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Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture

Editor: Lauren Rabinovitz, Abraham Geil
Publisher: Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004
Review Published: January 2005

 REVIEW 1: Steven D. Krause

In the opening pages of Memory Bytes: History, Technology, and Digital Culture, editors Lauren Rabinovitz and Abraham Geil point out that most discussions of computerized technologies are presented as ahistorical and disconnected events, as if there were no technological revolutions before the age of the computer. This "rhetoric of amnesia that surrounds current discussions of digital culture facilitates utopic as well as dystopic visions of the role of computer technologies in the twenty-first century" (2). The aim of this collection is to awaken digital culture scholars from this amnesia and to encourage us to "adopt a reflexive historical lens that attends to the dynamic of erasure itself in history writing as well as to who benefits from it" (4). And, for the most part, this aim is fulfilled.

Most of the twelve essays in the collection came out of a three-week seminar lead by Rabinovitz, hosted by University of Iowa's Obermann Center for Advanced Studies in the summer of 2000. "Interdisciplinary" is the key term here: the authors of these essays are scholars in media, film, American studies, English, history, and library science.

The book is divided into four parts. For me, the essays in Part I, "Intellectual Histories of the Information Age," are the most theoretically challenging and, at times, most inaccessible, of the book. Laura Rigal's "Imperial Attractions: Benjamin Franklin's New Experiments of 1751" is a reading of Franklin's experiments with electricity and his pamphlet New Experiments and how both Franklin's experiments and writings went beyond science and into the realm of humor and even "erotica." David Depew's "From Heat Engines to Digital Printouts" is an ambitious (perhaps overly ambitious) essay that draws connection of previous models of the body as "machine" to the Human Genome Project, and Ronald E. Day's "The Erasure and Construction of History for the Information Age: Positivism and Its Critics" discusses the implications of the work of Martin Heidegger, Walter Benjamin, Paul Otlet, and Suzanne Briet on the "reification and commodification of knowledge" (76).

In contrast, I think that Part II, "Visual Culture, Subjectivity, and the Education of the Senses," is perhaps the strongest section of the book, certainly in the sense of addressing the project that Rabinovitz and Geil name in their introduction. It begins with a fascinating and approachable essay by Rabinovitz, "More than Movies: A History of Somatic Visual Culture through Hale's Tours, Imax, and Motion Simulation Rides." Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World was one of the first "motion ride" movie experiences, running from 1904 to 1911. The movie/ride was "a railroad car featuring travel films from the point of view of a moving train where the image is coordinated with sensory and atmospheric effects such as motion and train whistles" (100). Logically enough, Rabinovitz makes connections between this early film experience and more contemporary Imax theaters and amusement/motion rides, along the way pointing to the ways in which the spectacles problematize the relationship between illusionary, observed experiences and actual, "real" ones.

Judith Babbitts raises similar questions of visual authenticity in her essay "Stereographs and the Construction of a Visual Culture in the United States." She argues, "as no knowledge industry had before it, the stereograph industry identified technology -- the technology of the camera -- as the essential factor in acquiring information" (127). Clearly, the stereograph industry was as successful as it was ("Historians estimate that between the mid-nineteenth century and the 1930s, the stereograph industry published between three to six million different images," p. 129) in large part because of the use of stereograph images in schools as a way of showing images from around the world.

Concluding Part II is Sharon Ghamari-Tabrizi's "The Convergence of the Pentagon and Hollywood: The Next Generation of Military Training Simulations." Given the military simulation games currently available, it perhaps comes as no surprise that film, gaming, and military simulations intersect technologically. But Ghamari-Tabrizi points out that the interactions and connections include reconceptualizing "story" as a way of organizing and presenting military training information/scenarios as well.

Part III, "Materiality, Time, and the Reproduction of Sound and Motion," opens with the John Durham Peters essay "Helmholz, Edison, and Sound History," which examines the ways that the inventions and thinking of Thomas Edison were influenced by the "science of the sense organs that emerged a generation before Edison, and whose greatest representative was Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894)" (179). The section closes with the essay "Still/Moving: Digital Imaging and Medical Hermeneutics" by Scott Curtis, who, in a vein similar to Peters, notes that the "digital revolution" in medical imaging (magnetic resonance imaging or MRIs, for example) "owes much to the analog approaches [illustrations and X rays, for example] that came before" (219), and that little has changed in how physicians understand these different types of images.

Separating these chapters (literally and thematically) is Lisa Gitelman's exceptional essay "Media, Materiality, and the Measure of the Digital; or, the Case of Sheet Music and the Problem of Piano Rolls." In an effort to "catch a glimpse of slipperiness in itself by looking at a specific moment of media transition, when things seemed particularly contingent and far from inevitable or natural" (200), Gitelman explains some of the key copyright issues that surrounded player piano rolls in the early twentieth century. Did the rolls fall under the same copyright laws as sheet music? Were the rights owned by the manufacturer of the rolls or by the composer? The analogy between these legal quarrels and those regarding Internet downloads is of course not lost on Gitelman, and her essay tests the "robustness" of this analogy (203).

The fourth and closing section of the book, "Digital Aesthetics, Social Texts, and Art Objects," is for me somewhat disconnected from the "historical" examination of digital culture; of course, since the essays discuss more or less "contemporary" understandings of hypertext and multimedia, they will become "history" soon enough. The section opens with an essay by N. Katherine Hayles, "Bodies of Texts, Bodies of Subjects: Metaphoric Networks in New Media," though I felt a better "starting" point here was the following chapter by Thomas Swiss, "Electronic Literature: Discourses, Communities, Traditions." Swiss' essay is essentially an overview of the current state of affairs of electronic literature; he names and briefly summarizes some of the pioneers of literary hypertext, he notes the early proponents of hypertext (notably Robert Coover), and he makes an effective comparison between the current state of affairs of literary hypertext with that of "the American 'little magazines' that helped create the modernist canon in the years between 1912 and 1920" (295). In contrast, Hayles' essay, which claims "that changes in the physical forms of texts take place in correlation with how bodies are imagined within the text" (258), is built around two literary hypertexts, Deena Larsen's Disappearing Rain and Stuart Moulthrop's Reagan Library. Finally, Part IV closes with Vivian Sobchack's "Nostalgia for a Digital Object: Regrets on the Quickening of QuickTime," in which (among other things) she laments the inevitable improvement in the quality of streaming video, a regrettable move away from a quirky and pleasurable small display that she sees as being more like "Joseph Cornell's boxed relics" (305) and toward "real movies (307).

In sum, Memory Bytes is an excellent book, on the whole approachable and refreshing. Like all collections of this sort, different essays make different demands on readers in terms of their previous knowledge and assumptions. But if this interdisciplinary and eclectic approach to history, technology, and digital culture is its weakness, I also think it is its greatest strength. In their reflections on the past, these scholars bring a clearer sense to the present, and provide a needed cure to the technological amnesia that persists in studies about cyberculture.

Steven D. Krause:
Steven D. Krause is an Associate Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature at Eastern Michigan University. Recent scholarship has appeared in the online journal Kairos and in Computers and Composition.

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