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New Technologies and Cultures of Communication in the 19th and 20th Centuries Print E-mail

May 10-11, 2013
Workshop at the GHI
Conveners: Clelia Caruso (German Historical Institute-Washington), Peter Jelavich (The Johns Hopkins University), Richard R. John (Columbia University), and Benjamin Schwantes (German Historical Institute-Washington)

Participants: Gene Allen (Ryerson University), Gabriele Balbi (Università della Svizzera italiana, Lugano), Volker Barth (University of Cologne), Andreas Fickers (Maastricht University), Jonas Harvard (Mid-Sweden University), Dirk van Laak (University of Giessen), Lan Xuan Le (UC Santa Barbara), Adelina Mbinjama-Gamatham (Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University), Simone Müller-Pohl (Free University of Berlin), Andrew Russell (Stevens Institute of Technology), Heidi Tworek (Harvard University)

Conference Report

Very often, innovations in communication technologies produce changes in communication cultures. This relationship holds true particularly for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries due to the emergence and spread of electronic media. The workshop focused on how technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, and radio affected existing communication routines, that is, how they changed communication practices and altered cultural meanings associated with them. In his keynote lecture, Dirk van Laak pointed out that scholars in the history of technology have correctly focused on end users of technologies, but argued that there are other agents who need to be taken into consideration when trying to assess the patterns of adoption of new technologies. Those agents comprise such diverse groups as researchers, developers, entrepreneurs, and politicians, but also cultural interpreters, scientists, hackers, amateur tinkerers and even declared non-users. With regard to avenues for future research, he argued that there is truly no state of closure for usages of technologies. Even though some usages may appear to be established at a certain point, others are in a perpetual state of change. Finally he suggested that like scholars of technology and infrastructure history, media history scholars should look at vulnerabilities and failures or supersessions of infrastructures and technologies of communication. Consequently, the subsequent discussion focused on how to write an informed history of the usages of media. Participants agreed on the idea that a possible structure for a narrative focusing on a history of media usages would have to take into consideration the introduction of a medium and a phase of flexibility and stabilization, but still account for possible reinventions or redevelopments of media technologies.

The first session was dedicated to the analysis of media and media systems. Gabriele Balbi started the session with a presentation on the distinction between one-to-many and one-to-one media technologies, such as the telephone, wireless, and radio. He underlined how one-to-one systems emphasize privacy and dialogic communication, and often employ complex infrastructures to convey information. By contrast, one-to-many systems are public, intended for information dissemination, and the content of the message is typically more important than the communication medium or infrastructure. In a second step, however, Balbi underscored the interpretive flexibility of communication technologies in general, but especially in their formative or developmental state. In this context, he cited the example of the "circular" or broadcast telephone that presented scheduled broadcasts of informative programs through wired handsets and later speakers. He then went on to explain that wireless, point-to-point communication served as a type of broadcast media in an era before radio broadcasting became established: People with receivers could eavesdrop on private press updates sent via wireless telegraphs.

In the following presentation, Andreas Fickers talked about "Conservative Media Revolutions: Towards a Genealogy of Media Change." He rejected the term "media revolution" and explained that change in communication media is often conservative rather than revolutionary in nature, insofar as newer communication forms look to older technologies and media content for inspiration. New media adopts a "revolutionary rhetoric" but is really based on adaptation or re-appropriation of existing communication media. Fickers pled for a genealogical approach to media history. Comparative media analysis, he argued, is the key to a better understanding of changes in media technologies and content, since advances or changes in one media form provoked reactions in others.

Jonas Harvard spoke about "Horses, Trains and Steamships in the Service of the Electric Telegraph: Analyzing the Historical Media System of Scandinavia." He illustrated the complex interplay between communication and transportation systems, showing that the telegraph was embedded in a larger regional transportation and communication infrastructure. Technological limitations prevented it from being effective on its own: Many telegrams had to be transported to their final destination on railroads, steamships, or even by horseback. This led him to argue for the ambiguity of the telegram as a media form since many telegrams were never transmitted electronically in Scandinavia during the era.

The second panel addressed the definition and use of media. The first paper, presented by Clelia Caruso, was entitled "Teaching How to Use a New Communication Device: Telephone Instructions in User Manuals and Etiquette Books in the United States, 1880s to 1980s." Caruso discussed how telephone manuals and etiquette books helped to shape telephone practices over time. Not surprisingly, the manuals and etiquette books reflect a growing social and cultural familiarity with the telephone: The documents showed strong indications that the behavioral norms pertaining to proper telephoning were widely known, if not followed, by mid-century. However, around the same time users were asked to construct their own telephone personality. In the second half of the twentieth century, the ideal telephone user was no longer necessarily the one who just conformed to the rules of efficient telephoning, it was the one who used the opportunities and constraints of the medium according to his or her own personal faculties, skills, and characteristics.

In his presentation, "The Telegraph and the News Form: A Textual/Institutional Analysis," Gene Allen looked at whether the telegraph altered journalistic forms of expression, using Canadian newspapers as his source. He argued that the telegraph had no direct, discernible impact on the form of newspaper articles or the broader content contained in newspapers. New technologies, including the telegraph, Allen explained, did have some influence over journalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but not directly. Rather, telegraphy influenced the development of news agencies and wire services that helped to feed information to newspapers and played a role in determining the content that appeared in daily newspapers.

Benjamin Schwantes presented a paper entitled "Defining the Modern Telecommunication Revolution: Harry Newton's Telecom Dictionary as a Technological-Cultural ‘Delivery System‘," which focused on a single reference source, Harry Newton's Telecom Dictionary as a technological-cultural "delivery system." Schwantes examined how its coverage of telephone and Internet terminology evolved over a thirty-year time period. He used both quantitative and qualitative analyses of the text to discuss how definitions changed over time and showed that the dictionary's coverage of Internet terminology closely mirrored the growing spread of Internet accessibility in the United States between the early 1990s and the present era. He argued that technical reference works can be a useful tool for historians of technology because they provide social and cultural insights into the time periods in which they were created and into the authors of the reference works.

The third panel was dedicated to media, news, and politics. In the first presentation, Adelina Mbinjama-Bamatham spoke about communication technologies and the unmaking of Apartheid in South Africa. She focused on how radio and cassette-tape technologies provided a means of undermining the South African Apartheid regime in the 1980s. She explained how pirate radio stations such as Radio Freedom broadcast news and information, and how they managed to send out directives to black South Africans and ANC fighters. Mbinjama-Bamatham carefully reconstructed the social and cultural meaning of the broadcasts and stressed the militant nature of the messages the radio stations conveyed.

Volker Barth presented on techniques of global news transmissions via the telegraph from 1860 to 1900, focusing on the use of codes for news transmissions. Barth explored the reciprocal influence between the telegraph and newspapers. The telegraph as a medium had a huge impact on news reporting, but more importantly, the use of the telegraph in the news business shaped telegraphy. Codes were developed to maximize information and minimize the length of messages in order to save money. Those codes required more skillful telegraphers and also increased the chance of errors in transmission. More generally, the telegraph introduced new notions into the newsgathering world and beyond. Accuracy became an important news feature, whereas terms related to wire service transmissions, such as "flash," became part of the broader cultural vocabulary.

Heidi Tworek discussed the development of radio in Weimar Germany, stressing the importance of a new approach to media history and the history of technology in general, specifically on the history of the radio. She argued that scholars should concentrate on less prominent agents who proved to be key figures in establishing new media rather than well-known inventors of the technologies. To make her case, Tworek explored the example of German financial news agency Eildienst during the Weimar era. She examined the personal and political relationships between E.L. Voss (head of the financial news agency) and Hans Bredow (secretary for post, telegraph and telephone). The close collaboration between the two men allowed the German ministry to license radio receivers and bring in money, while also protecting Eildienst from interference by other ministries. Eildienst held a uniquely influential position in the development of spoken news transmission in Germany, even though the agency faded away by the end of the Weimar era.

The last panel was dedicated to "Imaging New Media." Lan Xuan Le's paper, "Television before TV: Scanner Technologies and the Origins of Images at-a-Distance," examined the broader meta-history of scanning technologies. She also explored the long and complex technological development story of fax technologies that embodied the concept of image transmission over a distance. Le discussed different forms of "scanning" and how these various concepts and technologies were developed by different interest groups, including engineers and inventors. Furthermore, she argued that the concepts and technologies associated with scanning underlie many modern technological communication systems.

In her paper, "Imagining Global Telegraphy as a Social Medium," Simone Müller-Pohl used Ernst Knapp's concept of Weltkommunication. Müller-Pohl focused on imagined usages of the telegraph that never materialized. She explicated how social and cultural ideas of world communication were fostered by the development of submarine telegraph systems in the nineteenth century. She argued that the idea of mass social communication never translated into reality, however, due to the high cost of submarine communication. Furthermore, the owners of submarine systems were not interested in mass use due to the slow speed of transmission, which limited the volume of traffic across their networks. Arguing that most people had no need for and little interest in long-distance communication, they went against public advocates who argued for mass access to long-distance communication. All in all, the high cost of recouping capital expenditures and covering depreciation dissuaded the mass use of submarine telegraphy.

Andrew Russell looked at the development of "open and closed systems" related to the early Internet. He discussed how the distinction between open and closed systems emerged and why a closed, proprietary technological system - the Internet - ultimately triumphed over an open-source technological system. He also scrutinized the social and cultural values associated with open systems in the Western World and explicated how these could be used to advocate successfully in favor of open systems instead of proprietary systems. The "open system," Russell demonstrated, is associated with, though not really defined by, a bundle of buzzwords like transparency, international exchange, and competition, which are highly compatible with capitalism.

Critically engaging scholarly concepts of the "user" in media and technology history, the final discussion focused on attempts to write a history of media usages. Participants argued that researchers should examine why users remain the focus of much scholarly investigation and recognize how this focus shapes research results. The idea that users matter is highly compatible both with neoliberal ideology and with left-wing criticisms of neoliberalism. Researchers looking at technology usages, particularly media usages, need to be aware of the dangers inherent in this ambivalence and should try to avoid the resulting pitfalls, such as projecting the emancipatory notion of a critical, informed, and hence powerful user into the past. A focus on an imagined user that does not take into consideration the actual user should be avoided. Due to their descriptive and even prescriptive character, manuals, advertisements, and expert literature on media usages, for instance, need to be combined with other sources. So, while debates and ideas about users should be taken into consideration, an informed history of the usages of media technology should not stop there. User reactions to media technologies as well as technological interactions with and among users engaged with media technologies should not be left out when writing a history of media usages and cultural change.

Clelia Caruso (GHI), Sophie Mrozek (GHI / Friedrich Schiller University of Jena), and Benjamin Schwantes (GHI)


New Technologies and Cultures of Communication in the 19th and 20th Centuries

May 10-11, 2013
Workshop at the GHI
Conveners: Clelia Caruso (German Historical Institute-Washington), Peter Jelavich (The Johns Hopkins University), Richard R. John (Columbia University), and Benjamin Schwantes (German Historical Institute-Washington)
  • Program (pdf; as of March 12, 2013)

Call for papers

Changes in communication routines are often linked to the emergence of new communications media. The advent of electrical media beginning in the mid-19th century has had a significant impact on the communication cultures of modern societies. Technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, and radio affected established communication routines by changing communication practices and altering cultural meanings attached to them. Preexisting communication cultures, in return, shaped usages of these evolving communications media. Technologies are defined by their usages, that is, by the usages that prevail, not necessarily the ones initially intended. Nevertheless, dominant usages of a medium do not solely result from social practice, but also from the attribution of cultural meanings that make certain usages plausible and therefore dominant. Along with generations of users, inventors, technological experts, firms, and regulatory regimes all played roles in standardizing and (re-)categorizing usages of new media. In addition, descriptions and definitions, conceptions and images of a medium created and changed by politicians, social experts, journalists, artists, and other authorities imposed meaning on the technology and helped to define its use within and across societies.

Historiographical research on electrical communication media often tends to present a deterministic narrative of the development of technological objects towards a predominant use. Alternative forms of use are often narrated as historical aberrations, short episodes during which the media has not (yet) been used predominantly or even exclusively accordingly to its "true" characteristics. The telephone, for instance, today appears almost exclusively as a medium of one-to-one communication, but early promoters of the telephone suggested alternative usages for it such as broadcasting.

We would suggest focusing on the evolution of communications media usages as an ongoing process. We wish to examine what, from today's perspective, appear to be unusual usages of well-established media, even those usages that have been short lived or purely imaginary.

This focus on media at the stage of "interpretive flexibility," before technologies and usages "stabilized" and eventually reached a state of closure, would permit us to have a closer look at the shifts in the usage and interpretation of communication technologies by different types of users and thus allow for an analysis of the appropriation of these media by modern societies. In other words, how did users adjust to modern communications media and how were media technologies adjusted to the demands of modern life.

Papers should focus on technologically mediated communication that requires specific appliances not just on the sender's, but also on the receiver's, side (which are interchangeable for some of the media that the conference addresses). Papers should draw on historical communication practices, as well as on the cultural meanings attached to them. We would want the papers to explore the development of media in the "interpretive flexibility" stage by focusing on factors that facilitated specific usages of communications media, while possibly hindering others, and by examining the basic technical, physical, social, cultural, and political-economic qualities attributed to the media in the process. Were the communication services to which the media offered access free or did they come with costs, and what uses of the media were favored by one or the other? Geographical, political-economic, technical and human-biological factors created infrastructural inequalities in core and periphery regions. Do those inequalities account for different usages of the media in question?

In how far were communication media employed differently in different social contexts and situations? What effect did states, corporations, regulatory regimes, and consumers, along with social and technical experts have on establishing or abolishing usages of communication media? Did the medium function as a one-to-one or a one-to-many medium or did usages co-exist that made it one and the other? What roles did cost, speed, and accuracy play in structuring and defining users' expectations and experiences with communications media and in how far did that cause certain media usages to prevail over others? How did the method and form of communication offered by the medium - short or long, message or relation focused, private or public, conducted through a human intermediary such as a telegraph clerk or telephone operator or through a technical intermediary such as an automatic telephone exchange - play a role in shaping the technology itself, as well as usage during the undefined state of the medium. Conference panels will be structured around these themes and will emphasize the global dimension of these questions.

Those interested should send an abstract of 1,000-1,500 words and a one-page CV to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it by January 15, 2013 January 31, 2013, with invitations to be sent out by February 15, 2013. Full papers or longer abstracts are due by April 1, 2013.