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