New Media Seminar [Feb. 12, 2015]

“Before the pervasive influence of network broadcasting, federal regulation, and commercial homogenization, the radio dial was an instrument of fantastic sweep and power, which could convey the listener aurally from region to region, city to city, and voice to voice, and even in effect move him about in time at the speed of light, establishing in his imagination far more effectively than a geography book a sense of the larger society to which he belonged, with ceaseless activity, prodigious strength and variety, even its “fleetingly perceptible form.”

– Robert Cantwell, Bluegrass Breakdown

Above is an excerpt from a reading students in my course on bluegrass music have been grappling with this week. Not so distant, are the readings for our New Media Seminar and there relationships have been exciting. I have been interested in technology and new media through a very specific lens since 2006/2007 when I first discovered Black Mountain College and the relationship between form and function. It may seem a strange path—and interest in technology via the form and functionality of textiles and domes, but the relationships that materials evoke and connect, amputate and extend (to evoke McLuhan), are theoretically similar whether we are discussing smart phones or blankets. My foray into ethnomusicology and cultural studies have only re-introduced me (again and again) to the relationship between technology and power, people and time, in short; form and function. Reading about the different anticipated technologies in the readings, I was struck by the romanticized future functions and the ways in which they maintain violence yet offer hope for possibilities.

My “nuggets” for this week deal with such functions and are from Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think” (found here), and read in conjunction with Vannevar Bush’s “Science, the endless frontier; a report to the President on a program for postwar scientific research” from July 1945.

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination. –Vannevar Bush, As We May Think

This made me think of an argument a fellow student made about household appliances, such as the washing machine—productivity is increased, but actual “free time” is not necessarily increased by the ownership or ability to utilize such a technology. Similarly, I am interested in this vision of the free, unanchored (always male) investigator.

Of what lasting benefit has been man’s use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

–Vannevar Bush, As We May Think

Later, Bush seems to look to the future, to the utopian possibilities of technology and science:

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important. (emphasis added)

These readings have caused me to think critically about my own use of new media and my hopes for its function—am I desiring control or hoping to disrupt the control of previous technologies? How do we critically and honestly evaluate the functions of new media and the technologies we choose to use?

[below: an Anni Albers textile piece]

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