Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture
Author: Lisa Gitelman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006
Review Published: April 2008
Lisa Gitelman's Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture is a welcomed contribution to the field of new media studies. For anyone who has struggled to find a book that historicizes both the concept and the artifacts of "new media," this book fills that gap.
Intended initially as a deeper exploration of lines of inquiry Gitelman began in earlier projects (Gitelman 1999, 2003), Always Already New examines the cultural significance of new media as subjects and instruments of history, by telling the story of how media inscribe and are inscribed. Gitelman examines this dialectical process by analyzing the production and memory of documents through archival histories of recorded sound and the Internet. The chapters examine these media in their incipient forms, ala Carolyn Marvin (1988), when they were "new." Paying keen attention to the dialectical relationships between production and reception, document and evidence, and media users and media publics, the chapters explore the emerging phonograph, Internet, and World Wide Web (1878-1910 in the case of recorded sound, the late 1960s-early 1970s during ARPANET's early history, and during the 1990s in the Web's case). As Gitelman argues, exploring the "apples and oranges" of sound recording and digital texts makes sense, because both are "inscriptive media." Both represent and do so in ways that are "crucially material as well as semiotic" (6). Always Already New traces the history of media through processes of representation and via the representation of representation.
In Gitelman's hands, the archives that represent histories of media come alive; she opens them up for reflexive analysis and does the same for archival methods. Always Already New questions basic assumptions historians take for granted regarding the authenticity of texts and their survival, reception, and the revisionist makeovers that are sometimes necessary and sometimes accidental over the course of time.
As the title suggests, Always Already New explores some of the most significant factors that mark media as new. Crucial among them is a lack of agreed upon conventions of use. When media are new, rules of etiquette, debates over legitimacy, and representation have not yet been negotiated. The "drama" that surrounds new technologies as Carolyn Marvin calls it, has still to be played out. Following Marvin (1988) and Marshall McLuhan (1994), Gitelman argues that new media evolve out of old practices and old media. Their "success," indeed "the success of all media" depends on a "'blindness' to the media technologies themselves" and an attention to "the content," or the uses and gratifications media represent to users (6).
In a departure from Marvin, however, Gitelman's historiography emphasizes the materiality of new media. By counterpoising the "new" World Wide Web with the phonograph, instead of the telegraph or telephone, Gitelman weaves a story that counters the view that media since the telegraph "began to 'dematerialize' communication along the trajectory that distributed digital networking today extends" (18). While reading Always Already New, I saw that trajectory dematerialize, in place of a more textual (and material in this sense) trend. Gitelman's work is as much about what makes new media new as it is about our cultural memory of media. By spotlighting how we, as a culture, remember, Always Already New foregrounds the "data of culture." Taking readers on a tour of the "inscriptive" phonograph and digital network when they were new, Gitelman explores the choices historians and historical records make, sometimes accidentally, in the construction of narratives for posterity.
Gitelman's book is a joy to read. It is replete with historical tidbits that are delightful and illustrative. Edison declared that the phonograph would "capture" "fugitive sounds" and preserve precious speech before it dissipated into oblivion. Edison's phonograph thus promised a deeper fixity for words than the ephemerality of newsprint. Ironically, however, no phonographical record of phonographic exhibitions has survived. The popularity of the tinfoil phonographic records as souvenirs from early exhibitions also underscores the symbolic heft of print culture, as the records were "mute" without phonographs on which to play them. They were significant as tangible symbols of the desire for authenticity. Gitelman's examples point to her larger conclusion, that media are "always already new," that they are about emerging local orders of public life and memory (155).
Chapter 1, "New Media Publics," analyzes the phonograph, the new medium of recorded sound, as Thomas Edison introduced it to public audiences in the US through lyceum demonstrations in 1878. In accounts of these demonstrations, the press constructs phonographs as literate subjects, as able to read a book ("literally making it read itself") and as allowing words to speak (as "speaking phonograph," p. 25). Stories of these "talking machines" underscored that new media are understood initially as extensions of and through lenses of old media. In the era when print media were subjects of history and the means through which history was recorded, personifying phonographs as inscriptive media made sense. Such interpretations made sense of a cultural oddity that violated commonsense understandings of the relationship between print, speech, and the public. Early demonstrations showcased public ambivalence; they were educational and carnivalesque, informative and spectacular.
From today's vantage point, however, the phonograph's purpose (as Edison imagined it) as a business machine for dictation makes its amusing demonstration appear as a cultural oddity. As Gitelman points out, since we know the outcome of the story of the phonograph, Edison's version (that used tinfoil records) also seems a less significant historical thread to follow than does Emile Berliner's vision of phonograph (as a medium for playback of prerecorded music), embodied in the nickel-in-the-slot machines that followed. In their day, however, nickel-in-the-slot phonographs were cultural oddities and regarded as unimportant subjects of history. Gitelman tells the story of Edison's phonographs and their tinfoil records to underscore that history is, well, historical. Tinfoil records, which were regarded as important matters of public record in their day, drop out of later historical renderings because "knowing what happened next" (they soon became obsolete) spoiled their spot in the historical record (55). Always Already New deftly demonstrates that hindsight makes history and breaks it too.
An exploration of the "diversion" of the phonograph as a medium to play pre-recorded music in the home during 1895-1901, Chapter 2 urges media historians to find their object of study in the uses and users, rather than exclusively in the domain of advertising campaigns and political-economic statistics. Entitled "New Media Users," the chapter attends to the distinction between "publics" and "users" and the history of their conflation that runs alongside the history of pre-recorded sound's commodification.
Reminiscent of user and gender focused histories of the telephone by authors including Claude Fischer (1992), Michele Martin (1991), and Lana Rakow (1992), Chapter 2 examines women's roles as mediators of the phonograph's reconception as a domestic commodity. In Gitelman's rendering, however, phonographs did not become gendered mass media, but rather, "gender and cultural differences were built in to home phonographs from the start" (60, emphasis mine). The fact that women's voices were difficult to record with fidelity became a promotional and technological resource. Women's voices served as a kind of standard that early phonograph companies used in promotions; they were key to claims of phonographs' functionality. "Phonographs only 'worked,'" Gitelman argues, "when they got women's voices right" (85). Phonographs "came to make sense" through women's performances, mimicry, women's association with the home and piano, and their growing position as cultural subjects of mass production and advertising. In addition, Gitelman importantly calls into question the production/consumption binary in histories of media that flattens complex cultural relations and privileges the agency of white, middle-class First World men. In this way, Gitelman challenges arguments of those like Fischer who imply that men invented the telephone and women found other, unanticipated uses for it. In such histories, women's agency becomes "reactive," and it is this "reactive" agency Always Already New challenges us to think beyond. And it is against the one-dimensional notion of production as invention and entrepreneurship that Gitelman's analysis is pushing.
Since Always Already New is "less about sound than about text, less about the political economy of music than about the social experience of meaning as a material fact" (18), it makes sense that Gitelman turns to digital networks. Chapter 3, "New Media Bodies," compares the "apples and oranges" of acoustic recordings and Internet texts to reveal how "media accumulate the power that they do" (95). After all, both phonographs and the Internet came to be understood as media of inscription, and in hindsight, we see how both produce material records and texts. Gitelman's Chapter 3 takes us back to the Internet's early history of 1968-1972 ARPANET to explore how questions of textuality and bibliographic record came to be asked. Studying a period when the Internet was at its "newest," Gitelman demonstrates how doing a history of textuality is fraught with practical difficulty. As we saw was the case with tinfoil records, the very texts she would like to survey are no longer in existence. Other texts of the day have been translated (mediated) through newer technologies that jettison their "ARPA-ness" and with it, part of the authenticity of the texts in question.
Chapter 3, like Chapter 1, relishes in hindsight. Gitelman notes Vannevar Bush's (1945) "memex" as a solution to the "bibliometric crisis," and hindsight allows us to appreciate memex as an early demonstration of "hypertext ... before the term hypertext was coined" (99). Bush's concern for the "common record" evokes a similar media public as that imagined by the tinfoil phonograph exhibitors. It is this media public that another network visionary, J.C.R. Licklider, carried into his work on the Libraries of the Future (1965). Licklider envisions humans connected to their library via a desk of sorts (i.e., "a display-and-control station in a telecommunication-telecomputation system"), a connection mediated by an "umbilical cord" (i.e., "the cable ... that connects it ... into the procognitive utility net," p. 100). Thus, we can see that a number of "bodies" are at work here -- the textual and the living and breathing bodies of users and publics. Gitelman also relishes in reminding readers of the importance of hindsight in doing history. The chapter takes us on a tour of the redefinition and reimagining of documents, networked computers, and new media publics as they met and morphed through prevailing beliefs and material conditions shaped by ARPANET. It is this hindsight and Gitelman's expertise in literary history that enable her appreciation of ARPANET's RFCs (request for comments) as indicators of how electronic documents and electronic networks coevolved in the late 1960s through the early 1970s.
Chapter 4, "New Media
," extends Chapter 3's analysis of the slipperiness of electronic texts and documents by examining the history of the World Wide Web. Gitelman looks, more specifically, at how the history "of the Web" is constructed "on the Web" (21). Gitelman carefully attends to the ways in which this story is shaped by the Web as a medium that stores documents but does not necessarily preserve them in their original form and format.
Always Already New is at its most thrilling when at its most invitingly reflexive. One of the most illuminating and memorable anecdotes of the book is Gitelman's take on a ProQuest search that finds the first mention of "the Internet" in an ad for patent medicine published in September 1854. The optical character recognition (OCR) technology used by ProQuest misread "the interest" as "the Internet," thus constructing textual evidence of "the Internet of 1854." Gitelman recovers this lost mistake to highlight assumptions historians have about their tools (their textual searching and retrieving technologies), including the repressed desire for a "reading machine and a self-apprehending text," all sorts of invisible labor that goes into microfilm production, scanning, storage, and the vicissitudes of long-term storage and handling (124). The "Internet of 1854" tells us much about doing history of the Internet and of the Internet's historicity.
Chapter 4 gets into the nitty-gritty of archival analysis of the World Wide Web. As Gitelman "seeks to describe and contextualize the weirdness of documents on the World Wide Web" (126), Gitelman performs the very "weirdness" she studies and the reflexivity she conducts throughout the book. The chapter title uses an HTML tag "</Body>" to flag the weirdness of considering a web page as a body, as constitutive of a wider "body of software," and as an elusive bibliographic fact and bit of historical evidence. The remainder of the chapter pursues questions around the constitution of evidence, as Gitelman invites readers to get reflexive about doing media history. Media historians will find that these are questions worth reflecting upon and, perhaps, answering in our research: "How are media the subjects of history when doing history depends on so many tacit conditions of mediation? [H]ow might present attempts to historicize the Web be complicated by the uses and characteristics of the Web itself? How does or how can the Web work as evidence of its own past?" (127). These questions probe issues that extend beyond the methodological and extend toward the epistemological, even the ontological.
Always Already New will prove a highly relevant and engaging read for scholars working in the fields of communication, literature, and library sciences, as well as interdisciplinary fields of cultural studies, cybercultural studies, gender studies, history of consciousness, and the history of technology. The one qualification I want to make in recommending this book is that its use at the undergraduate level might be limited at worst and challenging at best. One needs at least some familiarity with the history of the media Gitelman studies to appreciate how insightful and path-breaking a history Always Already New is. To make this book accessible to undergraduates (perhaps upper level honors students) outside information sciences, I suggest introducing it late in the term, after assigning readings on the history of print and sound media, archival research methods, and/or the conceptualization of texts. Graduate course instructors might also find Gitelman's a challenging text to teach and might consider making relevant preparatory reading available in advance of Gitelman's book. Preparing students for Always Already New, however, would be well worth it. Tomorrow's historians of new media will find many a productive seed in Gitelman's work.
Bush, V. (1945). As we may think. Atlantic Monthly. Available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush.
Fischer, C. (1992). America Calling: a Social History of the Telephone. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Gitelman, L. (1999). Scripts, Grooves and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
Gitelman, L. & Pingree, G. (Eds.). (2003). New Media: 1740-1915. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Licklider, J.C.R. (1965). Libraries of the Future. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Martin, M. (1991). "Hello Central?": Gender, Technology, and Culture in the Formation of Telephone Systems. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.
Marvin, C. (1988). When Old Technologies were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Oxford.
McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding media: The Extensions of Man. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rakow, L. (1992). Gender on the Line: Women, the Telephone, and Community Life. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Michelle Rodino-Colocino is Assistant Professor of Media Studies in the College of Communications at The Pennsylvania State University. Her research and teaching interests span critical and cultural studies of new media, gender, and labor studies (including production and reproduction). Recent works have appeared in Critical Studies in Media Communication, New Media & Society, Work Organization, Labour and Globalization, in the edited collection, Knowledge Workers in the Information Age (Rowman and Littlefield), and in the forthcoming edited collection, Handbook of Research on Virtual Workplaces (Idea Group). She has reviewed Making Silicon Valley: Innovation and the Growth of High-Tech, 1930-1970 and Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide for RCCS. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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