Current media developments are exactly that: developments, with their roots in the past and driven by visions of the future. Media seems at a certain moment familiar and natural, but it is in fact covering up the way history shaped it, why for instance we say ‘Hello’ over the telephone (and not ‘Ahoy’ as Alexander Graham Bell wanted people to say) or why there is even a dial tone when we pick up a phone. Media is always in transition. What is presented as new today can end up in the museum within a lifetime. Some media do not make it as mainstream media and end up as dead media. But their struggle is at interesting as those that did make it. When we realise that familiar media nowadays were once new, and the new media of today have strong roots in earlier times, then we understand that studying new media cannot be restricted to what is currently under our hands as new.
Describing and analysing the origins and developments of new media lay bare a reshuffle and reposition of communication habits and structures, and how they gain their meaning for, position in and impact on society. The reoccurring emergence of new media and the hope and fears it brings along is one arena where cultural exchange takes place and communication and meaning is (re) established. Therefore, in order to gain perspective on what lies beneath contemporary dreams about media technology, we might find instructive the cases of earlier communication technology.
Taking the perspective of current developments and deconstructing their roots is one approach. Complementary approaches is taking future predictions from the past and see what has become of them. The future has always inspired people to imagine how the world would look like, or even should look like to be a ‘better’ place. The latter referring to prominent works of philosophy ranging from Plato’s Republic to Thomas Moore’s Utopia and Hobbes’ Leviathan, on an idealised society. The Enlightenment with its strong belief in progress, together with the evolution of sophisticated machinery and tools from the industrial revolution on, has given rise to many speculations on the implications of new ‘technology’. For instance the development of the phonograph was quickly ‘linked’ with the already available technique of stereoscopic pictures: ‘Add the talking phonograph to counterfeit the voices, and it would be difficult to carry the illusion of real presence much further.’ Early visions on the possibilities of ‘television’ in the 19th century come very close to what is now hyped as ‘interactive television’. The advent of electricity in that same era led to visions of ‘telegraphy without wires, posts, cables, or any of our present costly appliances’.
Researching the history of media and past future predictions provides us with insights into the conceptualisation, economic conditions and user reactions of ‘new’ media. It helps us to appraise current ‘new’ media developments more realistically. The particularities of each thread of media development is interesting in the shaping and reshaping of current cultural exchange. The primary aim of this research is to deepen our understanding of new media by putting them in a historical and analytical perspective. The historical perspective means cataloguing earlier products, services and visions and implementation of ‘new media’, including their successes and failures. Analytical in the sense of interpreting the products, services and visions by questioning for instance their assumed problem to be solved, their usability, their assumptions about human technology interaction et cetera.
The secondary aim is promotional. It is believed that the material is appealing, interesting and fun enough to offer a nice catalogue of examples to be used in presentations, roadmap studies and future scenario development.
This research is done within a framework that involves the following assumptions:
- Media development is a historical and evolutionary process.
- (Media) innovation is a complex process of economical, political, cultural, social and legal forces.
- The introduction of new media involves a (re)establishing of communication practices and rules.