post-humanism and the phonograph

I won’t even bother to pretend to rehearse the endless determinism vs. agency debate problem, but here is Nicholas Gane on Kittler on technology:

Gane, Nicholas. Radical Post-humanism:
Friedrich Kittler and the Primacy of Technology
, Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 22, No. 3, 25-41 (2005)

(citations removed for the sake of nice clean copy)

Kittler observes that around 1800 a general shift took place from the closed world
of the ‘Republic of Scholars’, ‘a system in which knowledge was defined in terms of authority and erudition’ and ‘in which patterns of communication followed the lines of social stratification’, to a more open system of reading and writing based on the practice of alphabetization, which involves the translation of visible into audible language, or the oralization of culture. In the midst of this shift, the book emerged as a universal medium, one that, for a short time, remained closed to competition from rival media. Kittler explains: ‘Aside from mechanical automatons and toys, there was nothing. The discourse network of 1800 functioned without phonographs, gramophones, or cinematographs. Only books could provide serial storage of data’. This situation soon changed, however, and by 1900 the book’s position as the chief storage medium was placed under threat by ‘new’ technologies such as the gramophone, phonograph and film.

(not) like sweeping powder over glass

Some things about typewriters and the corporeality of the mechanical and the sensuality of literacy:

Typing means “taking foolish chances with words”:

Typing represents to me the work of writing, of striking the physical world, and in so doing, changing it. Writing on a laptop (as I did to write this) is like sweeping powder over glass�a breeze, even a breath, can undo all the work. While I no longer believe that what a typewriter produces is somehow more truthful, I do miss the fact that it receives no email, can�t surf the web, and will never crash.

And of course there’s a retro revival:

With a typewriter, Cupertino resident Heather Folsom said, writing is a sensory experience. Her “noiseless” Underwood portable makes a satisfying thwack when she taps the keys. She piles finished pages beside her. The ink has its own special smell.

The visceral experience of writing rescued from the unbearable lightness of the digital – or something like that…

But it all feels different when the typewriter is the “new” technology: mechanization, speed, efficiency, desensitisation, dehumanisation – it bears all the symptoms and promises of modernity. From a wonderful piece in Cabinet Magazine:

The typewriter, by definition, mechanizes writing, the way the rifle mechanizes killing. The cold metal of a rifle or a typewriter insinuates itself between a person and his or her passion.

Being masters of their machines made women cold, too:

At the Rosenberg spy trial, in 1952, the prosecuting attorney sharpened the government’s case against Ethel Rosenberg by asking the jury to visualize the female, Jewish suspect sitting behind her typewriter, “hitting the keys, blow by blow, against her own country in the interest of the Soviets.”

For sale by crafty virtuoso: one typewriter nostalgia love box.

Or choose your letter and hang a key around your neck.

History of the IBM electric typewriter here.
IBM typewriter ad

And there’s Friedrich A. Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (which I haven’t read, but probably will) if you like your history of new media technologies infused with Heidegger and psychoanalysis.

Also, think mobile and handheld devices are new?

Think again.

spot the difference

Apple’s new ads run a line familiar from my research into 80s advertising (speed, ease of use, corporate vs. ‘everyday’). But this time, the brands are personified. And they’re kinda funny.

But just in case you were in any doubt, yes, it’s true. Technologies are made in their creators’ images. And they wear the pants (unless they are small ‘creative’ devices, like digital cameras from japan).

A is for Apple

In the beginning, there was an apple from the teacher…

You could use it in the kitchen…

Eventually even Mom could join in…

Then it grew so small you could take it out into the world, where you were now more liberated, individual and same-yet-different than ever before.

If you like this stuff, the Mac Mothership is a treasure trove.

See also the Lisa TV commercial (featuring Kevin Costner), which told us: “soon there’ll be just two kinds of people. Those who use computers, and those who use Apples.” (link not working right now)

And Lori Reed’s article Domesticating the Personal Computer is the perfect accompaniment to all those apples.

I wonder how I could get a certificate of mastery though?

For a contrast, have a look at the history of Windows magazine ads at the GUIdebook gallery, where you will see that Microsoft was teaching us what computers were for too. I found the marked shift in tack that came with the introduction of the MediaCenter edition especially interesting.

love and the mechanical sublime

In Adelaide over the weekend, I used Harry Potter as an excuse to experience the Capri Theatre first-hand. The Capri is a majestic, massively high-ceilinged theatre, with wooden floors, and two tiers of plush velvet seats. It is also home to the SA branch of the Theatre Organ Society, and boasts the most incredible theatre organ I’ve ever seen – a modern mechanical marvel featuring 20-foot high pipes, automatic flapping vent things (excuse my ignorance on the details) that kind of act as selective amplifiers, and a battery of percussion instruments (from glockenspiels to snare drums and canastas) mounted on the walls. They’re played via switches and pedals on the organ itself, which – you better believe it – rises from underneath the stage to thunderous, delighted applause from the audience. (A history and lots of photos here).

I’m not satisfied yet that I know what’s going on when we love obsolete mechanical technologies (and, come to think of it, old things, and lost and found things) so much. I could follow a well-trodden cultural studies line, and argue that the ubiquity of the digital (that is, technological plenty, for those who have it) means that cultural capital can only be accumulated by performing your knowledge and mastery of the rare and forgotten as well as the new and undiscovered (that is, technological scarcity). I think maybe part of it is that digital culture, and digital technologies, are so slippery, transparent, and uniformly inscrutable – when they do break, or die, or become outdated, they just sit there like deactivated clones, blank and silent, with their blank little screens. Maybe loving the way that you can see and touch and hear and feel the moving parts of clocks, and cars, and spanners, and pianos, is not only about about their enhanced presence as things, but also something to do with bodies.

The BBC and technodemocracy

One of the things I learned at Wednesday night’s talk by Paula le Dieu was that among the rash of early 80s microcomputers was something called the BBC micro (an Acorn). BBC micro It came out of the BBC Education “BBC computer literacy project” – apparently, the Beeb wanted to build a microcomputer that could do everything demonstrated in their 1981 series “The Computer Program”, and make it accessible to the audience. They ended up selling over a million for (I think) around 300 quid each. As Paula said, what a strange business for a broadcaster to be in, but it makes just as little sense, really, for a broadcaster to be digitising their archives (60,000 hours of video footage and about a bezillion hours of radio, if memory serves) and making them freely available under (non-commerical) creative commons licenses. If we assume there’s some kind of a “production power in the hands of the people” ethos behind both of these initiatives, then it’s interesting that the technological tipping point has moved from hardware (machines) to raw content that can be remixed and reworked. The democratic potential of creative citizenship is no longer thought to be in the box, but in a shared pool of symbolic resources – yay for that.

I’m struck by the counter-intuitive and yet eminently sensible nature of this impulse on the part of the BBC – counter-intuitive because you would think a broadcaster would want to stem the tide of DIY media; eminently sensible because the BBC is a public service broadcaster that has long realised that the public has things to say; things that can be easily made to enrich the BBC itself.

However, the digitisation of the archives is a huge leap of faith – giving up control over their content and the way it is used in service of outcomes that are not yet known. And it’s a huge, expensive, technical and legal nightmare, mainly because of third-party rights in massive amounts of BBC content and the lack of clarity and records pertaining to those rights – which has pushed the launch back quite a bit.

Interestingly, the archive is in theory only going to be accessible from within the UK because of the whole public service/British taxpayers’ money thing – but if those same taxpayers help out with distribution costs by sharing the downloaded content using P2P networks, as in fact the BBC hopes will happen, so much the better.

Musical Amateurism and Technological Change

Two articles that problematize the cultural values attached to the modernist producer/consumer dichotomy, especially with regard to musical amateurism.

From Antoine Hennion (whose work is all too rarely available in English), Music industry and music lovers, beyond Benjamin: The return of the amateur:

[…] the amateur could easily be reinstated at the centre of the world of music. Far from being the slightly ridiculous provincial cousin who insists on blowing his tuba, he is every bit as modern as the musical environment dominated by professionals, techniques and market forces. It should be recognized that he too has changed, and needs to be defined as a user of music, to understand that, on the contrary, neither the professional environment, nor techniques, nor market forces have any sense without him. Thus, not only is there nothing anachronistic about the amateur, but we perceive that he has become, for the first time in history, the sole target of a musical environment completely reconstructed around him. It is not the professional who is a modern, modified variation of the authentic musical practices of our ancestors, it is the amateur.

From history of new media guru Lisa Gitelman, How Users Define New Media: A History of the Amusement Phonograph:

The production/consumption dichotomy harbors a particular determinism: within it lurks a tendency to use technology as a sufficient explanation of social and cultural change. It puts production first and has helped orient the history of technology away from the experience of any but white, middle-class men; rendering a history, according to one observer, in which “inventing the telephone is manly; talking on it is womanly.” An unreflected reliance on the same dichotomy has led to a history of the phonograph that [focuses on individual inventors, policy and pricing].


Besides the elision of consumption and buying (phonographs and records are played, after all), [most] accounts [of the history of the phonograph] limit the definition of production to the activities of inventors and entrepreneurs. What if that kind of production were only a tiny part of the story, granted its singular importance by the same cultural norms and expectations that construe technology as a male realm? The very meaning of technology might be at stake. The spring motor phonograph “worked” in homes around the world, but would it have been described as “working,” if it did not already make sense somehow within the social contexts of its innovation?

Gitelman’s argument is complex, encompassing shifts in the uses and cultural meaning of the gramophone as well as the familiar institutional and economic shifts more frequently represented as the ‘real’ history of technologies. Most importantly, she focuses particularly on the feminised space (i.e. the home) in which these shifts took place.

And in the conclusion is a broader argument that to my mind is stand-up-and-cheer material:

Casting mass culture as a shift from a tactile, craft-oriented world to a visual, mass-production one […] seems simplistic at best. Our readings of cultural history must also include the squeaks and noises of change. We must be prepared to explain the intensity of modern cultural experiences as well as their extensive range and appeal.

I love “the squeaks and noises of change” bit.

Retro Chic Moves On

SHoLtZ ViTRiNe asserts that the retro chic army has turned to obsolescent digital technology in search of that all-important grunge factor (although without quite forgetting that whole “analog is warmer” argument).

“MP3 players suck.” Says Garry Banes of Time To Drive magazine. “That bloody ‘squishy’ sound that makes tasty cymbal sound like Biros on tabletops. No thank you Mummy.”

Garry proudly produces his vintage 1983 Walkman, in Day-Glo mint-green: no EQ settings, not even presets, just a volume control, play, stop, and forwards…

There aren’t any verifiable links in this little piece, but it makes sense nonetheless. Other objects of this newfound desire apparently include monochrome monitors, 80s beatboxes (and “ghetto blasters”, I imagine), and Ataris – naturally. This proves that my Casio PT-1 is, in fact, hip. Aw, shucks, and I just thought it was cute.

Retro Analog Technologies in Visual Culture

I write a lot about the proliferation of digital production and its effects on concepts of creativity and aesthetic value in established music subcultures – and I have often thought that the resurgence in analog synthesis/retro music technology is connected somehow to the availability of digital production tools to the “masses”. It’s not a phenomenon that is especially unique to music, though. The retro aura is not restricted to the Roland TB-303 or the Moog, but extends to Polaroid cameras (from the 1970s), Super-8 film, and even, I discovered via lorbus, the etcha-sketch.

Similarly, photographers are increasingly turning back to obsolescent technologies to fuel their creativity: witness the growing interest in hand-altered polaroid images and pinhole photography.In many ways, the process of producing an etcha-sketch image from a manual sketch is the antithesis of digital imagery: one mistake can mean the sudden death of hours of painstaking work – there is no undo button! And it is my theory that this is precisely the attraction for the artist – the process requires enormous skill, the result is impermanent and unstable, and it is clear that the image has been produced unaided by “technology” – and yet, it requires the use of technology whose obsolescence has been reversed consciously by the artist. That’s what makes it cool, but also what makes it very interesting from a cultural studies point of view.