Week 1: What is “new” media?
Throughout the semester, we’ll be looking at the intersection of terms we think we know—old media and new media, for example—and contextualizing them, considering what they mean to and for the communities that experience them first, and interrogating the possibilities and limitations of our own emergent media. In our first book, Gitelman and Pingree’s New Media: 1740-1915, this connection is defined as “the strong relationship between the contexts for some material, technological development, and shifts in self-imagining and public understanding” (xvii). In other words, as all media were at one point “new,” we must consider the medium in the world in which it emerged and the community in which it both shaped and was shaped by.
In 1878, the new medium was Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Known also as the “speaking phonograph” or “talking machine,” Edison’s team scheduled demonstrations of this wonder throughout the United States, recording “only faint sounds obscured by scratchy surface noise” for those in attendance (157). Sound—from the works of Shakespeare to Mother Goose to coughing and whistling–were recorded on flimsy tin foil sheets that were often cut up and handed out to audience members as souvenirs after the demonstrations. These souvenirs held no real use without the machine, as the sound recorded had been simply punctures in the foil, but to the audience members who took them home, to a culture of print media, “[the souvenir’s] status as curious new-media texts helped to inscribe the meanings of old-media textuality that had pertained and would pertain to the future…they make visible certain anxieties regarding the media of print” (158-159). This new media/technology allowed for contrast with the “old” media and brought into question the implications for each.
Edison, seeing the potential of the phonograph in both the present and future, billed the machine as one that could replace stenographers, record the words of “our Washingtons, our Lincolns, our Gladstones,” as well as “preserve the accents of the “Onondagas and Tuscaroras, who [were] dying out” (159-160). The exhibitions seemed to offer the audience improvement in three ways: to participate in technological progress, to be exposed to “good taste” in hearing the recitation and recording of Shakespeare and other talented writers and musicians, and the opportunity to participate in something larger than their community, to have a connection to other publics around the country. The exhibitions had a democratizing effect on the publics they presented to, opening up who was “in”—those recorded on the phonograph, whether in shabby basements or the grandest New York halls—and those who were “out.” The souvenir tin foils were then “belongings that vouched for belonging…artifacts that vouched for facts” (166). They also, though, hinted at the phonograph being “an instrument of Anglo-American cultural hierarchy,” one that recorded “our” great poets and “their” dying language (160).
According to Gitelman, the tinfoil phonograph fostered in the public consciousness not just a consideration of new versus old media, but also issues of cultural identification and preservation, “help[ing] to raise emphatic questions of loss within which the efficacy and the meaning of print had long been embroiled” (168). We still wrestle with these questions today, about how we interact with emergent media and what that means for us as a public—what defines our culture at present and what it mean in interpreting our past. Much like the audience members at Edison’s phonograph exhibition, what we carry with us may indeed be the loudest and most lasting tellers of our story.
Text referenced: Gitelman, Lisa, and Geoffrey B Pingree. New Media, 1740-1915. MIT Press, 2010.