Freight Trains and Monkey-Controlled Robots

Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably noticed an uncharacteristically large burst of semi-coherent tweets over the weekend. This was due to my attendance at the Frontiers of New Media symposium last Friday and Saturday. The symposium is a biennial event organized by the departments of Communication and History at the University of Utah which brings together scholars from a fairly wide range of backgrounds to discuss topics of New Media. I’m always surprised at how interesting and relevant the presentations are, even when the subject is something like 19th century telephones or city planning. I always get more out of it than I expect, and this year’s symposium was no exception.

I came away from quite a few of the presentations with new ideas and new questions – so many, in fact, that I won’t be able to do them justice in a single post (In other words, I’m going to be milking this one for a while). What I hope to do in this post is share some of the common themes that I got out of the symposium as a whole.

The first theme that I noticed was one that John D. Peters echoed in his closing remarks, namely the tension between technophobia and technophilia that people feel as technology advances. The two sides of this argument were quite eloquently demonstrated by the two keynote speakers. While Richard White showed how the railroad companies’ freight tables served as algorithms that harmed rural towns, Tim Lenoir showed us a potential future full of networked brains and monkey-controlled robots. As a bit of a technology geek myself, I have a tendency to want new gadgets without worrying too much about the social consequences. At the same time, being someone who studies new media, it’s easy to see how cyberlibertarian rhetoric can blind people to the way in which technology influences power dynamics. In the long run, these shifts of power can often stifle, rather than promote, technological development.

The other thing that struck me was something that I’ve seen as a common theme every year at the symposium, that what we consider to be the defining features of “New Media” really aren’t that new. Concepts such as “participatory media,” “the many-to-many paradigm,” and “non-linearity” are as much rooted in ancient forms of media as they are in the Internet culture of today. The only reason that these concepts are “new” is because we’ve been so immersed in the industrialized media of the last two centuries (newspapers, film, radio, television) that we assume that the media landscape has always been this way.

The reason that understanding how new media relate to old media is important is because we can see parallels to many of our own problems in the past. An excellent example of this was Richard White’s analogy between the Internet and the railroad. Both supposedly make distance meaningless, yet upon close examination, it seems that quite the opposite is true. While cities linked by rail across the country may seem to be but a stone’s throw away, a town a mere ten miles away without roads may as well be on the other side of the planet (a concept which is very well illustrated in the game Civilization once you start linking your cities by rail). This shrinking of space is further complicated when you consider the freight tables used by the railroads to charge shipping. These tables generally gave lower rates to distant port towns than to nearby rural towns, making the railroads cheap for exporters, yet expensive for small farmers.

While this is an interesting bit of Guilded Age trivia, it has a great deal of relevance to new media. The Internet, like the railroad, is a huge network linking locations together. Like the railroad, access is not distributed evenly among all classes of people. Also like the railroad, the way that traffic moves through this network depends on secret, proprietary algorithms – algorithms on which businesses succeed and fail. In the case of the railroad, the government eventually forced these freight tables to become public. I find it unlikely that Google will be making their algorithms public anytime soon, but the parallel does suggest some interesting lines of thought about how these technologies are used and how “democratic” the Internet really is.

Anyway, there were plenty of other good insights I had at the symposium, but they’ll have to wait for another day.  Instead, I’ll just leave you with a shot of the world-record-attempt water balloon fight that just happened to be scheduled right outside the window from the symposium. 

The Water Balloon Fight

Fortunately, it didn’t derail the whole event (though a few presenters got a thumping techno-beat to go along with their presentations)


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