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.