- Shift CTRLComputing and New Media as Global, Cultural, Sociopolitical, and Ecological
We are living in a golden age for the study of information and language technologies in the modern period, and perhaps even more so for the study of computing and new media. Sustained by enduring engagements with Book History, Actor-Network-Theory, the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) program, and Science, Technology, and Society (STS)—but also rejuvenated by concerns with cultural techniques, material semiotics, the aesthetics of bureaucracy, paperwork studies, media archaeology, neo-cybernetics, software studies, platform studies, and more—scholars have grappled with subject matter as diverse as the origins of the card catalog, the MP3 file format, French revolution-era paperwork and bureaucracy, xerography, TCP/IP protocol, spam, and more.1
Such variety conceals an underlying homogeneity, however. With important exceptions, recent studies have focused predominantly on the Western world, and within that, typically the English-language/Latin-alphabetic environment. By way of perspective, of the more than 120 titles published on five influential MIT Press series—"Inside Technology," "History of Computing," "Infrastructures," "Software Studies," and "Platform Studies"—only five focus in any sustained way upon Asia, the Middle East, or Africa.2 Meanwhile, in the relatively new yet highly influential "Electronic [End Page S1] Mediations" series on the University of Minnesota Press, not a single monograph-length study deals with computing, gaming, or electronic mediation anywhere in the Non-Western world.3 In sharp contrast to the long tradition among Early Modernists of engaging with Non-Western information societies, then, once we reach the twentieth century, the world beyond Europe and North America almost ceases to exist.4
The reconceptualization of computing and new media along global lines is easier said than done, of course. As chronicled in more familiar Euro-American contexts, the emergence and proliferation of digital computing and its descendants played a critical role in transforming the social, political, cultural, and economic fabric of western Europe and the United States. By comparison, scholars have much to do if we are to understand with comparable depth how such technological artifacts and systems shaped, and were shaped by, historical and cultural experiences in Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. There is good reason to try and accelerate this historiographic reorientation, however. If the vanguard of artificial intelligence research once resided in the defeat of Russian Garry Kasparov by chess-playing Deep Blue, now it lies in the 2016 defeat of Korean Lee Sedol at the "hands" of Google's go/weiqi/baduk-playing system AlphaGo.5 In the very same year, China took top prize as the global leader in supercomputing for the seventh time in a row, with its Sunway TaihuLight clocking a theoretical peak performance of 125.4 petaflops, or 1,254 trillion floating point calculations per second.6 Meanwhile, banking systems long reliant upon state-governed infrastructures are rapidly being displaced on the African continent by the cellphone-based money transfer system M-Pesa—the largest mobile money business in the world.7 And [End Page S2] bringing us full circle, many of the cellphones upon which this multi-billion-dollar economy runs still use T9 text input technology—a technology which, although invented in North America, found its first active user base in Korea via the Korean hangul alphabet. In short, the globalization of computing and new media history promises to offer us not only "more history," but profoundly new historical perspectives, frameworks, and analytical challenges.
If scholars of computing and new media are struggling to keep pace with the global dimensions of their subject matter, so too are they still grappling with how best to theorize questions of materiality and ecology. Despite an insistence upon immateriality—of "virtual" reality and the "cloud"—digital computing and new media remain deeply embedded in altogether conventional infrastructural frameworks such as electrical grids, transportation routes, telephone and telegraph networks, water supply systems, and more. While digital computing and new media are no doubt central to the history of twenty-first-century post-industrial economies, they themselves remain inseparable from nineteenth- and twentieth-century industrial infrastructures.
The historicity of the contemporary information age poses challenges as well...