[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.


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.