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

First we were told we could all make a dif­fer­ence. Then we were told we could all make a killing. Not so long ago, a new com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nol­o­gy began to draw lots of atten­tion. It had already been around for a num­ber of years, with mil­i­tary invest­ment fuel­ing its ear­ly devel­op­ment. But it had since gone through wider exper­i­men­ta­tion and adap­ta­tion, until tens of thou­sands of of ordi­nary were using it to con­nect with each oth­er about all kinds of inter­ests. Corporations, of course, spot­ted this, and began to search for ways to make it prof­itable. Yet just as this com­mer­cial­iza­tion process began, we also began to hear a lot about the poten­tial the medi­um had for democracy.

Here are some things that were said. The new medi­um could be the most won­der­ful pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tem imag­in­able, a gigan­tic sys­tem of channels…capable not only of trans­mit­ting, but of receiv­ing, not of iso­lat­ing, but con­nect­ing.” Users of this tech­nol­o­gy could leap around the world and wipe out for all time the age-old bar­ri­ers of race and lan­guage and dis­tance.” It would give the pub­lic access to infor­ma­tion to let us see through the rhetor­i­cal tricks of politi­cians. So gov­ern­ment would become a liv­ing thing to its cit­i­zens,” and this would give us a new kind of states­men and a new kind of voter.” 

That tech­nol­o­gy was, of course, radio. All those quotes are from the 1920s and 1930s, long before talk about shock jocks or high rota­tion clas­sic rock sta­tions. There was a lot of debate about the demo­c­ra­t­ic poten­tial of radio, while ini­tial­ly there was lit­tle under­stand­ing of its com­mer­cial pos­si­bil­i­ties. But as the advertising-driven com­mer­cial mod­el emerged, togeth­er with begin­nings of large-scale net­works, cor­po­rate inter­ests were able to lob­by for the scarce pub­lic resource of the air­waves to be hand­ed over to them, and all with hard­ly any polit­i­cal or pub­lic debate.
Graham Meikle, Future Active

Joshua Braun: Welcome to Media, Technology & Culture. Today we’re con­tin­u­ing our series of install­ments, focus­ing on what makes new media new. Or put anoth­er way, how new are new media, real­ly? The clip you just heard comes from Graham Meikle’s book Future Active. And he does, I think, a pret­ty amaz­ing job at res­ur­rect­ing, in a remark­ably brief pas­sage, much of the excite­ment that sur­round­ed ear­ly radio. Back in the days he’s ref­er­enc­ing, before the dom­i­nance of com­mer­cial broad­cast­ing, you could build your own radio trans­mit­ter and broad­cast your­self, to use a phrase more com­mon­ly asso­ci­at­ed today with YouTube. But broad­cast­ing is actu­al­ly the right word here.

First, these ama­teur radio sta­tions were low-power, and hence pret­ty lim­it­ed in the area they reached. But more impor­tant­ly, unlike the radio broad­casts you hear in your car today, oth­er folks with radio trans­mit­ters who heard your trans­mis­sion might talk back by way of their own trans­mit­ters. It’s not unfair to com­pare it to how the prac­tice of keep­ing a blog has emerged over the last cou­ple decades. As with blog­ging, ear­ly efforts attract­ed a lot of eccen­tric techies, and there were always more lurk­ers than par­tic­i­pants. And as Meikle high­lights, there was sim­i­lar talk of giv­ing ordi­nary cit­i­zens a mean­ing­ful voice in democ­ra­cy if only this niche fad could go mainstream.

But these days ama­teur radio is an eccen­tric hob­by, not the under­pin­ning of con­tem­po­rary democ­ra­cy. Because, Meikle argues, the way the tech­nol­o­gy pro­gressed also has strik­ing par­al­lels to var­i­ous aspects of the Internet from the fact that mil­i­tary and defense activ­i­ties were a big part of its ear­ly devel­op­ment, to the way in which so many cor­ners of it rapid­ly pro­fes­sion­al­ized and became dom­i­nat­ed by large cor­po­ra­tions. Today, when you hear argu­ments over issues like net neu­tral­i­ty, munic­i­pal broad­band ser­vice, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or search engine antitrust cas­es, all top­ics will get to soon­er or lat­er, one way of think­ing about them is that they’re debates over whether the Internet will ulti­mate­ly turn out like radio did. And radio isn’t the only medi­um that lends itself to analo­gies with today’s dig­i­tal media. As legal schol­ar Tim Wu put it in intro­duc­ing his book The Master Switch,

Back in the 1990s, I worked in Silicon Valley in the dot-com indus­try. And there was one thing that we are absolute­ly cer­tain about, absolute­ly cer­tain beyond any oth­er ques­tion. That we were liv­ing in times with­out prece­dent. Anyone could start a web­site. Fortunes were being made overnight. The Internet was rad­i­cal, was dif­fer­ent. There [had been] noth­ing like it before in human his­to­ry and there would nev­er be any­thing like it again.

As I got into acad­e­mia, I start­ed to won­der whether in fact that was true. A hun­dred years ago, grad­u­ates of Columbia University, as opposed to being inter­est­ed in a start­up or an app com­pa­ny, which is sort of a pop­u­lar career choice today, might’ve thought about start­ing a tele­phone com­pa­ny. In the 1920s, you might’ve start­ed think­ing about start­ing a radio sta­tion. It turns out that all of these media were at one point open, com­pet­i­tive, entre­pre­neur­ial indus­tries. It turns out that we’ve lived the Internet rev­o­lu­tion, that moment, that kind of envi­ron­ment where things are open, com­pet­i­tive, entre­pre­neur­ial, every­thing seems to be dif­fer­ent. That we have been there before.

And so what I was inter­est­ed in when I wrote this book, is I want­ed to see what had hap­pened with the oth­er dar­ling, excit­ing, new media of the 20th cen­tu­ry. I want­ed to see whether by see­ing what had hap­pened to the enthu­si­asm and utopia of ear­ly radio, the excite­ment and com­pe­ti­tion sur­round­ing farm­ers who were set­ting up their own phone net­works in the West, what hap­pened to those eras, I sug­gest is a long cycle in the infor­ma­tion indus­tries between a more open, com­pet­i­tive, entre­pre­neur­ial phase, and a more closed, inte­grat­ed, higher-quality and often monop­o­lis­tic phase.
Tim Wu, Big media: Pro and con” at 17:33

Now, it should be said that shy of total monop­oly, there are plen­ty of legit­i­mate debates to be had over whether media con­trolled by large cor­po­ra­tions is all bad. Certainly there are aspects of it that are dis­taste­ful, as when for exam­ple large com­pa­nies devel­op revolv­ing doors with gov­ern­ment agen­cies, or pour mas­sive amounts of mon­ey into lob­by­ing for things that are good for their busi­ness mod­els but less help­ful to con­sumers and citizens. 

But if big com­pa­nies have incred­i­ble resources like these, that also means they can do some pret­ty spec­tac­u­lar things. A ridicu­lous num­ber of the most impor­tant and use­ful tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions the last cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, came out of Bell Labs, a research cen­ter fund­ed by AT&T, and made pos­si­ble by the mas­sive monop­oly it held over the phone ser­vice in the US

Likewise, wealthy news orga­ni­za­tions and wealthy Hollywood stu­dios can do pret­ty impres­sive things like cre­at­ing bureaus in for­eign coun­tries or pro­duc­ing block­buster films. Richard John is an accom­plished media his­to­ri­an who argues that even if so-called Big Media can be prob­lem­at­ic at times, they can also bring lots of ben­e­fits to soci­ety. He undoes parts of Tim Wu’s argu­ment by point­ing to lots of instances in which reg­u­la­tors were able to suc­cess­ful­ly lim­it the monop­o­lies of large media companies.

He’s also a lot of fun in a debate. Here he is doing some friend­ly spar­ring with Tim Wu in a 2010 event at the Columbia University Journalism School. The first voice you’ll hear is Tim Wu’s.

Tim Wu: I’ll just go on the offen­sive and say the prob­lem with the kind of wor­ship of man­age­r­i­al cap­i­tal­ism in your book is it’s too insen­si­tive to the fact that man­age­r­i­al cap­i­tal­ism tends to make mar­ket entry very dif­fi­cult, to put it that way. 

Richard John: Well, the prob­lem with your argu­ment, Tim, is that there’s no get­ting around the inevitabil­i­ty of the cycle. If I read your book, I would come away very depressed. Because every sin­gle case you tell is one in which you have these bold inno­va­tors with these great ideas who were stomped down upon by these sort of either money-mad or reac­tionary plu­to­crats, and then some­thing hap­pens and this won­der­ful idea’s born in some­one’s garage, in some­one’s attic and it starts up again. And that just isn’t so.
Big media: Pro and con” at 27:15

So, let’s grant John a few points here. Yes, if you look into the his­to­ry of most tech­nolo­gies, inven­tive genius­es in their garages fre­quent­ly turn out to be a myth, or a half-truth. Yes, the gov­ern­ment can some­times do a good job of pre­vent­ing or break­ing up big monop­o­lies. Hollywood stu­dios don’t own the­ater chains any­more. Nor after the 1980s did AT&T have a lock on phone ser­vice in America. And yes, big media com­pa­nies can bring us nice stuff, like Breaking Bad or expos­ing Watergate.

Still, if media empires bring us good things, they can also make it dif­fi­cult for the aver­age per­son to have their say. There’s a long­stand­ing debate about this in schol­ar­ship on the First Amendment, for exam­ple. Legal philoso­pher Alexander Meiklejohn famous­ly said in 1948 that, What is essen­tial is not that every­one shall speak, but that every­thing worth say­ing shall be said.” This line has been used many times to argue that not every­one needs to be able to speak through the media, or in front of the leg­is­la­ture for that mat­ter, so long as robust demo­c­ra­t­ic debate still hap­pens among those that do. To that, legal schol­ar Rod Smolla says,

Meiklejohn could not have been more wrong. To the indi­vid­ual seek­ing the cathar­sis, ful­fill­ment, and par­tic­i­pa­tion that comes from free expres­sion, it is impor­tant that he be heard, even if only to sec­ond anoth­er’s views. More pro­found­ly, the state lacks the moral enti­tle­ment to pre­sume to dic­tate what is worth say­ing, and when every­thing worth say­ing has been said. 

It’s easy to see how what Smolla says about the gov­ern­ment lack­ing the author­i­ty to decide whose ideas are worth hear­ing might apply to media cor­po­ra­tions as well. On the one hand, cor­po­ra­tions are out to make a buck, not a demo­c­ra­t­ic repub­lic. And you can argue that they have no respon­si­bil­i­ty to put just any­one on the air. On the oth­er hand, crit­ics of Big Media like Tim Wu will argue that this is pre­cise­ly why a few mas­sive cor­po­ra­tions should nev­er be allowed to crowd out forms of media in which the pub­lic can par­tic­i­pate more easily. 

Free speech issues are some­thing we’ll be return­ing to in a few weeks. For the moment, then, let’s put them aside and note that Wu’s the­sis gives us one answer to the ques­tion of what makes new media new. It basi­cal­ly says that a lot of the things that inter­est us about the poten­tial of the Internet as a medi­um for infor­ma­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion aren’t unique to this his­tor­i­cal moment, but have recurred with many major media inno­va­tions in American his­to­ry as a new medi­um that’s rel­a­tive­ly open to all com­ers gets com­mer­cial­ized, and sub­se­quent­ly monop­o­lized, by the most pow­er­ful among the com­pa­nies involved. 

But Wu large­ly restricts his argu­ment to the 20th cen­tu­ry, and to elec­tron­ic media from the tele­phone to the Internet. For our pur­pos­es, this lim­its his expla­na­tion in at least one big way, beyond even the his­tor­i­cal gloss­es that Richard John accus­es him of. Namely, it neglects sim­i­lar­i­ties between the ways peo­ple received and talked about media that emerged before this time period.

For exam­ple, tech jour­nal­ist Tom Standage, who’s writ­ten exten­sive­ly about his­tor­i­cal pre­cur­sors to today’s media tech­nolo­gies found enough sim­i­lar­i­ties between the social cli­mate sur­round­ing con­tem­po­rary dig­i­tal media and the 19th cen­tu­ry tele­graph that he titled his book on the tele­graph The Victorian Internet, a title Richard John called very mis­lead­ing.” Once again, John pro­vides a good-natured real­i­ty check here. 

As late as 1890, the pres­i­dent of Western Union would tell any­one who would lis­ten that if you want to send a mes­sage over a long dis­tance, Use the Post Office. We’re not for you.” The tele­graph was not intend­ed to be a mass medi­um for the entire population.
Richard John, Book Discussion on Network Nation at 26:10

Still, there’s no ques­tion that many of the things that observers said about the tele­graph, such as that it anni­hi­lat­ed time and space, or that peo­ple using it for­got them­selves, speak­ing as though their con­ver­sa­tion­al part­ner were present, well, they sound pret­ty famil­iar to the way things like email, video chat, and social net­work­ing have been received in recent years.

And these sorts of eerily-familiar accounts aren’t lim­it­ed to elec­tron­ic media. Take the quote we just heard John use from the head of the Western Union tele­graph ser­vice about send­ing a let­ter, for exam­ple. It’s a well-chosen quo­ta­tion, since Richard John him­self wrote a his­to­ry of the US Postal Service, in which he illus­trat­ed con­vinc­ing­ly that peo­ple once viewed the mir­a­cle of reg­u­lar mail deliv­ery with much the same fer­vor that they talk today about email, the Web, social media apps, and so on. That book, Spreading the News, reels off the fol­low­ing quo­ta­tions from the mid-19th century: 

Distance is thus reduced to con­ti­gu­i­ty. The ink is scarce­ly dry, or the wax cold on the paper, before we find in our hands, even at a dis­tance of hun­dreds of miles, a tran­script of our dear­est friend’s mind.
Richard John, Spreading the News

Another reads,

Time and dis­tance are anni­hi­lat­ed. We are there. 

Ultimately, John concludes,

It would be hard to iso­late a sin­gle bit of fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage that com­men­ta­tors used to describe the elec­tric tele­graph in the peri­od fol­low­ing its com­mer­cial­iza­tion in 1844 that had not already been deployed to describe the postal system. 

Going back in his­to­ry before the 20th cen­tu­ry as John does is reveal­ing because it reminds us that before elec­tron­ic media like the tele­graph, tele­phone, radio, and so forth, any­time you want­ed to move a mes­sage, you had to move it phys­i­cal­ly. You had to walk some­where and tell some­one in per­son. You had to car­ry a bun­dle of news­pa­pers to the cor­ner. You had to sad­dle your horse and ride into the next town, or entrust some­one sail­ing across the ocean with a let­ter you’d writ­ten. The word com­mu­ni­cate used to com­mon­ly mean to travel. 

As com­mu­ni­ca­tion schol­ars James Cary, and more recent­ly Greg Downey, have point­ed out, we’ve kind of for­got­ten to pay atten­tion to this. The way Amazon mar­kets itself, for exam­ple, con­veys the impres­sion that the moment you click to pur­chase some­thing, it’s going to mate­ri­al­ize on your doorstep. When in real­i­ty there’s a hid­den but mas­sive phys­i­cal and human infra­struc­ture of ware­house employ­ees, deliv­ery net­works, and let­ter car­ri­ers, all of which are nec­es­sary to bring that pack­age to you. This sort of hid­den labor is also some­thing we’re going to be pay­ing atten­tion to increas­ing­ly in the com­ing weeks.

For now, remem­ber that trans­porta­tion tech­nolo­gies and com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nolo­gies used to be much the same thing. And peo­ple talked about them in the same or sim­i­lar terms for quite a while, even after elec­tron­ic media were on the scene. John notes, for exam­ple, that as late as 1866, decades after the tele­graph became a thing, peo­ple were still describ­ing the mail in glow­ing terms that resem­bled the tele­graph itself. He quotes one postal let­ter car­ri­er from the time talk­ing about improve­ments in the deliv­ery of inter­na­tion­al mail, who says,

Touch the wire at one end and its vibra­tion may tend to enlight­en even the land of the heathen. 

Even as the radio and lat­er the tele­phone came onto the scene, peo­ple kept think­ing about com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion in sim­i­lar terms. As Fred Turner summarizes,

A hun­dred and twen­ty, hun­dred thir­ty years ago, when the air­plane came along, Americans across the United States hoped that the air­plane would final­ly join us across great dis­tances and allow us to become a more har­mo­nious nation. And we imag­ine that at a glob­al scale, as well. We imag­ined that the air­plane would final­ly con­nect us to peo­ple so far away and dif­fer­ent from ourselves. 

Now, if there’s a les­son to be had about this his­tor­i­cal asso­ci­a­tion between com­mu­ni­ca­tion and trans­porta­tion, between the move­ment of mes­sages and cul­ture on the one hand and the move­ment of actu­al peo­ple on the oth­er, it’s that we’ve per­haps only late­ly got­ten into the trap of think­ing about the media as their own thing, when in fact they share a lot of cul­tur­al DNA with oth­er big sys­tems in soci­ety, from postal mail and rail­roads, to air­lines and freeways. 

Also, back when com­mu­ni­cat­ing and trav­el­ing were invari­ably the same thing, meet­ing places like cof­fee­hous­es, town squares, mosques, tem­ples, and church­es also served many of the func­tions of con­tem­po­rary social media. Media tech­nolo­gies aren’t sim­ple con­duits for cul­ture. When we think about the way they’re devel­oped, used, and talked about, we see that they are part of the larg­er cul­ture. James Carey famous­ly called this the rit­u­al qual­i­ty of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Communication and media are not just about mov­ing mes­sages, in oth­er words. They’re about our sense of self and com­mu­ni­ty. And when we think about our sense of media tech­nolo­gies in this con­text, as being deeply tied into the hopes and fears of the wider cul­ture, it’s no sur­prise that we can find exam­ples of a lot of the same debates over their pros and cons back way before the media we’ve dis­cussed so far. 

The open­ing quote from Graham Meikle about the radio is a nice exam­ple of what’s actu­al­ly a com­mon trick among peo­ple who teach or write about media his­to­ry, name­ly to shake up their audi­ence’s con­cep­tion of new media by describ­ing old media in terms that resem­ble the Internet, the Web, social media, or what­ev­er the lat­est thing is. In addi­tion to dub­bing the tele­graph the Victorian Internet, Tom Standage does a nice job of paint­ing papyrus and wax tablets in ancient Rome, and cof­fee­hous­es in 17th cen­tu­ry Europe, in terms strik­ing­ly sim­i­lar to those we usu­al­ly use to describe con­tem­po­rary social media. Maybe my favorite quo­ta­tion in the sounds like the Internet” genre, though, is one Nancy Baym uses in her book Personal Connections in the Digital Age.

Socrates, as quot­ed by Plato around 370 BCE, decries the inven­tion of the alpha­bet and writ­ing as a threat to the oral tra­di­tion of Greek soci­ety. Anticipating what his nation’s news­pa­per would write a thou­sand years lat­er, Socrates warned the inven­tors of the alphabet, 

This dis­cov­ery of yours will cre­ate for­get­ful­ness in the learn­ers’ souls, because they will not use their mem­o­ries. They will trust to the exter­nal writ­ten char­ac­ters and not remem­ber of them­selves. The spe­cif­ic which you have dis­cov­ered is an aid not to mem­o­ry, but to rem­i­nis­cence, and you give your dis­ci­ples not truth, but only the sem­blance of truth. They will be hear­ers of many things and will have learned noth­ing; they will be tire­some com­pa­ny, hav­ing the show of wis­dom with­out the reality.” 

The lan­guage and forms of evi­dence may have changed, but the con­cern that com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies make us dumb­er is as old as writ­ing. There is, as Lynn Spigel put it, a com­pul­sion to repeat the same ideas, even the soci­ety itself has notice­ably changed.” Reading books such as Marvin’s When Old Technologies Were New, The Victorian Internet, or Fischer’s America Calling about the tele­phone’s ear­ly days, the par­al­lels between today’s dis­course, espe­cial­ly about the Internet, and ear­li­er rhetorics of tech­nol­o­gy are striking.
Nancy Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age

Baym isn’t the first to use this quote. It’s been float­ing around for…well, for over two thou­sand years. But more recent­ly, it’s found its way into numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions about new media. From Marshall McLuhan’s psy­che­del­ic album The Medium is the Massage, to Rena Biven’s book about TV news in new media, Digital Currents, which was pub­lished in 2014.

So in clos­ing, let’s return to the smooth-talking announc­er from 1960 who start­ed us off last time.

You know how they talk about the world get­ting smaller?
Alan Millar, Marshall McLuhan’s the­o­ry of the glob­al village”

I told you then that there were a cou­ple rea­sons that this talk of a world con­nect­ed by media, in which shared infor­ma­tion and expe­ri­ences were at our fin­ger­tips, sound­ed strange­ly famil­iar. One of those rea­sons, which we looked at last time, is that the coun­ter­cul­ture of the 60s had a cul­tur­al impact on tech­nol­o­gists and tech­nol­o­gy writ­ers that per­sists into the present day.

But now we have that sec­ond rea­son that there are strong recur­ring themes in the way we talk about our hopes and con­cerns for new forms of media, which is that our dis­cus­sions about them draw out last­ing and at times very old aspi­ra­tions and anx­i­eties in our cul­ture. Aspirations and anx­i­eties that will prob­a­bly out­last us all. In the same way we can point to long his­tor­i­cal roots when we’re talk­ing about legal and philo­soph­i­cal debates over oth­er deeply-ingrained issues in our cul­ture like per­son­al free­dom and respon­si­bil­i­ty, the nature of lib­er­ty and democ­ra­cy and so on, our desire to be con­nect­ed to one anoth­er while main­tain­ing some pri­va­cy, to be informed with­out being over­loaded, and to be part of some­thing greater while pre­serv­ing our indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, are all last­ing tensions.

So am I sug­gest­ing that the Internet, the Web, social media, or our mobile devices are no dif­fer­ent from the radio or the tele­graph or any these media tech­nolo­gies that came before? That there’s noth­ing unique about today’s dig­i­tal media? No, that’s not what I’m try­ing to sug­gest. What I’m get­ting at here is per­haps best cap­tured in a quote some­times attrib­uted to Mark Twain. History nev­er repeats itself. But it rhymes.”

It’s impor­tant to put all the claims sur­round­ing dig­i­tal media in his­tor­i­cal con­text. To rec­og­nize that there are con­ti­nu­ities with, and sim­i­lar­i­ties to what went before. But it’s true that we also need some con­cep­tu­al tools for think­ing about what real­ly is new about new media, while still appre­ci­at­ing the con­ti­nu­ities and sim­i­lar­i­ties that are there. And that will be the sub­ject of the last install­ment in this series.

Thanks for lis­ten­ing. This install­ment drew heav­i­ly on the work and schol­ar­ship of Graham Meikle, Tim Wu, Richard John, Nancy Baym, and Tom Standage. I’d also like to say a spe­cial thanks to Graham Meikle, Rod Smolla, Nancy Baym, and Richard John for being kind enough to read pas­sages from their work just for us. This install­ment used clips from C‑SPAN, and Columbia University, Stanford University, and CBC. As always you can find a full bib­li­og­ra­phy for this record­ing, along with music cred­its and oth­er con­tex­tu­al infor­ma­tion, on the course web site.

Further Reference

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