac­tured on ear­ly print­ing press­es in the 1400s. Things which them­selves bor­rowed design ideas from hand-copied man­u­scripts. Meanwhile, con­tem­po­rary tele­vi­sion news and print­ed books are begin­ning to make use of graph­ics inspired by web design.

All of which is to say that both con­tent cre­ators and audi­ences fig­ure out what to do with and how to make sense of a medi­um by com­par­ing and con­trast­ing it oth­er media they know, and by draw­ing from the reper­toire of tech­niques and skills used in those oth­er media. This sort of con­stant remix­ing, what Bolter and Grusin call reme­di­a­tion,” fits in well with the ideas we vis­it­ed ear­li­er from du Gay’s book Doing Cultural Studies. But it’s not quite the same thing. As you may have not­ed from my descrip­tion, reme­di­a­tion is most­ly about the con­tent of emerg­ing media forms, not the tech­nolo­gies under­ly­ing them.

And if there’s one crit­i­cism I’ve heard of Bolter and Grusin’s main book on the sub­ject, it’s that it focus­es care­ful­ly on the sim­i­lar­i­ties that pop up between con­tent in dif­fer­ent media, between the look of USA Today’s print­ed edi­tion and its web­site, for exam­ple, but not near­ly as much atten­tion to the process­es by which those sim­i­lar­i­ties came to be. In a lot of cas­es design­ers and devel­op­ers, or the man­agers over­see­ing their work, may sim­ply have been so steeped in exist­ing media for­mats that they recre­at­ed aspects of them in a new medi­um with­out even real­ly think­ing about it.

But we can also assume, and oth­er schol­ars have demon­strat­ed in many cas­es, that at some point a lot of work went into cre­at­ing the tech­nolo­gies that could in the first place faith­ful­ly recre­ate old­er tech­niques. We don’t just have tech­nolo­gies for putting text online, in oth­er words, we have tech­nolo­gies that put text online in a way that resem­bles the morn­ing paper. Developers don’t just cre­ate game engines, they make game engines that mim­ic Renaissance paint­ing. All of which again ham­mers home the point that media tech­nolo­gies are, in them­selves, cul­tur­al prod­ucts, not just con­duits for con­tent that express­es cul­tur­al ideas.

So, to sum up our dis­cus­sion so far, it’s impor­tant to think about media tech­nolo­gies, not just media con­tent. We need to find a way to tease apart what’s new, inter­est­ing, and cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant about con­tem­po­rary media tech­nolo­gies, with­out falling into the trap of assum­ing that they’re dif­fer­ent from every­thing that came before. And, pay­ing atten­tion to the par­tic­u­lar fea­tures of dif­fer­ent medi­ums and devices, how sim­i­lar func­tion­al­i­ty is pro­gres­sive­ly devel­oped and mashed up in new com­bi­na­tions, seems like a pret­ty promis­ing approach.

But there are also a lot of dif­fer­ent direc­tions you can go with this idea. You can focus, for instance, on how par­tic­u­lar fea­tures of tech­nolo­gies inter­act with the behav­ior of indi­vid­ual peo­ple. To give one exam­ple, Jeff Hancock, Jennifer Thom-Santelli, and Thompson Ritchie, a group of social psy­chol­o­gists and com­mu­ni­ca­tion researchers, did a study in which they looked at a list of par­tic­u­lar fea­tures of com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies that peo­ple use to inter­act with one anoth­er. These includ­ed whether the tech­nol­o­gy was used to com­mu­ni­cate in real-time or not, whether it typ­i­cal­ly kept a record of the con­ver­sa­tion, and whether it required you to be in the same room with the per­son you were talk­ing with. For exam­ple, a phone con­ver­sa­tion hap­pens in real-time, but an email exchange usu­al­ly doesn’t. Instant mes­sag­ing and email con­ver­sa­tions may leave a record of what was said, but phone calls typ­i­cal­ly don’t. And most media tech­nolo­gies dif­fer from face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion in that they let you con­verse with peo­ple who aren’t phys­i­cal­ly near you.

The researchers com­pared this list of fea­tures to the con­di­tions under which peo­ple most often tell lies. For instance, peo­ple typ­i­cal­ly lie more often when they’re con­vers­ing in real-time, because awk­ward sit­u­a­tions crop up more spon­ta­neous­ly and they have to be resolved more quick­ly. Like when some­one sud­den­ly asks you if you’d like to get a cup of cof­fee tomor­row, or whether you like his new jack­et. It’s no sur­prise that peo­ple also lie more often when their con­ver­sa­tions aren’t being record­ed, since they’re less like­ly to be held account­able. And it’s also a lot eas­i­er to be decep­tive when you’re not in the same room with some­body. Telling your par­ents you’re read­ing your physics text­book when you’re actu­al­ly look­ing at Yik Yak, or say­ing you’re on your way some­where when you’re actu­al­ly just get­ting into the car, are both things that might work over the phone or by text mes­sage, but not in per­son.

And what Hancock and his fel­low researchers found was that if you added up the num­ber of deception-friendly fea­tures a par­tic­u­lar media tech­nol­o­gy had, you got a pret­ty good pic­ture of how often it was used to tell lies. Phone con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen in real-time, at a dis­tance, they leave no record of the con­ver­sa­tion. And peo­ple lied on the phone more often than over any oth­er medi­um the researchers stud­ied. Email exchanges hap­pen slow­ly and keep a record of what’s said, and peo­ple lied least over email. Meanwhile, face-to-face con­ver­sa­tion and instant mes­sag­ing fell some­where in between these two extremes.

You might think of a study like this one by Hancock and his col­leagues as sit­ting at one end of the spec­trum when it comes to com­par­ing the fea­tures of dif­fer­ent media tech­nolo­gies and how those inter­sect with our social world. We could call this the micro end, in which researchers are look­ing at the use of tech­nolo­gies by indi­vid­u­als engag­ing in dis­crete con­ver­sa­tions. They might repeat these stud­ies many times to gath­er enough data to make pre­dic­tions, but they’re still ulti­mate­ly inter­est­ed in the psy­chol­o­gy of indi­vid­u­als and small groups.

At the oth­er end of the spec­trum, the macro end so to speak, are researchers whose phi­los­o­phy might bet­ter be sum­ma­rized as go big or go home.” These folks are the group Meyrowitz is large­ly refer­ring to when he talks about medi­um the­o­rists. They include past schol­ars like Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, and Walter Ong, but also con­tem­po­rary schol­ars like Meyrowitz him­self, who are inter­est­ed in what effects the var­i­ous fea­tures of par­tic­u­lar media tech­nolo­gies have on large groups, whole soci­eties, even the course of his­to­ry.

To give a promi­nent exam­ple, pri­or to the inven­tion of the writ­ten word, inter­ac­tions between peo­ple and cir­cu­la­tion of infor­ma­tion were con­fined to what could be shared in face-to-face com­mu­ni­ca­tion. This meant it was hard to orga­nize a group of peo­ple much larg­er than your imme­di­ate social cir­cle. Because unless every­one knew and could keep track of every­one else, things would begin to go bad­ly. So peo­ple lived in lit­tle vil­lages that were small enough both geo­graph­i­cal­ly and in terms of pop­u­la­tion to keep them­selves going with only face-to-face inter­ac­tions. To the extent that these groups had any­thing like a library of infor­ma­tion, it had to be kept in the form of oral his­to­ry. Which meant that peo­ple spent a lot of time and effort mem­o­riz­ing things and recit­ing them for oth­er peo­ple to mem­o­rize, so that records of par­tic­u­lar events would live on.

Writing, and par­tic­u­lar­ly writ­ing on sur­faces like papyrus or waxed tablets that were easy to cart around, made it pos­si­ble for records to be kept with­out the huge men­tal labor of mem­o­riza­tion, and for mes­sages to pass between peo­ple at a dis­tance. Both of which, accord­ing to medi­um the­o­rists, changed the very nature of soci­ety. They allowed peo­ple to con­nect with one anoth­er in social net­works that extend­ed beyond their imme­di­ate sur­round­ings, and to orga­nize social activ­i­ties at a scale that would have been unimag­in­able before­hand.

Then even­tu­al­ly, goes the argu­ment, you get the print­ing press, which makes writ­ten mate­ri­als more acces­si­ble and hence even more valu­able as a form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and orga­ni­za­tion. At least for the folks who knew how to read and write. Which tend­ed to be most­ly upper and mid­dle class folks. Among those with access to the print­ed word, read­ing fos­tered greater indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Whereas in an oral soci­ety any knowl­edge you have beyond your own direct expe­ri­ence was dic­tat­ed by what the group you were a part of knew, now, through read­ing, you had access to infor­ma­tion and social con­tacts dif­fer­ent from those of your neigh­bors.

Printing also marks a mode of address­ing oth­ers that’s very dif­fer­ent from what you had in oral soci­eties. Mass-produced pam­phlets and books, while they might be the work of a sin­gle per­son, were intend­ed to be cir­cu­lat­ed to and read by many. And unlike the hand-written let­ters exchanged before the print­ing press, most of which were passed between peo­ple who knew one anoth­er, print­ed mate­ri­als could reach an audi­ence with­out total reliance on people’s net­works of social con­tacts. Sure, you might bor­row a book from a friend or read an arti­cle point­ed out to you by some­one you worked with, but you’d also read books and news­pa­pers you picked up on your own.

Eventually, elec­tron­ic mass media like the radio and tele­vi­sion come on the scene. Which accord­ing to medi­um the­o­rists put soci­ety into a weird col­lec­tive men­tal space. They were media that seemed like old­er styles of oral com­mu­ni­ca­tion in that they had many of the fea­tures we asso­ci­at­ed with gos­sip and face-to-face inter­ac­tion. But at the same time, the com­mu­ni­ty” that the President or the anchor of the evening news address­es on live TV is much larg­er than a lit­tle vil­lage. In this sense, they’re mass media, not unlike books and news­pa­pers before them.

What’s more, State of the Union address­es and evening news­casts are script­ed. They’re under­pinned by the writ­ten word in a way that’s also more sim­i­lar to the prepa­ra­tion of a book then to the sorts of exchanges you might have wit­nessed in an ancient oral cul­ture. The odd way in which these tech­nol­o­gy simul­ta­ne­ous­ly evoke con­flict­ing asso­ci­a­tions with oral soci­ety on the one hand, and old­er forms of mass media on the oth­er, is what Marshall McLuhan orig­i­nal­ly meant when he talked about the glob­al vil­lage.

So even though radio and then tele­vi­sion, with their announc­ers and talk­ing heads, may have been dom­i­nant forms of media for much of the last cen­tu­ry, this wasn’t quite the resur­gence of oral soci­ety. For this rea­son, his­to­ri­an Walter Ong called the forms of rhetoric ush­ered in by tech­nolo­gies like radio, TV, and the tape deck sec­ondary oral­i­ty.”

Finally, medi­um the­o­rists have had to grap­ple with our newest new media, the Internet and social media, for exam­ple. One of the things that’s been remarked on fre­quent­ly about this envi­ron­ment is the way in which mes­sages once again spread by pass­ing from per­son to per­son, rather than from the sorts of sin­gle, cen­tral­ized sources that char­ac­ter­ize the hey­day of mass cir­cu­la­tion print news­pa­pers, or the broad­cast net­works, for exam­ple. None of which is to say that old­er forms of mass media have gone away, or that we don’t encounter a lot of their con­tent online.

But dig­i­tal media tools also allow ordi­nary peo­ple to cre­ate a lot of the stuff that’s spread­ing from per­son to per­son in this way, from fan fic­tion to YouTube remix­es. More than a few peo­ple have char­ac­ter­ized the way peo­ple gen­er­ate and spread con­tent col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly using dig­i­tal tools as a return to the way news, infor­ma­tion, and cul­ture were cre­at­ed and spread before the rise of the book and oth­er mass media. And in fact, giv­en how briefly mass media have been around in the grand scheme of things, in com­par­i­son to the longer arc of human his­to­ry, more than one media his­to­ri­an has remarked that if any­thing social media may be a return to the norm. It was, it turns out, the age of mass media that was the weird excep­tion.

One of the more pop­u­lar names for this notion comes from pro­fes­sors Lars Ole Sauererg and Thom Pettitt, who came up with the mem­o­rable phrase the Gutenberg Parenthesis.” As Pettitt describes it,

…as in a sen­tence. We have been through our sen­tence. The sen­tence which is the his­to­ry of the media has been inter­rupt­ed by the age of print, by a print­ing, a book phase. And that inso­far as we are leav­ing that book phrase, we are going back. We are going back to the sit­u­a­tion before that. Without any impli­ca­tions that the peri­od in between was a waste of time or going in the wrong direc­tion, or mis­guid­ed. It’s not paren­the­sis in any pejo­ra­tive sense. It’s like in a sen­tence— If you’re speak­ing a sen­tence or writ­ing a sen­tence, you inter­rupt for a while with a sec­ond thought to add to your first thought. You then resume the first thought at the end of the paren­the­sis, and the sen­tence goes on. But that sen­tence will be irrev­o­ca­bly changed by what has hap­pened.
Thomas Pettitt, The Gutenberg Parenthesis” at 19:28

Tom Standage, in his book Writing on the Wall, has also pushed a pop­u­lar­ized ver­sion of the Gutenberg Parenthesis. And you’ll find sim­i­lar ideas in writ­ing by a range of schol­ars and jour­nal­ists, from law pro­fes­sor Lawrence Lessig to tech writer Nicholas Carr.

Of course, this notion that we can divide all of human his­to­ry into rough­ly three peri­ods, an oral soci­ety epic, fol­lowed by the print­ing press and its mass media descen­dants, and final­ly by an era of dig­i­tal media that reversed many of the changes wrought by the mass media… Well, it all sounds like a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion.

For exam­ple, we’ve already seen that some mass media, like radio, start­ed out in a rel­a­tive­ly par­tic­i­pa­to­ry fash­ion, not unlike what we asso­ciate with the Internet and social media today. And for their part, Sauererg and Pettitt both sug­gest that their idea of a Gutenberg Parenthesis was intend­ed to be provoca­tive, meant not as an entire­ly nuanced expla­na­tion but as a way of shak­ing peo­ple who grew up with books, radio, tele­vi­sion, and sum­mer block­busters out of their com­fort­able assump­tions about what was old and what was new.

Another solu­tion to this prob­lem of how to break us out of prob­lem­at­ic assump­tions about what’s old and what’s new was posed by com­mu­ni­ca­tion his­to­ri­an Ben Peters, who pro­pos­es an idea he dubs renew­able media.” Like Tim Wu, who we encoun­tered in the last install­ment, Peters sees a pat­tern to the way new media emerge and evolve over his­to­ry, though he avoids paint­ing it in terms of an inevitable cycle that rotates from inven­tion to com­mer­cial­iza­tion to monop­oly and back to the inven­tion of the next thing. According to Peters,

New media can be under­stood as emerg­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion and infor­ma­tion tech­nolo­gies under­go­ing a his­tor­i­cal process of con­tes­ta­tion, nego­ti­a­tion, and insti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion.
Benjamin Peters, And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History”, p18 [via Peters’ web­site]

For Peters, sim­i­lar to Wu, things start with inven­tion and move toward com­mer­cial­iza­tion, which ulti­mate­ly leads to media tech­nolo­gies becom­ing mun­dane, taken-for-granted chan­nels and gad­gets. The wall­pa­per of our exis­tence, so to speak. But there are some impor­tant dif­fer­ences between Wu’s and Peters’ argu­ments. There are a lot of dis­tinc­tions we could make, in fact, but here are a cou­ple.

First, Peters notes that inven­tion often real­ly doesn’t look like much. In the moment, things we lat­er regard as impor­tant new media often seem like pre­dictable improve­ments to old­er tech­nolo­gies. Radio, to give a now-familiar exam­ple, was orig­i­nal­ly thought of as a way to make a tele­graph with­out string­ing wires. And lat­er, when it became pos­si­ble to trans­mit voic­es, it was at times spo­ken of as a sort of wire­less par­ty line tele­phone.

Likewise some of the key net­work­ing tech­nolo­gies that led to the Internet, while impres­sive­ly inven­tive, were first con­ceived of most­ly as ways to let more than one pro­gram­mer work on a main­frame com­put­er at the same time. But per­haps most inter­est­ing­ly, Peters points out that a par­tic­u­lar medi­um can be new more than once.

Each medi­um may have a few basic ideas that take many forms.
Benjamin Peters, And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History”, p22 [via Peters’ web­site]

The tele­graph pro­vides a nice exam­ple of what he’s get­ting at here. There’ve been lots of instances over his­to­ry of schemes for send­ing a mes­sage instan­ta­neous­ly over a dis­tance. Smoke sig­nals, for exam­ple, may not rely on elec­tric­i­ty, but like Morse Code they’re a series of puls­es (in this case puffs of smoke) with a mean­ing agreed upon by a sender and a receiv­er.

And, as with the elec­tric tele­graph, if you want­ed to send your mes­sage over a longer dis­tance, you could extend the range of the sys­tem by chain­ing togeth­er mul­ti­ple senders and receivers. In ancient China, for exam­ple, a series of relay sta­tions along the Great Wall famous­ly used smoke sig­nals to pass mes­sages over hun­dreds of miles, a feat that appeared to have been man­age­able in the span of just a few hours.

And smoke sig­nals are just one exam­ple of a vari­ety of sys­tems, some­times called opti­cal telegraphs, a cat­e­go­ry that also includes oth­er forms of code and sign lan­guage trans­mit­ted visu­al­ly between senders and receivers sep­a­rat­ed by great dis­tances. Specialized flags, hand ges­tures, lanterns, and torch­es have all been used in sim­i­lar ways.

In the 18th cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, Napoleon used a sys­tem of mechanically-operated flags called sem­a­phores to trans­mit mes­sages between a chain of senders and receivers sta­tioned in tow­ers. These so-called sem­a­phore lines” stretched for over thirty-one hun­dred miles. And while mes­sages didn’t typ­i­cal­ly need to be trans­mit­ted across this entire expanse, you could say, get a mes­sage from Paris to the French bor­der in a mat­ter of three, maybe four hours.

And if you want to move for­ward in his­to­ry from the elec­tric tele­graph, that’s inter­est­ing, too. Engineers even­tu­al­ly moved away from using com­bi­na­tions of long and short elec­tri­cal puls­es to rep­re­sent each let­ter of the alpha­bet as it was trans­mit­ted over the wire. Instead, they used a sim­i­lar but dis­tinct sys­tem in which let­ters were rep­re­sent­ed by elec­tri­cal puls­es and paus­es, moments when no elec­tri­cal pulse was being sent. This tran­si­tion from Morse’s brief and long puls­es, called dots and dash­es, to puls­es and paus­es of equal length, which came to be known as marks and spaces, made the tele­graph eas­i­er to oper­ate with auto­mat­ed equip­ment like key­boards.

Marks and spaces are also eas­i­ly rep­re­sent­ed with ones and zeros. And so the sys­tem of codes devel­oped for the tele­graph was adapt­ed once again to allow com­put­ers to rep­re­sent let­ters of the alpha­bet and work with input from a key­board. And today, as his­to­ri­an Carolyn Marvin points out, when we send any sort of text over the Internet, or fire off a text mes­sage to a friend, our com­put­ers and phones, and the net­works of tech­nolo­gies that con­nect them, are essen­tial­ly just act­ing as real­ly fast auto­mat­ed telegraphs.

Each of these tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems that was such a big deal in its time, smoke sig­nals, the sem­a­phore line, the tele­graph, the com­put­er, and now the Internet, turn out to all be ver­sions of the same idea mashed up with the lat­est forms of automa­tion. This is what Peters means when he says that media tech­nolo­gies are not new, but renew­able. Each suc­ces­sive wave of a par­tic­u­lar tech­no­log­i­cal idea is a response to his­tor­i­cal con­di­tions, to the needs of the moment. And each will bear the stamp of the par­tic­u­lar social and polit­i­cal con­text in which it occurs, whether it’s Napoleon’s French empire, or the wake of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture. Once again, we can see the media tech­nolo­gies are cul­tur­al prod­ucts. Each time a media tech­nol­o­gy is renewed, there’ll be skir­mish­es and debates over whether and how each should be devel­oped, used, com­mer­cial­ized, and reg­u­lat­ed. And these debates will get set­tled a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent­ly, some­times a lot dif­fer­ent­ly, in each case.

Figuring out how to tease apart the social, polit­i­cal, and his­tor­i­cal con­text sur­round­ing par­tic­u­lar media tech­nolo­gies, and whether cer­tain tech­nolo­gies are some­how polit­i­cal in their own right are sub­jects we’ll be turn­ing our atten­tion to over the next cou­ple weeks. For now it’s enough to admit that despite the pat­terns we can find in his­to­ry, get­ting a han­dle on the new media of our own time is tricky, what with the need to pay atten­tion to all the social com­plex­i­ty. Which is why Peters gives us one oth­er def­i­n­i­tion for new media.

New media are media we do not yet know how to talk about.
Benjamin Peters, And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History”, p22 [via Peters’ web­site]

Hopefully, we’re learn­ing.

Thanks for lis­ten­ing. This install­ment includ­ed a clip of a lec­ture by Thomas Pettitt from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program, and drew heav­i­ly on the schol­ar­ship of Joshua Meyrowitz, Ben Peters, Paul du Gay, Stuart Hall, Linda Janes, Anders Koed Madsen, Hugh MacKay, Keith Negus, Jeffrey Hancock, Jennifer Thom-Santelli, Thompson Ritchie, Jay David Bolter, and Richard Grusin. And I’d like to extend a spe­cial thanks to Joshua Meyrowitz and Ben Peters for read­ing pas­sages from their essays just for us.

As always you can find a com­plete bib­li­og­ra­phy for this install­ment, includ­ing music cred­its, on our course web­site.

Further Reference

The original recording of this lecture is available at Culture Digitally.


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.