Always Already New

Always Already New: Media, History, And The Data Of CultureAlways Already New: Media, History, And The Data Of Culture by Lisa Gitelman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book, mainly for the author’s technique of exploring what media means in our culture by using two examples, separated in time: the phonograph and the Internet. She admits that in some ways this amounts to comparing apples to oranges, and there is definitely a creative tension in the book. Gitelman’s emphasis is not that media technologies change society and culture, but that a technology is introduced and is in turn shaped by its particular social and historical context, which then reshapes society and culture.

I define media as socially realized structures of communication, where structures include both technological forms and their associated protocols, and where communication is a cultural practice, a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation. As such, media are unique and complicated historical subjects.

It’s tempting to talk about media technologies as if their ultimate use is somehow inevitable. For example, Gitelman discusses how the initial commercial placement of the phonograph centered largely around the idea that it would transform dictation and the office. Early demonstrations intended to increase sales of the device focused on recording and playback, rather than simply playback. They didn’t initially see the market for recorded music, which would so transform the device. To some extent we’ve cynically come to expect this out of marketing and “evangelism” about media technologies all the time. But this mode of thinking is also present in purely technical discussions, which don’t account for the placement of the technology in a particular social context.

Getting a sense of the social context you are in the middle of, as opposed to one you one you are historically removed from, presents some challenges. I think this difficulty is more evident in the second part of the book which focuses on the Internet and the World Wide Web against a backdrop of libraries and bibliography. Like many others I imagine, my knowledge of JCR Licklider’s influence on the development of ARPAnet, and the Internet was largely culled from Where Wizards Stay Up Late. I had no idea, until reading Always Already New, that Licklider contracted with the Council on Library Resources (now Council on Library and Information Resources) to write a report Libraries of the Future on the topic of how computing would change libraries.

I enjoyed the discussion of the role that the Request for Comment (RFC) played on the Internet. How these documents that were initially shared via the post, helped bootstrap the technologies that would create the Internet that allowed them to be shared as electronic documents or text. I didn’t know about the RFC-Online project that Jon Postel started right before his death, to recover the earliest RFCs that had been already lost. Gitelman’s study of linking, citation and “publishing” on the Web was also really enjoyable, mainly because of her orientation to these topics:

I will argue that far from making history impossible, the interpretive space of the World Wide Web can prompt history in exciting new ways.

All this being said, I finished the book with the sneaking feeling that I needed to reread it. Gitelman’s thesis was subtle enough that it was only when I got to the end that I felt like I understood it: the strange loop that thinking and media participate in, and how difficult (and yet fruitful) it is to talk about media and their social context. Maybe this was also partly the effect of reading it on a Kindle :-)

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