Book Review: New Media, 1740-1915

ImageWhen I say “new media,” you probably start thinking late twentieth century, at the earliest. And that makes sense. That’s when computers and the internet became a part of every day experiences and activities for most of us. Maybe you’re especially geeky informed and start thinking about DARPA or some other piece of the post WWII technology boom. And that makes sense, too.

You almost certainly don’t think about mid-eighteenth century.

In New Media, 1740-1915, editors Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree challenge the notion that new media has to mean today’s new media. And, okay, I can get behind the idea that every piece of technology was once new, and I’m certainly on board with the notion that the tools a society creates are one of the keys to understanding their values. But Gitelman and Pingree are doing more than that. They focus specifically on objects from these years to highlight technologies in transition in order to sharpen our understanding of modern communication (xii). That’s also why they focus on media that failed to survive for very long. There are a few you’ll recognize, like the telegraph, but mostly these are “dead media.” According to Gitelman and Pingree, “because their ‘deaths,’ like those of all ‘dead’ media, occurred in relation to those that ‘lived,’ even the most bizarre and the most short lived are profoundly intertextual, tangling during their existence with the dominant, discursive practices of representation that characterized the total cultural economy of their day” (xii).

The authors are also working to counter the tropes of supercession and transparency; i.e., each new media doesn’t necessarily subsume its predecessors or make information more free. This gets at the idea of inevitability, which historians love to play around with. Just like anything else, our new media are products of people’s choices. They’re not just machines but “socially realized structures of communication” (xv).

Okay, this is my favorite of the new media in the book:

This is a zograscope. Image

It’s kind of like a stereoscope (which would come a bit later) because it lets you see specially created images as 3-D. These were owned mostly by well-to-do types as a way to “travel” without having to actually go anywhere, which Erin Blake argues is like virtual reality. Blake also shows that people used these images to imagine what public space should be like and who should be allowed to be there. Today’s new media still doesn’t allow me to show you what this 3-D experience was like, but this 39-second video comes close. Bonus: Spanish language practice!

Close seconds would be the physiognotrace for making silhouettes (it’s actually about direct representation in government!) and scrapbooking. You read that right: scrapbooking is a form of new media.



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