Media History: From Orality to the Internet

“New technologies is a historically relative term,” writes historian Carolyn Marvin.  By this she means that virtually every technology was once considered to be fresh and innovative at some point in history.  Even those that may seem outdated by today’s standards—the telegraph, gramophone, typewriter, and others—once carried with them both the promise and peril that we see associated today with the internet, iPods, HDTV, smart phones, and more.  The bottom line is that all technologies, new or old, have a history, one that intersects with and influences larger trends.  This course investigates these histories by exploring the conditions leading to the emergence of particular communication technologies at specific times and places.  It is concerned above all with the political, economic, social, and cultural struggles surrounding “new technologies,” or the relationship these objects share with practices of social control and resistance.

This class will engage key debates surrounding the history of specific communication technologies, and of technology in general.  We will focus mainly on the spoken word, writing, printing, telegraphy, telephony, sound recording, and the internet.  Our goals will be threefold.  First, we will explore the exciting and sometimes bizarre history of technology, which will take us from monks copying books by hand to prisoners whose bodies were transformed into sound recording instruments, and from practitioners of the occult attempting to communicate with the dead to people trying to transcend their bodies by plugging into computers.  Second, we will challenge commonsense assumptions about the role of technology in both history and daily life.  Finally, we will develop concrete research and writing skills that will help you to become a more skilled critical-historian of communication technology.