New Historical Perspectives on Media and Information Technologies?
For decades, students of media, communication, and internet studies have been so focused on the future that the past is too often ignored. Is there a rising interest in the history of media and information technologies and policies? Might more attention to the past hold promise for a more balanced and realistic perspective on the future? I’ll briefly provide reasons for my concern about this historical amnesia, before citing some evidence of a rising interest as well as possible explanations for this turn.
Evidence of an Ahistorical Perspective?
There are major classics in communication and media studies that are anchored in historical research, such as work by Harold Innis (1950) and his student, Marshall McLuhan (1964), whose work on Understanding Media is arguably a classic in the communication field. Innis challenged a dominant theoretical perspective based on history based on economic determinism in arguing that changes in communication transformed the scale and endurance of empires. More recently, Paul Starr’s (2004) more book on The Creation of the Media provides a welcome historical perspective that is less deterministic – arguing that media matter but along with other political and cultural factors in shaping transformations in society.
Likewise, in the field of information and technology studies, the futures perspective is dominant. But here again, there are exceptional accounts anchored in well researched historical accounts of the rise of an information or network society (Bell 1973; Castells 1996). But again, these are exceptions to what I would argue is a focus on the future.
I was first struck with this future focus in the nineteen eighties to nineties, when there was so much discussion of multimedia, new media, and eventually the internet. I saw many forecasts of future developments that had ingored earlier incarnations of the same technology, such as video communication. This led me to write what seemed to be a commonsense piece on how discussions of the future should have some awareness of the past, called “Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror” (Dutton 1995). With respect to video communications, pundits were talking about innovations in video communication without any awareness of its repeated failure since the early 1970s, such as with Picturephone. At that time, I thought some amnesia about past failures was prevalent, but possibly functional. Perhaps this amnesia opened possibilities for new entrepreneurs and techies to reinvent technologies when they think, ‘people like to talk on the phone, so what if they could see each other?’. OK, but still – shouldn’t we be aware of past failures of what seems to be a good idea?
Most recently, I was reminded of this futures bias when I found it difficult to get people interested in historical archives. First, when I was director of MSU’s Quello Center, I helped digitize the archives of James H. Quello, one of the longest serving members of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and one of its Acting Chairman (1974-1999). It was a real priority for me, but I kept sensing that even though he was an important figure, too many considered him to be “history”. I disagreed then and now – his archives are a rich source of material about an important institution and person on issues that are enduring, such a competition and privacy. More recently, I have been serving as a Trustee of the Archives of IT, which is developing a rich oral history of the IT industries, technologies, and people, but again, I find it surprisingly difficult to convince a wider public of the value of a historical perspective on IT. There is more interest in the latest social media.
A Rise in Historical Interest?
At the same time, it is only recently that I have been working on archives of media, information, communication technologies like the internet. The Internet Archive was launched in 1996 and has been remarkably successful. But more recently, the James Quello archive and the Archives of IT seem to be joining a growing number of initiatives enabled by the internet and tools for digital archiving. Also, I find myself on the editorial advisory board of a new journal, called Internet Histories. And, as a Trustee of the Archives of IT, I am working with colleagues on organizing a conference on the history of the internet.
Most recently, I guest lectured for a course at Leeds University on a session focused on the history of media and communication – one that has been taught for years. That gave me the opportunity to talk about my new book on the Fifth Estate (Dutton 2023), which is also anchored in the history of the internet.
So personally, I am finding historical interest rising. Maybe historians of the media and IT are swimming upstream – but nevertheless they are more visible to me.
Why is there a rising interest in the history of media and IT?
One reason might be that the internet is old enough to have a history, as current as that might be. I am reminded of my colleague at Oxford whose focus was on the modern history of India, which ends in 1947, when India became independent. Computer technologies were only then beginning to be applied to domestic uses such as finance and the census, although women began to be employed as ‘computers’ since 1942 to support allies in the second world war.
This recent history means that many of the early pioneers remain alive and well and happy to talk about their experiences. Another reason is that many of the exciting advancements online, such as in AI, have long histories in the IT and internet industries albeit often forgotten. And I must add that the invasion of Russia and the implications it has had for the rise of propaganda and censorship in Russia and between the West and Russia has resurrected a past that we often thought to be irrelevant. Just as the impact of propaganda during the second world war focused research on the influence of mass media, the Russo-Ukraine war is focusing attention on the creation of new approaches to propaganda and the creation of geopolitical techno-spheres reminiscent of East Berlin and East Germany in the Soviet era.
There are likely to be many other explanations you might suggest.
Am I right? Are we reprioritizing the history of that brought us to the network society we are living, or is this only a personal sense not shared by many others in academia and practice? If so, to study the many histories of media and IT, we need to capture as best as possible through initiatives underway in museums, libraries, journals, and archives of technologies shaping our network society.
Bell, D. (1973), The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting. New York: Basic Books.
Castells, M. (1996), The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age. Oxford: Blackwell.
Dutton, W. H. (1995), ‘Driving into the Future of Communications? Check the Rear View Mirror,’ in Emmott, S. (ed.), Information Superhighways: Multimedia Users and Futures, London: Academic Press, 79-102.
Dutton, W. H. (2023), The Fifth Estate: The Power Shift of the Digital Age. New York: Oxford University Press. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-fifth-estate-9780190688370?q=the%20fifth%20estate&lang=en&cc=us
Innis, H. (1950), Empire and Communications. Oxford: Oxford University Press; rev. edn., Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.
McLuhan, M. (1964), Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. London: Routledge; repr. 1994.
Starr, P. (2004), The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. New York: Basic Books.