Invitation to the "New Technologies and Cultures of Communication in the 19th and 20th Centuries" Workshop at the German Historical Institute, Washington, DC
May 9-10, 2013, German Historical Institute, Washington, DC
Conveners: Richard R. John (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism), Peter Jelavich (The Johns Hopkins University) Benjamin Schwantes (German Historical Institute Washington) and Clelia Caruso (German Historical Institute Washington)
Keynote: Dirk van Laak (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen)
Changes in communication routines are often linked to the emergence of new communications media. The advent of electrical media beginning in the mid-19th century has had a significant impact on the communication cultures of modern societies. Technologies such as the telegraph, telephone, and radio affected established communication routines by changing communication practices and altering cultural meanings attached to them. Preexisting communication cultures, in return, shaped usages of these evolving communications media. Technologies are defined by their usages, that is, by the usages that prevail, not necessarily the ones initially intended. Nevertheless, dominant usages of a medium do not solely result from social practice, but also from the attribution of cultural meanings that make certain usages plausible and therefore dominant. Along with generations of users, inventors, technological experts, firms, and regulatory regimes all played roles in standardizing and (re-)categorizing usages of new media. In addition, descriptions and definitions, conceptions and images of a medium created and changed by politicians, social experts, journalists, artists, and other authorities imposed meaning on the technology and helped to define its use within and across societies.
Historiographical research on electronic communications media often tends to present a deterministic narrative of the development of technological objects towards a predominant use. Alternative forms of use are often narrated as historical aberrations, short episodes during which the media has not (yet) been used predominantly or even exclusively accordingly to its “true” characteristics. The telephone, for instance, today appears almost exclusively as a medium of one-to-one communication, but early promoters of the telephone suggested alternative usages for it such as broadcasting.
We would suggest focusing on the evolution of communications media usages as an ongoing process. We wish to examine what, from today’s perspective, appear to be unusual usages of well-established media, even those usages that have been short lived or purely imaginary.
This focus on media at the stage of “interpretive flexibility,” before technologies and usages “stabilized” and eventually reached a state of closure, would permit us to have a closer look at the shifts in the usage and interpretation of communication technologies by different types of users and thus allow for an analysis of the appropriation of these media by modern societies. In other words, how did users adjust to modern communications media and how were media technologies adjusted to the demands of modern life.
Papers should focus on technologically mediated communication that requires specific appliances not just on the sender’s, but also on the receiver’s, side (which are interchangeable for some of the media that the conference addresses). Papers should draw on historical communication practices, as well as on the cultural meanings attached to them. We would want the papers to explore the development of media in the “interpretive flexibility” stage by focusing on factors that facilitated specific usages of communications media, while possibly hindering others, and by examining the basic technical, physical, social, cultural, and political-economic qualities attributed to the media in the process. Were the communication services to which the media offered access free or did they come with costs, and what uses of the media were favored by one or the other? Geographical, political-economic, technical and human-biological factors created infrastructural inequalities in core and periphery regions. Do those inequalities account for different usages of the media in question?
In how far were communication media employed differently in different social contexts and situations? What effect did states, corporations, regulatory regimes, and consumers, along with social and technical experts have on establishing or abolishing usages of communication media? Did the medium function as a one-to-one or a one-to-many medium or did usages co-exist that made it one and the other? What roles did cost, speed, and accuracy play in structuring and defining users’ expectations and experiences with communications media and in how far did that cause certain media usages to prevail over others? How did the method and form of communication offered by the medium — short or long, message or relation focused, private or public, conducted through a human intermediary such as a telegraph clerk or telephone operator or through a technical intermediary such as an automatic telephone exchange — play a role in shaping the technology itself, as well as usage during the undefined state of the medium. Conference panels will be structured around these themes and will emphasize the global dimension of these questions.
Those interested should send an abstract of 1,000-1,500 words and a one-page CV to Susanne Fabricius (firstname.lastname@example.org) by January 15, 2013, with invitations to be sent out by February 15, 2013. Full papers or longer abstracts are due by April 1, 2013. For further information, contact Benjamin Schwantes (email@example.com) or Clelia Caruso (firstname.lastname@example.org) +1 (202) 552-8947
German Historical Institute
1607 New Hampshire AVE NW
Washington, DC 20009
1-202-552-8947 Email: email@example.com
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