New Media 1740-1915

A continuing interest of mine is the interaction between us, our culture and the media that articulates and perpetuates that culture. This book review reflects those interests. The storage themes are obvious. Without storage, culture expression is forever ephemeral.

New Media, 1740-1915
Lisa Gitelman
Geoffrey B. Pingree
(MIT Press)

Marshall McLuhan’s aphorism “The Medium is the Message,” meant the key impact of media lay in its structure rather than its content. Popular generalizations of McLuhan’s works obscured the fact that he was talking about large-scale, long-term effects. Hippies, shining avatars of the new tribalism in the ’60s and ’70’s, graduated to the same old linearity that their parents embraced. But now, 30 years later, we see the worldwide popularity of ancient West African musical forms in Hip Hop and Rap. The idea of a post-literate Global Village and Global Tribe doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

McLuhan’s great insight was that how a medium interacts with people, rather than its content, determines that medium’s impact on the individual and society. Thus writing, whether it is Homer or a grocery list, imposes a linear mindset that predisposes the literate to step-by-step reasoning and organization. Radio, in contrast, prefigured a return to the pre-literate form of oral and musical interaction of tribal societies, but whose world-wide reach suggested global villages rather than local ones.

McLuhan further broke down media by the amount of mental processing they needed. Media that require active participation to fully perceive (such as plain old TV) are cool, while those that are high-resolution — radio or film — are hot. Low definition TV requires the brain to do a lot of work filling in the blanks of the interlaced picture to make it “real”, which is why it is so difficult to “not watch” a moving TV picture. HDTV’s film-like clarity makes it much easier to ignore.

If the medium is the message, then what is the message of new media? That is what makes New Media, 1740-1915 so interesting. McLuhan tried to anticipate modern new media, but without much success. He wrote about computers creating a web, but hypertext and the World Wide Web were still unborn. We’re trying to update McLuhan in light of the new media revolution. But what revolution? What is really different? When we surf the web we are still reading and looking at pictures, like a magazine. Are today’s new media really new?

I suggest that repeatability and interactivity are the two qualities in today’s new media that McLuhan never considered. What are these and why are they important?

Repeatability means accessible storage of high quality copies. High quality means replicated content that is indistinguishable from the original. This enables the creation of libraries of multi-media “texts” and the extension of a non-linear, non-text, world-view. Ephemeral in McLuhan’s time, what we now call multi-media is stored on the DVDs, CDs, hard drives, flash disks and other writable media and are often accessible through the internet.

This is equivalent to the difference between oral and written traditions. The content may be the same (Genesis, The Iliad), but changing the medium changes the structure of the experience of that content. We can now listen to and often watch, musical performances by the Beatles. We don’t have to listen to covers of their songs except in elevators and supermarkets. While the context of the Beatles — the milieu in which each album was experienced as it was released — can never be recaptured, everyone can now have the “first time I heard the Beatles” experience. We will never have to wonder, as early music fans do, how the original music sounded.

Interactivity means media that both stimulate and respond to us as we experience them, an almost unimaginable concept in McLuhan’s time, where broadcasting was the new thing. In the last 20 years text has morphed into hypertext, where the reader constructs in real time the text, and creates a unique text-based experience. This goes beyond narrowcasting: the individual creates the text. On-demand mass customization of content.

Of course, the content is beside the point. The vital difference is that hypertext is both staccato — texts sliced up between links — and interactive. The text questions the reader and can respond to the answers. The writer no longer drives the text, and while the linearity of reading is retained, the reader creates a punctuated and mixed experience of text pictures, music, and games which, based on the decline of other recreational modes, is extremely involving. Yet McLuhan would likely argue that even hypertext is still text and reinforces the same personal and cultural patterns of linear print. My response: writing is a different medium than reading; hyperlinked media make each of us writers of our own experience.

The radical new interactive media is the computer game, whether presented on a computer, a game console or across a network. Computer games have already developed narratives that at first glance seem stunted subsets of plot and character (what do you really need to know about the motivations of a zombie attacking you with a chainsaw?). Yet the most popular games, such as Myst or Halo, have elaborate back stories and surprisingly compelling plots that drive players on. These games have attracted millions of fans and their revenue worldwide rivals Hollywood despite their still primitive development. The Homer or the D.W. Griffith of computer games is probably still in the future.

So to understand the impact of new media it may be instructive to consider historical experience. Which is just what New Media, 1740-1915 tries to do.

§ § §

Most “new media” fail, as this collection of essays reminds us. Where is the optical telegraph, the zoetrope, the stereoscope, or even the electric telegraph? Today we invent new media at a furious pace, thanks to the confluence of broadband internet, personal computers, easy-to-use software and very cheap data storage.

Blogs (short for weblogs), began less than 10 years ago now have their own ecosystem and millions of readers and writers. The video game is still in its early development.

In addition, we are continually enhancing the new media we’ve just developed. The progress of 3D graphics chips means it is likely that by 2015 our games will be photorealistic 360-degree environments. Human culture will get more experience with new media in the next twenty years than we’ve had in the last 200.

Alas, the essayists in New Media are not prophets or visionaries, but the best of the essays are insightful, provocative and amusing. Wisely the editors arranged the essays to get the driest academic writing out first, so after an initially tedious beginning one moves rapidly to pleasanter ground. The result is a journey that is both intellectual and, given that it is academic socio-historical writing, literary. Many of the essays deal with stored (usually printed) media and several deal with early forms of interactive media.

The first essay discusses the zograscope, an early pseudo-3D medium, whose evanescent 18th century popularity was recently paralleled by Single Image Random Dot Stereograms, whose hidden 3D images would pop out if you stared at them cross-eyed. The writer freights the interesting story of a 3D curiosity with an over-the-top interpretation:

More insidiously, perhaps, zograscope views naturalized the idea that the domestic world (the space of the viewer) and the public world (the space of the viewing) were related but separate.

Are we objecting to the demystification of public spaces or the relatedness or separateness of the public or private? How does this differ from, for instance, the transition between home and agora in ancient Athens? The author never manages to say. Fortunately the writing improves in later essays.

The range of other essay topics is diverse:

  • The “rage for profiles” or silhouettes in early 19th century America, when portraits were slow and costly, an enterprising artist invented a mechanical device to produce quick silhouettes and a new industry created.
  • “Optical telegraphs” whose potential benefits excited widespread speculation though few were ever built.
  • The real but fleeting passion for early sound recordings on bits of tin foil, along with the history of the telegraph and telephone in early American cinema.
  • The incorporation of electrical telegraphy’s internet-like anonymity into written romances of the mid-1800’s, and the book includes histories of photography, stereoscopes and popular conceptions of vision
  • The battle over telephones among the Amish and Mennonites.
  • The incorporation of railroads and telegraphy into early movie plots.

This last is particularly interesting since it incorporates another then-new media into the service of an even newer one, film. Prior to the railroad, a journey of more than a few miles per day was both rare and exhausting. With the advent of the telegraph and the railroad, information and lovers could be moved with startling speed. The cinematic techniques of cross-cutting and split-screens took these abstractions and embodied them in popular culture. At the same time quantum physicists were exploring what Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” an example of cultural synchronicity.

To quote from Paul Young’s essay:

Different as cinema and telegraphy were as technologies, turn-of-the-century discourse conceived of them as links in a chain of progress that drew the world more tightly together. Indeed, as both a thrilling new gadget and a carrier of messages – news, spectacles, stories, emotional and visceral effects. The cinema aspired to a place among the “instantaneous” electrical media like the telegraph and telephone in the public imagination and this positioning played a determinate role in the experience of early cinema.

While the world wide web is seen as drawing the world more tightly together, cinema, then the rakish and disreputable offspring of theatre, and our current video games need all the respectability they can get.

Unlike the early 20th century, however, today’s military is investing big money in creating training and visualization systems based on commercial video game technology. For example, prior to the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, infantry officers were taking 3D virtual walkthroughs of the city on laptops using spy satellite, GPS positioning data and ground level photographs of building facades that were mapped onto the 3D building volumes. Not only could officers “see” the city before they even arrived, but once there they could use the highly accurate data to determine within inches the position required to fire on a sniper nest on the 7th floor of a building around the corner. And almost all based on commercially available gaming technology. It is safe to say that America’s military security is already in debt to many of the same teenagers whose game playing and hacking are the despair of their parents and teachers.

For the student of media or the historically curious, New Media 1740-1915 offers an intriguing palette of analogies, metaphors, examples and critical strategies. Unlike those relatively placid times, we are awash in new media whose capabilities are evolving even as the speed of new adoption is increasing. Teasing out the effects of today’s fevered media jungle on the personal — let alone the cultural — universe will be possible only decades from now.

For those of us traversing today’s new media blizzard this collection offers clues on its possible impacts today, as well as a welcome perspective on previous media revolutions.