Technology and Community
Saturday, May 10, 1997
|Moderator: Henry Jenkins, Director of the Film and Media Studies Program at MIT, has published widely on contemporary media. His books include a study of movie comedy in the 1930s and Textual Poachers, an influential account of media audiences.
|Susan Douglas is the author of Inventing American Broadcastingand Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media. She is a Professor of Communications Arts at the University of Michigan.
|James Carey is CBS Professor of International Journalism in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University and Adjunct Professor at Union Theological Seminary. He is the author of Communication As Culture and numerous reviews, essays and monographs. He was Dean of the College of Communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign from1979 to 1992.
|David Hall, Professor of American Religious History in the Harvard Divinity School, is the author of Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England and Cultures of Print: Essays in the History of the Book. He is currently General Editor of the forthcoming five-volume A History of the Book in American Culture.
Henry Jenkins stated that a feature of the twentieth century has been the breakdown of such traditional social structures such as the church and town life. Nevertheless, there remains a hunger for community, and the rise of the Internet responds to the need for community that is not constrained by geography. Today the investments in community differ from older communal arrangements in that they represent the attempts of everyday people to communicate and establish an identity. But we must not imagine that our current experience is unique. During the Civil War, for example, news and messages analogous to today's webzines were smuggled across enemy lines in an earlier attempt by individuals to participate in a community that transcended geography.
Susan Douglas began by quoting the folk wisdom of the Web-surfer: "No one owns the Internet." But even if this is true today, how long will it remain so? The same hopes and fears which characterized other periods of technological change can be found today, she pointed out. To get a glimpse of what the future of technology holds, we might look to the past, specifically the history of the radio, because its development in many ways parallels that of the Internet.
Prior to the advent of radio, the taverns and coffee shops of the nineteenth century functioned as places of discourse, though they excluded women and minorities. Nevertheless, participatory debate was inherent in democracy. Today there is an equally restrictive "loop" from which most are shut out by unfamiliar technology, which accounts for the resurgent popularity of "town meetings," even if these take place on the airwaves, and in other revised versions of traditional discourse.
Still, it remains to be seen if these new forums will reunite us with our past, if they will enable us to see ourselves as part of something "grand." Today's virtual communities offer the luxury of both public and private space, a contradictory world that is both expanding and limiting, connecting us to others but excluding those without access to new technologies.
Early radio encouraged listening and denied sight, and, as on the Internet, the participant could be both receiver and sender. The radio could also mutate in various ways, like the Internet, and unlike television.
Many new technologies were heralded as anti-commercial, capable of standing against capitalist greed. The telegraph was supposed to augment the sharing of information, but the rise of Western Union soon monopolized the telegraph.
Like the telegraph, radio waves were first seen as a means to cross national boundaries. Early operators (1906-1912) were not corporate or military agents but "hams," operators who built their own radios to exchange information, such as sports data. Similar to the "hackers" of the early computer era, they were building communities of like-minded individuals.
Just as today's hackers have run afoul of the government and regulation, the hams interfered with government transmissions and challenged the power structures by asking, "who owns the airwaves?"
In 1912 the hams were relegated to short-wave transmissions when their broadcasts were said to interfere with communications about the sinking of the Titanic. This was untrue; in fact, a ham operator was instrumental in getting the first news of the disaster onto the airwaves. But the incident is instructive, perhaps a warning to us today: corporate and political pressures to regulate, control and monopolize communications systems are powerful and in our system inevitable.
Radio in 1922 was in the Stone Age. There were no networks; no one knew how it would be financed. But there was immense opposition to the idea that advertising was appropriate for radio. There was only minimal regulation. By 1927, only five years later, CBS and NBC were established, the Federal Radio Commission was established. We had the beginnings of oligopoly control, sanctioned by the federal government. And advertising was the emergent and primary mode of financial support. Scores of educational, religious and labor stations were pushed out of the spectrum.
The ham operators' vision of radio -- anti-commercial, bottom-up and participatory-- was preserved but also marginalized in short-wave transmission.
The marginalizing of the ham radio operators and the transformation of radio into a commercial system dominated by network monopolies is not the whole story, however. After the advent of television, radio in the United States began to recover some of the participatory possibilities that had been inherent in its birth.
FM radio in the 1960s and 70s operated in part as an agent for building communities, with diverse programming featuring "both Bolero and Jimmy Hendrix." FM was embraced by oppositional young men who were appalled by commercial AM radio; they used this technology as an alternative mode of audio expression and as a community-building tool for the counter culture. But by the mid 1970s FM had been coopted by the networks and various corporate interests.
Yet another mutation of post-World War II radio: the rise of talk radio, which emerges in the 1970s. By the late 1980s talk radio had become a political force, in part a resource for subcultures and individuals who felt excluded by the majority culture.
So the history of radio offers a complex lesson for our digital future. Media systems are capable of mutation and redirection, but they are also in the service of powerful economic and political elites. Will the Internet finally be "the one" medium to liberate our democratic and communal and participatory energies? To erase boundaries of race and class and reshape our consciousness? Not likely.
Such grand visions always accompany new media systems and seem always to be thwarted by economic and ideological realities. But smaller, more modest expectations that the Internet may enable communities and diverse voices are perhaps reasonable, and surely worth working for.
I think that in the next five to ten years we will see a major struggle over how the Internet will be defined and policed. If radio is a model, the political economy of the communications industry is such that advertising will increasingly invade the Web. A shakeout will occur in which the number of independently produced, non-commercial Websites will decline. Regulation, under the well-intentioned guise of protecting our kids from smut, will legitimize censorship and restrict access, on what we in broadcasting might call the transmission end. Services that were once free will cost users money. In general, efforts to use the Internet to maximize profits will persist in a variety of highly successful ways.
Today the notion that the Internet is a common property resource prevails, at least among many of its users. That was certainly the original conception of the electromagnetic spectrum. But the 1996 Telecommunications Act overturned that assumption, which had guided regulation since 1912.
Will the same happen to the Internet?
One interesting question: will computer use and the World Wide Web socialize us differently as media consumers, cultivating a greater sense of activism and participation? Can the use of this technology reshape American consciousness such that decades of socialized fatalism and passivity will give way to activism and optimism? We can hope and we can predict. But neither of these will make it so.
James Carey spoke in implicit opposition to accounts of the digital revolution that predict and appear to welcome the disappearance of geographical and bodily boundaries, constraints, borders. Virtual communities may be wonderful and complex spaces, Carey insisted, but we live in actuality, in real spaces, in actual neighborhoods, in physical bodies. No technology can transcend such things.
An earlier speaker invoked Teilhard de Chardin, whose The Phenomenology of Man presents a notion not only of biological but of mental evolution: the engirdling of the globe by an organized belt of evolving intelligence which would reach a peak in the "Omega Point" -- where "everything has risen and converged." You may also remember that that is the title of a story of Flannery O'Connor. It took that spare, ironic, quite different Catholic sensibility to point out that if we are ever going to get to the Omega Point, it is going to go through the forces of evil, corruption, dissolution and defeat. It was a powerful literary reminder of the kinds of restraints that are built into us because of the nature of our condition.
We've talked in this conference a bit about the restraints which come from capitalism and the economic system, the restraints of technology itself. But there are other restraints upon us that we have to deal with: real biological constraints, real physical and geographical limitations. When E.P. Thompson wrote the essay "Writing By Candlelight," because the British workers went out on strike and he could no longer work, he was reminding us that it is a fundamental fact of our lives that we continue to live in real physical communities, with real neighbors, in an infrastructure that is supported by multitudes of real and laboring people.
Similarly, we need to distinguish between nations and states: nations can be imagined communities, and we can speak of nations in Diaspora. Nations or the idea of particular nations remain central sources of human identity. Nations are particularly important for the poor. Someone has suggested that nations are "the skin of the poor." It is well to recall in this age of e-mail addresses that in many Latin countries only ten percent of the people have an address. Space matters, geography signifies.
We're not going to move from a world of borders to one that is borderless, but merely to new configurations, new boundaries. Many secessionist movements are not acts of separation as much as efforts to form other alliances. Catalonia wishes to withdraw from Spain in order to join the European Community; Quebec may vote to secede from Canada while seeking membership in NAFTA.
The American nation was fully formed, this country attained a true national identity, in the 1890s and after with the closing of the western frontier and the emergence of telegraph, the railroads, radio -- all of which served as bonding agents, fixing the country's internal borders. Local interests, smaller social and political groupings resisted these nationalizing pressures. This struggle between the global or the national and the local and the ethnic remains a fundamental feature of our social life, as the ethnic and cultural diversity of any large city attests. These urban spaces, then, continue to be environments in which new identities are sought and created, new actual borders are formed and reformed.
David Hall: The task of the historian of the book is to approach certain communicative practices -- writing, reading, speech, printing, publishing --and to consider them in as fully an historical context as possible. When this happens, we encounter precisely the qualities that Susan Douglas and James Carey have called attention to: irony, ambiguity, paradox, contradiction -- an unending dialectic. You can frame the dialectic in various ways, but one task of the historian of the book is to clarify the polarities of the dialectic.
The history of the book is not a discipline like communication studies; this is perhaps a blessing, for there are no journals in the field, no canon of defining texts. The field has one strong root in a form of scholarship that has been around for a long time: histories of printing, histories of publishing. But about twenty-five years ago, this relatively specialized field began to mutate under the influence of French and then German and then American historical scholarship; it became more fully embedded in social and economic history, and the field of the history of reading advanced as one of the central aspects of the history of the book. And then in the last five or seven years it has mutated yet again as people in literature have entered the field, bringing with them questions about author, text, genre, agency, censorship. So it is a field that is very much in transition.
One way the field has been changing involves our understanding -- our revision or rejection, actually -- of variously identified cultural or social revolutions.
The first is the "revolution" Elizabeth Eisenstein refers to in her book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change -- the transition from scribal and handwritten systems to printing. Eisenstein deals with learned, not popular culture. What did it mean to make this transition? Was it a revolution?
The second transition, more sweeping still, is the one associated with Walter Ong, who borrowed his terms from the anthropologist Jack Goody -- the shift from orality to literacy. Ong was a Catholic who felt that the coming of Protestantism marked the end of a certain presence of the word. There are other ways in which his work is very illuminating of the persisting presence of orality in the midst of the regime of literacy and printing, but his account of a radical transformation from the oral to the literate or the written is no longer widely accepted.
A third "revolution" that has loomed large in European and American social history of the last fifteen or twenty years is the so-called consumer or market revolution, variously dated as occurring in the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But let's just say for the sake of argument that it occurred in the seventeenth century in Europe, a little later in this country. This "revolution" is said to transform our relationship to commodities, to make commodities more abundant, and to have consequences that resemble some of the liberating and democratizing effects that are today attributed to the World Wide Web.
I wish I had time to show how each of these alleged or imagined revolutions has been rethought, how each is understood at best to be an exaggeration, an oversimplification of a much more complicated, less grandly decisive story.
But I can illustrate this new understanding by turning to some of these problems in a more specific way by describing what I and some of my colleagues have learned from our work on the History of the Book in American Culture, the first volume of which will appear in the fall.
Let me begin with the notion of "the triumph of print." The first printing press in North America was set up in Cambridge in 1639. You might have the notion powerfully in your minds that they were cranking out stuff left and right from this new press. But the fact of the matter is that the Cambridge Press sat idle for most of its time; there was no work for the Cambridge printing press. And that was not because people did not need paper, or forms, or did not need to distribute writing to a wide set of the colonists. The whole legal system, the entire economic system depended in fact on an extraordinary quantity of forms, all of which until 1680 are produced scribally. The same is true in the Chesapeake. An immense quantity of paper is being imported, cut up, hand-written, produced in forms by professional clerks. Nobody uses the printing press.
Some concrete examples: here in Massachusetts laws are being passed. There is a political body passing laws from the day they get off the ship; they have to distribute these laws to all the courts that spring up. The same is true of the Chesapeake. These laws are reproduced scribally.
In the colony of Rhode Island, an Assembly is producing laws starting in the 1640s; it is 1719 before anyone in Rhode Island sends any set of laws to a printer. That is not because it is that far from Providence to Boston, or because any political or economic problem exists. They simply do not need the printing press.
Similarly, in Virginia, there is one printed code in 1662, but you go for seventy years without printed laws. Even in the eighteenth century, the colony of New Hampshire goes for forty years without turning to the printing press. The court systems are not grinding to a halt, laws are being passed every year. The scribal system is working perfectly well.
So the history, then, of technologies in this one concrete example, is not a history of suppression of one by the emergence of another--the triumph of the printed book narrative that Eisenstein and others have celebrated.
There were vital ways, lasting until the end of the eighteenth century, including the production of the Declaration of Independence, in which hand-written copies or a single copy meant to be read aloud is the prevailing, functional technology.
So the metaphor of revolution is over-simple, inadequate.
Let me turn to the question of state control, the history of censorship. This relates to the question of state power and monopoly. The English government from the advent of printing is interested in controlling this new technology. There are various acts, usually called licensing acts, that impose control. You begin to read these statutes and your blood chills: sedition and heresy are common terms; anybody who imports or circulates a book will be drawn and quartered. And there are occasions when people are hanged or burned or their books burned.
But there is another agenda operating here as well, perhaps more centrally. The Licensing Act of 1662 begins with a series of ghastly clauses about suppression of freedom of thought, but suddenly it turns into a series of commercial privileges, guaranteeing a handful of printers a monopoly over the trade. The real issue is not sedition or heresy; the real issue is piracy. How can you prevent your competitors from printing your book, to which you have some right?
So you pass in a trice, in the apparently seamless texture of one of these laws, from state power to commercial monopoly.
But there are contradictions, too, for the very printer who wants a monopoly also wants to subvert his neighbor's monopoly. One-third of all the books printed in England in the seventeenth century were never officially licensed. But they were not printed by pirates but by the very printers who were licensed by the government, part of the official system.
A fascinating example of the double meaning of the word license: to control and to open up. The contradictions of the capitalist system, which extend even to the point where to have a book banned was to make it more desirable.
Third, the market revolution. One of the paradoxes of printing history is that from the production end, there was no problem from the fifteenth century on. Even with hand presses an astonishing quantity of material could be produced. One London printer, using hand presses, produced 1.1 million broadsides in two days in the 1620s, to give an example of production capacity. The problem is always distribution, how to get the products to people. Insurgencies, subcultures, often crack through problems of distribution. For one example: the Quakers in the seventeenth century. One percent of the English population in the 1660s, the Quakers produce thirteen percent of all English imprints in this decade. They have an effective distribution system: Quakers want to read books by other Quakers. The market revolution looks very different if you approach it not from the end of production but from the perspective of distribution.
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