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When Old Technologies Were New

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Carolyn MarvinEdit

Carolyn Marvin is a Professor of Communication at the Annenburg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She identifies as a communication studies scholar with an interest in speech, taboo, patriotic practice and borders of gender, race and class. Her only other published text is Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag.

When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking about Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century [1988]Edit

This book is ostensibly framed within the field of histories of communication and histories of communication technologies. The author at one point identifies her work with "modern media history" and herself as a "media historian" which may stem from a disciplinary overlap in her training between "communication studies" and "media studies". The chapters follow a fairly set formula, establishing a particular thesis about social use and understanding of technology, and defending the thesis with meticulously gathered primary data from newspapers, journals, manuals, etc. Marvin's book is divided into 5 chapters:

1. Inventing the Expert: Technological Literacy as Social Currency

2. Community and Class Order: Progress Close to Home

3. Locating the Body in Electrical Space and Time: Competing Authorities

4. Dazzling the Multitude: Original Media Spectacles

5. Annihilating Space, Time, and Difference: Experiments in Cultural Homogenization

Primacy of the TelegraphEdit

In her introduction, Marvin argues that the "extraordinary shifts in the dimension of the world and the human relations it contains as a result of new forms of communication" begin with the telegraph, when she identifies as the first electrical communication machine, and the machine that constituted "as significant a break with the past as printing before it" (3). For Marvin, the computer is little more than an instantenous telegraph with memory, and all communications inventions betwix are just elaborations on the telegraph's work.

Marvin's book does explore the social developments that surrounded telephones, phonographs, and cinema as well. She is bound to an interest in electric media.

Method and DisciplineEdit

Marvin argues that her interest in the telegraph and communication media of the late 19th century is actually in conflict with most "social history of Anglo-American electric media", which was assumed to begin with the birth of film and broadcast, and the first "mass" audiences. Marvin writes:

"For media historians, the phenomenon of twentieht-century electronic mass media [television and radio] lies like a great whale across the terrain of our intellectual concern [...] This artifactual notion is pervasive and not much debated, for it seems simple, obvious, and convenient. Bit it has rendered invisible important aspects of our electric media history, and perhaps of mediated communication generally. It does this in part by fixing the social origin of electric mdia history at the point when media producers began to service and enourage the appliance-buying demand of mass audiences. Everything before this artifactual moment is classified as technical prehistory, a neutral boundary at which inventorys and technicians with no other agenda of much interest assembled equipment that exerted negligible social impact until the rise of network broadcasting. But a great deal more was going on in the late nineteenth century. [...] [This book] argues that the early history of electric media is less the evolution of technical efficiencies in communication than a series of arenas for negotiating issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has the authority to be believed" (4).

Marvin is arguing against merely reading technical history as a history of changes in speeds, performance, capacity, reach, etc, as these criteria tell us little about the communicative relationship between the technologies and their users. Marvin is disinterested in artifactual approaches, for these approaches argue that the "social processes connected to media logically and historical begin with the instrument" (4). She posits herself in opposition to "a history of media in the usual Lasswellian sense of the set of sluices through which societies move messages of particular types. Media are not fixed natural objects; they have no natural edges" (8). Rather, Marvin is interested in the drama between groups that forms as new media shifts negotiations of power, authority, representation and knowledge that were stable in relation to "old media". Because the history of media is always a history of use, media history will always lead us away from the objects and back to the social interactions they illuminate. Marvin writes:

"Old habits of transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter, critical social distances [...] Classes, families, and professional communities struggled to come to terms with novel acoustic and visual devices that made possible commication in real time without real presence, so that some people were suddenly too close and others much too far away" (5).

Marvin argues for the importance of grasping the "consciousness" of a particular age, the fantasies and dreams that people have about communication and technology. This technique will also form an important part of Gitelman's analysis of Thomas Jefferson's fan mail in Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines.

The "Expert" and Technological LiteracyEdit

One of Marvin's more exceptional explorations is that of "Inventing the Expert" (Chapter 1), in which she recounts how electrical workers developed themselves as experts and created sets of social organizations and literacies that established boundaries around who could and could not know about electricity. Because the role of electricity emerge as a newly shaping, but largely unmanaged, force in the 19th century, the various individuals working in the electric industry--from electrical engineers to telegraph operators--strived to attach themselves to a newly emerging professionalism. Anyone could adopt the title of "electrician", and thus anxiety formed around who constituted someone's authority on the topic of electricity. Industry journals and newspapers were the primary site of people "working through" their issues with their occupational authority. These journals shaped textual communities, forming the electricity work force into a group that rallies around "authoritative texts and their designated interpreters" (12). Marvin documents the specific communities that accepted the "expert authority" of electricians and their texts, for these communities then form their own popular constellations around and based in the authority of the electrical "expert". In these magazines, electrical professionals worked to invent themselves as an elite culture who would dispense knowledge on electricity. Their documents work hard to distinguish between outsiders and insiders. Marvin writes:

"Scattered throughout the technical reports and documents that constituted the primary focus of this literature was a secondary content of social news, editorial comments, and short anecdotal articles that provided a less earnestly self-conscious arena of discussion" (11).

Fantastically, Marvin provides countless anecdotes from these journals detailing who was considered an outsider to electrical knowledge: the rural, the female, and the nonwhite.

For Your ConsiderationEdit

Is the history of media "never more or less than the history of their uses, which always lead us away from them to the social practices and conflicts they illuminate" (8)?

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