New Media and the Recurring Crisis of Norms

In her Introduction to When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (1988), historian Carolyn Marvin makes some instructive comments about her method. Her study focuses on 19th century media technology, but, if you didn’t know that, you might be excused for thinking these comments introduced a book about digital media.

“The early history of electric media,” Marvin writes, “is less the evolution of technical efficiencies in communication than a series of arenas for negotiating issues crucial to the conduct of social life; among them, who is inside and outside, who may speak, who may not, and who has authority and may be believed.”

In her work, she explains, the focus “is shifted from the instrument to the drama in which existing groups perpetually negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge with whatever resources are available. New media intrude on these negotiations by providing new platforms on which old groups confront one another. Old habits of transacting between groups are projected onto new technologies that alter, or seem to alter, critical social distances.”

Passing note: I think it might be fair to say that new media can also create new groups or reconfigure existing groups.

Marvin continues:

“New media may change the perceived effectiveness of one group’s surveillance of another, the permissible familiarity of exchange, the frequency and intensity of contact, and the efficacy of customary tests for truth and deception. Old practices are then painfully revised, and group habits are reformed. New practices do not so much flow directly from technologies that inspire them as they are improvised out of old practices that no longer work in new settings.

Again, this description of the struggle for new norms to govern social interactions can just as easily be applied to our own experience with emerging digital media over the last two decades or so. I was especially struck by the reference to “customary tests for truth and deception,” in light of our preoccupation with “fake news” and “deepfakes.”

More from Marvin along the same strikingly familiar lines:

“Classes, families, and professional communities struggled to come to terms with novel acoustic and visual devices that made possible communication in real time without real presence, so that some people were suddenly too close and others much too far away. New kinds of encounters collided with old ways of determining trust and reliability, and with old notions about the world and one’s place in it: about the relation of men and women, rich and poor, black and white, European and non-European, experts and publics.”

Here’s one specific example Marvin cites later in her book that also sounds quite familiar if only we substitute texting for telephony:

“In the face of technological complexity, did the old proprieties apply, or did circumstances call for new ones to keep the social order intact? ‘To the woman who knows how to do things correctly,’ wrote Telephony in 1905, ‘it is positively maddening to have invited guests ‘call her up’ at a late date and acknowledge the receipt of her invitation and either accept or regret it. Especially nerve-trying is when the call comes in the middle of the dinner to which the person was invited.'”

I found these excerpts a useful reminder that there is a certain kind of continuity of crisis when new media emerge. They are useful, however, to the degree that we resist the temptation to complacency and indifference that often accompanies the awareness of this continuity.

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