- Imitating Machines: Humanities Research for a Culture of Data
In the spring of 2007, the historic Capitol Theatre in Windsor, Ontario, was closed for good, due to a lack of interest in the performing arts. But before the windows were boarded up, the theater made one final attempt to boost support by scheduling an encore presentation of its most popular performance, Classic Albums Live (CAL): Led Zeppelin I. Note for note, cut for cut, the CAL troupe, dressed in plain jeans and black T-shirts, re-creates an entire album without all the kitschy glitter of a "tribute band." Watching this performance—or listening to it with your eyes closed—is an uncanny experience. The musicians are paying tribute not to the band itself, but to the recording media, and their bodies serve only as a nostalgic gesture to a time when record albums told a story in ten tracks and vocal cords weren't "corrected"with pitch-control devices. Of course, as Lisa Gitelman suggests in her rigorous monograph, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006, xiii+205, $36), there is nothing new about musical performers imitating the sounds of recording devices. Nor is there anything rigorous about my anecdotal media-theorization of Classic Albums Live.
Four years ago I reviewed Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree's New Media: 1740–1915 (2003). This diverse anthology established a new direction for media studies, away from the postmodernist theorization that seems to have characterized the field since its inception. As I wrote in that review, "New Media is an attempt by historians of technology to reclaim territory from the posthistorical theorizing common in new media studies" (Technology and Culture 45 [January 2004], p. 209). Gitelman takes this mission one step further in Always Already New, a title that hammers home [End Page 459] the dictum that all media were once new media. But this monograph does not concern itself with making that argument once again as much as it does with correcting Marshall McLuhan's dictum of "the medium is the message" and Friedrich Kittler's dictum of "media determine our situation." Gitelman's approach to media history resists "thinking of media themselves as social and economic forces" and resists "the idea of an intrinsic technological logic" (p. 10). What matters then, beyond the materiality of media itself (which does matter a great deal to Gitelman, as it does to McLuhan and Kittler), is fleshing out the social and economic forces into which new media are born. This is a complex and daunting task, to be sure, but Gitelman handles it carefully by focusing on specific "case studies" and by limiting her investigation to two particular media phenomena: the phonograph and the web.
In the first section,"The Case of Phonographs," Gitelman examines how this technology was received by "New Media Publics" in the 1870s as a sort of vaudeville apparatus, which evolved over the next couple of decades into a device for individual "New Media Users."Whereas the traveling snake-oil hawker of the early 1800s appealed to the docile bodies of skeptical crowds, Edison-sanctioned phonograph exhibits in the late 1870s served to give audiences a veritable out-of-body experience. Gitelman notes that after recording a snippet of their own voices and listening to it with uncanny pleasure, audience members would eagerly collect strips of foil from the cylinders, "authentication of actual sounds that had been shared" (p. 39). These strips of foil, each of which served as a material (though functionally useless) record of a precise event, tell us a great deal about the emergence of the phonograph in the newsprint-stained culture of the 1870s, just as the fonts used in J. C. R. Licklider's Ph.D. dissertation tell us about the emergence of the web. Both of these technologies are about disembodiment, but they differ in important ways since, as Gitelman suggests, dematerialization "can only be experienced in relation to a preexisting sense of matter and materialization" (p. 86). This explains why her study focuses on newspapers and punch cards as well as wax cylinders...