“It is a new story, there was never one quite like it before” Moments in Media History

This week, I have learned effective means of  encoding criticisms of repressive governments, as well as how to distribute these messages in a distributed, non-hierarchical way that avoids the original source being located.  I have also become enlightened about the potential of individual citizens to transform a new technology into an alternative channel of communication, in contravention of local laws.  Finally, I’ve been reminded of the gap between the visions of the high-tech industry produced during economic bubbles, and the realities that they present for consumers.

All in a week’s work for a scholar of contemporary social media?  No, this week I’m reading communications history, which is my favorite way to reflect on the significance of changes to mediations of society, past and present.  The first example above is useful for thinking about what’s new about WikiLeaks and participatory media:  as Robert Darnton describes, when the Parisians of the Ancien Regime were forbidden to publish newspapers or anything containing news of the king, they created novels and songs that buried the un-knowable knowledge in rhyme and anagrams.  Because the songs changed every time someone sang them, the police were never able to find the “original” songwriter.  Instead they found a web of relationships that they tracked through tiny scraps of paper. (Note to student readers – we’ll discuss this next week.  Hopefully no spoilers here)

And lest we become too excited about the “single person organizations” facilitated by participatory culture and open-source, Susan Douglas reminds us of the popular furore about the “radio boys” in the first decade of the 20th century, when young men (note, never women, and see some of Susan’s later work) built their own crystal radio sets and formed an international brotherhood that also helped them to gain jobs and legitimacy in the new industrial economy – but also resulted in them breaking, and then changing, wireless transmission laws.  She also describes how the radio industry itself was a product of boom and bust, much like the Wi-Fi networking boom of the early 2000s.  Throughout the history of radio in America is a familiar narrative about innovation, progress, and American values.  There’s also a strong sub-plot in which the same rugged individualist inventors seek monopoly control, and the people struggle for rights to the airwaves.

Now I’m not saying that there’s nothing new under the sun.  As I wrote last time, some of the key things that has changed since the Ancien Regime and even since America in the 1900s are the structures of power.  18th century Paris was slowly industrializing but still shaking off feudal relationships and the chains of absolute monarchy.  19th century America invented broadcasting – and with it, the “mass public” of undifferentiated consumers as well as the monopoly communications companies that served them, and made money from connecting content and carriage.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every story is simultaneously an old story and a new story.  We keep remaking the world. Industrial and post-industrial human societies have amazingly persistent narratives of technological progress as positive, and individual innovation as the motor of that progress.  But beyond, and under these narratives are our sometimes scurrilous means of making do, speaking truth to power, putting status in the system, whatever you like. These small actions make changes:  they become part of the bigger stories.  And in order to see them, we have to be able to see both forward, and back.

* the title quotation is from Harper’s Weekly, January 30, 1909, and quoted in the always-excellent Inventing American Broadcasting by Susan Douglas (1987, p. 200)