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Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture

Author: Lisa Gitelman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008

 REVIEW 1: J. Patrick Biddix
 REVIEW 2: David Heineman
 REVIEW 3: Michelle Rodino-Colocino

In the introduction to Always Already New: Media History and the Data of Culture, the author suggests that there is a tendency for observers of new media technologies to consider our contemporary moment as "the end of media history" (2). Anyone familiar with Lisa Giteleman's previous book (co-authored with Geoffrey Pingree), however, knows that this is not that case, and that Gitelman is a scholar fully invested in writing about new media from a critical, historical perspective that interrogates the cultural, contextual significance of the label "new" and all that it entails. And like her work in New Media: 1740-1915, the more recent Always Already New continues to investigate the relationships between the evolution of digital media technologies and the development of what are most often considered "analog" media.

Specifically, this book focuses on the similarities and differences between the emergence of recorded sound in the late 19th century and the growth of the World Wide Web; the latter she traces from its roots in government-sponsored academic projects in the late 1960s and early 70s through to representations of the internet's early data in contemporary websites. Gitelman divides her book into two main sections. The first half focuses on the development of the phonograph and phonographic records in both public and private spheres. These first two chapters highlight the vernacular experiences of individuals and communities engaging these technologies for the first time, often through demonstrations of sound being recorded on to tinfoil at local and state fairs or through exposure to nickel-in-the-slot machines playing wax cylinders in 19th century restaurants and bars. In these chapters, Gitelman emphasizes the experience of the user, focusing her discussion on the ways in which subjects often worked against the ideas expressed by inventors, entrepreneurs, or media companies in order to ascribe their own meanings to records and phonographs and to the larger cultural phenomenon represented by the advent of recorded sound. The second half of the book follows much the same pattern while discussing the development of internet technologies; here Gitelman again focuses on how users meet the challenges of assigning meaning to ephemeral media. It is clear that this book represents a substantial amount of research, as most historical accounts about the "beta" versions of what would later become more established, mass media is neither widely published nor often referenced in most media studies scholarship.

Gitelman offers a number of intriguing arguments that recur throughout the text. One overarching claim is that studying media when they are "new" provides the critic with a unique opportunity to understand the relationships between media determinist theories of cultural change and theories that privilege human agency as instrumental in determining the cultural functions of any particular technology. She suggests, for example, that critics must look at how new media develop as "localized anomalies" (29) that present technologies in specific ways to specific users. Her model resists a tendency in historical media studies scholarship to look at media from a macro level (where "inventors" or "companies" bequeath a new medium upon a "mass audience" or "the public"), and instead insists that critics attend to those specific places where new media initially appear as well as how the users in those places actually engage new technology. This approach allows her to argue that the initial users of a new media technology are instrumental in directing how the technology functions once it evolves into a mass medium, and that learning something about the cultural context where these early uses occur is essential to making any kind of argument about the meaning(s) of a new media technology. For example, she suggests that early users of nickel-in-the-slot phonograph machines developed ways of "hacking" the machines to play recordings for free, that the origins of record piracy coincided with the success of record distribution, and that the repeated listening, purchasing, and recording of sound "remained inseparable from active categories like tradition, class, race, gender, domesticity, and professionalism" (75) as they existed at a specific historical moment. In many ways, her argument compliments and extends the kind of work done by Jonathan Crary (1999), who frequently works to carefully situate particular cultural problems in relation to emerging media technologies. Gitelman herself notes this affinity, and the first half of her text reinforces the idea that good media studies scholarship must be historically sensitive, especially when making arguments about the significance of something "new."

However, it is in the latter half of the text, wherein Gitelman focuses on the development and archiving of the internet, where the critical benefits of this historical sensitivity become most apparent. Here she offers an argument about how new media shape the "history of bibliography" (107) as such, suggesting that our "new media" -- the web -- offers a "continuous present tense" (145) wherein continual editing, moving, updating, coding, etc. "eschew the punctual logics of more conventional public discourse" (144). For Gitleman, this does not suggest that temporality is no longer important, but that those websites set up to archive and emulate the history of the web (and of other kinds of media) have succeeded in shaping this new media technology into one that emphasizes the connections between the present and the past. She moves through a number of examples, including ProQuest search results and the Wayback Machine, to illustrate her claim that the specific cultural contexts in which the internet has emerged and been developed has shaped its current meanings.

Gitelman's writing about this history, about media theory generally, and about her own unique arguments is accessible and deliberate, and this book would be of great use in any graduate or advanced undergraduate course concerning media history, new media, or even historiography. The material is presented in a way that suggests further investigation by the reader; while reviewing the book, I found myself going to websites to download MP3s of wax cylinder recordings, to play with internet archiving websites, and to investigate further the history of some of the technologies that Gitelman introduces. When coupled with this exploration, her arguments about the material consequences of ephemeral media become resonant.

Crary, Jonathan. Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999.

David Heineman:
David Heineman, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication Studies and Theatre Arts at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. His primary research interests are located at the intersection of rhetorical theory and criticism and new media technologies; his most recent scholarship has focused on hacktivism.  <dheinema@bloomu.edu>

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